CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Christmas Gift Guide
Mobile

Lucent phone browser competing with start-ups

The telecommunications equipment maker is the latest company to give the Web a voice, following in the steps of a handful of quicker start-ups such as TelSurf Networks and TellMe Networks.

If you're going to access the Web over a telephone, it might as well talk to you.

That's the theory driving a new market for Web voice companies, which are creating technology that allows Internet sites to be read to mobile phone subscribers over their phones. Today, giant Lucent Technologies became the latest company to give the Web a voice, following in the steps of a handful of quicker start-ups with names like TelSurf Networks and TellMe Networks.

While the market is still in its earliest stages, with few actual customers, analysts say the idea could be a good way of helping to speed adoption of wireless Web features on cell phones in particular.

"I think there is a lot of potential for a market like this," said Dana Thorat, an industry analyst with the International Data Corp. "The moral to this story is, it's got to be easy."

Wireless phones are now selling faster than personal computers worldwide, and IDC predicts that more than 40 million subscribers in the United States alone--which is far behind parts of Europe and Asia in wireless phone use--will have access to a wireless Web by 2003.

The trick is to turn wireless Net access from a slow system on two-inch-square phone screens with cumbersome telephone number pads into something that is a reasonable approximation of the Internet itself.

For Lucent, as well as its start-up competitors, the answer is to use the telephone the way it was intended: Let it talk.

The idea is simple: Punch up a Web address on a cell phone's small screen, and the browser will read the text, stripping out the pictures, Web coding and other extraneous bits that go into building an Internet site.

In the case of Lucent's new PhoneBrowser system, the result is a robot-accented voice that tells you the weather in New Jersey, Cisco Systems' stock price, or the day's news headlines. Many of the competing services use a more human-sounding voice, but at the cost of limiting the number of Web sites their services can read.

Nevertheless, a limited number of sites are likely to be enough for these voice applications, which aren't well designed for large sections of text, the companies say.

"We see this as (similar to) the cable channel model, with people having five or 10 sites they visit regularly," said David Stahl, director of Lucent's New Ventures Group. "I don't think people will visit Hotbot or AltaVista and do searches on the phone. That's not the right interface."

Lucent's PhoneBrowser and the competing services are initially geared for the "road warrior"--the ultra-wired individual who can't wait to get to the office or home before getting information from the Web. But many of the companies also talk about a more mass-market business, offering Web services to the visually impaired or consumers who don't have a computer.

That's a viable strategy, but the companies need to let people know that the services exist, Thorat says.

That takes either marketing or partnerships. On the second angle, Lucent may have a leg up on its competitors with a strong brand name and pre-existing relationship with many of the mobile phone communications carriers that are the gateway to wireless Web subscribers.

Barring that path, the companies will have to market themselves the old-fashioned way before the market takes off. That will likely take a year or so, Thorat predicted. By that time, a critical mass of mobile phone subscriber should be using the services, she added.

"I think generally people aren't aware of these services," Thorat said. "Anyone who's doing this will have a real consumer education campaign ahead of them."

Also new on the market today is start-up iNetNow, which has taken a slightly different path to reach more or less the same Web goal.

Founder Lenny Young said he had been so frustrated while using the rudimentary wireless Web services that he gave up and called a Net-connected friend with questions. He decided there might be enough other people like him in the wired world to make a business of the idea.

"Now that the Internet has become a part of life, I want it all the time," Young said.

The service will employ a staff of human surfers to answer phones 24 hours a day and read back stock quotes, news headlines or launch more sophisticated Web research tasks for clients who don't have time to perform the searches themselves, Young said.

It's a twist on the idea that hasn't yet had time to prove itself. Some analysts are already skeptical.

"Wired individuals are used to doing things for themselves on the Web," IDC's Thorat said. "People online tend to like self-service."