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Tellme pitches free voice-based Net service

The high-profile start-up will provide free software designed to make it easier for businesses and consumers to build voice-based Internet services.

    High-profile start-up Tellme Networks said today it plans to provide free software designed to make it easier for businesses and consumers to build voice-based Internet services.

    Tellme, which launched its service on a trial basis in April, allows anyone in the United States to call a toll-free number and use voice commands to connect with people, businesses and information on restaurants, movies, stock portfolios and sports scores.

    The company, whose backers include former Netscape Communications chairman James Barksdale, has garnered attention up to now for offering its own service for delivering information from the Web by telephone. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company's latest software, Tellme Studio, is designed to let other companies use its technology to make their own Web sites voice-activated.

    The new service allows anyone connected to the Internet to build a Web-enabled phone site after signing up for Tellme Studio at the company's free developer Web site.

    Many Internet companies seek to make it easier for consumers to connect with them and to extend their businesses to offline customers. Voice services like Tellme are increasingly seen as a prime way to reach consumers who don't have regular access to a personal computer or who want Internet-based information delivered in a different way.

    Last month, telecommunications giant AT&T said it would invest $60 million for a minority stake in Tellme. The deal also calls for AT&T to provide networking services for the start-up, becoming its primary provider of communications services.

    "This is all about creating the Web phenomenon on the telephone network," Mike McCue, Tellme chief executive, said in a statement. "By bringing the Internet's open standards to the phone, we expect to see the creation of thousands of compelling phone sites linked together to form a 'phone Web' that can be used by nearly anyone, anywhere."

    Though Tellme has attracted much more attention, there are other companies offering similar services. For instance, NetByTel.com makes software that allows e-commerce transactions, such as buying an airline ticket, to be voice-enabled, though companies must pay for each application they create.

    BeVocal, which launched its own information service this week, also began offering development technology in May, though any applications developed using this technology must be hosted by BeVocal.