New software aims to chat with the wireless Web

Phone.com's recent acquisition of @Motion could help spread technology that will allow mobile users to talk to the Web to gather stock quotes or email.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
The trouble with most mobile phones is that they were made for talking, not Web browsing.

A new acquisition by Phone.com, the leading producer of Net browsing software for wireless phones, aims to change that. The company spent $285 million today to purchase @Motion, a start-up that provides technology for surfing the nascent wireless Web via voice commands.

It's not new technology. But the broad reach of Phone.com, which provides services to most of the major wireless phone companies in the United States, will likely help spread the technology for voice-activated wireless Web access to the mass market.

"The one dimension of information access over phones that is the most obvious is voice," said Ben Linder, Phone.com's vice president of marketing. "That technology is finally viable."

Although the market for Net access through wireless phones is still new, companies such as Sprint and AT&T are pushing services that provide some Web information, such as stock quotes or sports scores, over cellular phones. Yet little content is actually available for wireless Web phones so far, as it is difficult to reconfigure a standard Web site to make the content accessible over a mobile phone.

Nevertheless, Web companies and venture capitalists have recognized the growing demand for advanced wireless services as more phones are sold. Industry analysts predict that by 2002, more than 100 million phones worldwide will be able to tap into the Net in some fashion. By 2003, more than 1 billion mobile phones will be in use worldwide.

To jump-start the mobile Web market, cell phone users have to be coaxed online. So far, the four-inch screens and telephone keypads that would-be surfers have to use today on cell phones haven't proven particularly user-friendly. A handful of companies, ranging from Lucent Technologies to smaller start-ups, have created software that allows users to talk to their phones though basic voice recognition features.

Phone.com plans to use @Motion's voice-activated technology to allow users to ask for email or stock quotes by simply saying "check email" or "check stocks." Unlike more complete voice recognition software packages that require lengthy "training" periods so a PC will recognize a user's voice, no training is needed with this wireless software technology, Linder said.

According to Phone.com, it's a direction that has been borne of necessity as wireless phone carriers realize the drawbacks of trying to surf the Web by pushing a phone's tiny buttons.

AT&T agrees. "Phones are getting smaller, and with that the keys are getting smaller," AT&T Wireless spokesman Ken Woo said. "For some people, that's not a practical thing."

But there's another driving factor for the switch. Callers use mobile phones most often while driving, and it's dangerous--or at the very least impractical--to be punching buttons while barreling down a freeway.

"One of the key markets for this is the in-vehicle market," said Larry Swasey, vice president of communications research for consulting firm Allied Business Intelligence. "Once you go into the vehicle this could be a huge market for actual Internet access. It's a lot easier to ask for your stock quotes than trying to manipulate the keypad."

But other analysts caution that the market is still new, and that consumers still aren't getting anything like the content found on the World Wide Web. Barely a hundred sites in the Unites States, and only a few hundred worldwide, have reconfigured their content so it is accessible through Phone.com's mobile phone Web browser.

"There's still a lot of issues with the first rollout of [wireless Web technology]," said Jane Zweig, executive vice president of Herschel Shosteck Associates, a telecommunications consulting firm. "The promise is still a long way from reality."

Linder said he expected to see beta tests of voice-enabled wireless Web software during the first half of next year.