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Tellme takes first step into voice e-commerce

The voice Web portal business takes a first tentative step into e-commerce, as Tellme Networks begins to deliver on plans to create a parallel Web using the telephone.

The voice Web portal business is taking a first tentative step into e-commerce, as Tellme Networks begins to deliver on plans to create a parallel Web using the telephone.

The company today announced a deal with shopping site ShopTalk to provide e-commerce services on the Tellme portal and to host that company's voice business. The service will allow callers to browse a Web-like menu of commerce options over the telephone, surfing through the site using voice-recognition commands.

The deal itself is relatively small for both companies. ShopTalk already has its own voice-activated telephone commerce service, and Tellme hopes to attract considerably larger partners to its efforts.

Nevertheless, the pact between the two companies will be closely watched, as the e-commerce capabilities of the telephone are wholly unproven. Voice sites like Tellme, and technological ancestors like America Online's MovieFone have been increasingly popular ways for consumers to get quick fixes of information. But like the Web itself, the sites need to prove they can sustain business models.

Tellme itself hopes to fill in many of the financial gaps with just such deals as the Shoptalk arrangement, relying on hosting and development revenues rather than direct advertising or commerce sales to sustain its business. But for this strategy to work, the sites that it hosts must ultimately prove themselves, in turn, to be viable businesses.

It does mark the first tangible sign that Tellme is signing up outside companies to live on its network, a key part of the voice portal's business strategy. The company has said it aims to provide the infrastructure to develop a sprawling new category of Web-like voice sites, loosely linked in much the same way AOL partner sites are grouped together by keywords under the AOL umbrella.

Tellme is one of the largest companies providing Web-like service over the telephone. Coming off a $60 million investment from AT&T and a recent $125 million funding round, the company is poised to deliver on its promises even in the midst of a quickly contracting market for untested ideas.

The voice portal concept is catching on with other big companies, however. AOL recently bought Tellme competitor Quack.com to create its own version of a voice service, and Tellme rival BeVocal has persuaded both Sprint PCS and Qwest Communications International to add its services as a feature on their wireless phone networks.

Tellme and ShopTalk did not release financial details of their relationship. The service will go live on the Tellme network in January, the companies said.