Tellme, others open up the telephone Web

The "voice portal" industry is entering a new phase, giving outsiders the ability to create their own voice "Web sites" for the telephone.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
The "voice portal" industry is entering a new phase in its short life, trying to jump-start the young medium by giving outsiders the ability to create their own voice "Web sites" for the telephone.

Voice portals such as Tellme, Quack.com and BeVocal provide voice-activated, Web-like services including stock quotes, traffic information, weather and movie tickets to people calling a 1-800 number.

These have been closed services, not unlike a super-charged version of America Online's Moviefone or a call-in weather report number. But the companies now are opening their technologies, allowing companies and individuals to build their own versions of the voice sites.

"This is all about bringing the phenomenon of the Web to the telephone," said Mike McCue, Tellme's chief executive. "We want thousands of developers to be able to do all the creative work they did on the Web."

Mike McCue Tellme today released a service where would-be developers can build voice "sites" accessible over the phone and host them live on Tellme's phone network, all in just a few minutes.

The cost? Free--at least until the sites begin drawing substantial amounts of traffic. Tellme primarily hopes to persuade big companies to create their own voice-accessible sites; it also hopes to add access through its service to companies such as Amazon.com and eBay.

The new campaign promises to create a kind of GeoCities community for the voice world, where people can set up their own "home pages" for phone access, linking them by voice commands to anything else on the Internet phone network.

Analysts say the company is on the right track with its new service.

"This is the first open approach to the telephone network that makes sense," said Mark Plakias, a Kelsey Group analyst who follows the industry. "The Tellme site looks to be instant gratification for developers."

With the release of new tools and services, the voice portals and the technology companies supporting them are making a bid to increase both developer use and their consumer audiences. Scores of companies focused on this voice market have emerged in recent months, and many analysts say that demand in the market is unlikely to support them all.

The leading companies have nevertheless attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture funding and investments from the telecommunications giants.

In essence, the Net voice companies are turning their medium into something that is looking more like the early days of the Web itself.

Many of them have portrayed themselves this way since the beginning, adopting the "portal" designation for the voice-accessible range of stock quotes, sports scores, traffic and weather information. Some, but not all, have designed their services to read content directly off ordinary Web pages like Yahoo and Excite.

But what was lacking--as it is still largely lacking in the wireless Web world--was the ability for individuals to post their own home pages, creating the kind of mass content that helped give the Web its momentum in the early days.

That's still not easy in the voice world. But it's coming, and the creators of the various portals and speech technologies are recognizing they need the support of developers, from individuals to the biggest companies, to create a mass-market industry.

"We're really trying to build the developer community," said Steve Ehrlich, vice president of marketing for Nuance, a company that creates back-end technology that drives Tellme, BeVocal and other prominent portals. "It is so important for the industry to grow." This week, Nuance held a developer conference that attracted close to 900 people, the company said.

Like the Web, but it talks
The voice services are largely created in a pair of languages, roughly equivalent to the Web's HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and Java applets.

Tellme's developer site allows people to write in a language called VXML (Voice Markup Language)--a standard simple enough that anyone with a basic knowledge of ordinary programming languages can learn it easily. The site also contains basic applications such as date, time or ticket-selling features that can be cut and pasted onto anybody's sites, just as cut-and-paste code exists on the Web for creating buttons or menus.

More advanced tools dubbed Speech Objects are available from Nuance. These "objects" are the equivalent of Java applets, able to perform more advanced functions that are difficult to write in VXML alone.

Nuance has created the only graphical tool--a voice equivalent of Macromedia's Dreamweaver or Microsoft's FrontPage software--for creating voice sites, taking advantage of Speech Objects. BeVocal and others have created their own advanced voice applications, which they're giving away for free to developers trying to create their own sites.

But as the thousands of Web pages with impenetrable navigation and garish blinking text have shown over the years, developing good sites is harder than simply throwing something online. That's high in the speech companies' minds as they open their medium to the wider world in hopes of training a new generation of developers who have experience in creating usable interfaces for people talking to sites instead of clicking buttons.

"One of the biggest challenges in speech is building the developer community," said Amol Joshi, BeVocal's vice president of marketing. "It requires linguistics and dialogue experience, and that's something that's not very common."

The Tellme site in particular is meant to be an experimental ground where anyone can set up their own version of a voice page. Company executives say they expect plenty of "silly" sites to emerge--the voice equivalents of Net phenomena Mahir and the Hamster Dance.

But they also want the service to jump-start development for businesses that want an inexpensive way to have high-tech voice mail or sales services tied into their e-commerce Web sites.

For now, Tellme will host any of the applications built through its service, providing a generic 1-800 number for access. People who want their own telephone numbers can get them too, but for an extra cost.

"There's a real toy box there," Plakias said. "Now we have tools there. The question is whether anyone out there will use them."