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Word Wide Web

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001


Can't get to your computer to get information off the Web? Pick up a phone and call one of several services offering news, weather information, driving directions and more via voice-recognition systems or live "professional surfers.''

The Web can't always keep up with the needs of road warriors. Even the most advanced wireless phones and handheld devices can do only limited surfing, and sometimes a traveler is offline but wants information quickly.

The answer may be as simple as a telephone call. Now Web-based services provide callers with information ranging from driving directions and weather to news and stock quotes.

With some services, such as BeVocal.com and Tellme.com, the caller talks to a machine using automated speech recognition technology. Another, iNetNow.com, has a staff of "professional surfers" to answer calls.

Overall, the growing "voice portal" market will generate $12-billion by 2005 through ad revenue, e-commerce transactions and related hardware and telephone-service-carrier costs, according to the Kelsey Group, a market research company in Princeton, N.J. But not everyone predicts success.

"Voice will never be the dominant interface because it's so information-poor," said John Dalton, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "People have a lot more choices, and they can retain a lot more, when they're looking at information on a PC."

Lenny Young, president and chief executive of iNetNow, said his service, with real people to answer the phones around the clock, can cut through the complexities and confusion of the Web.

Young, a former computer engineer and film producer, says the idea came to him when he was on the road. He would call people he knew who were online to find information for him. "It was the quickest, easiest way to express what I wanted and was looking for," he said.

Here's how the service Young created works: People sign up at the company's Web site (www.inetnow.com). Fees range from $4.95 for five calls a month to $21.95 for unlimited calls. The calls have a five-minute time limit. If the service can't get the information that fast, it will call back or send an e-mail without an additional charge. Special requests, such as advanced research projects, cost extra.

Requests can be for anything, Young says: Someone had a skunk under the house and needed a trap. Others wanted the population of the United States to settle an argument. Another sought articles on the military's role in the westward expansion of the United States. About two-thirds of the calls require some conversation between the caller and surfer, showing the need for more than a computerized voice giving basic information, Young says.

To test the human versus machine, Tech Times called iNetNow and BeVocal with similar requests: find Italian restaurants in Clearwater.

At iNetNow, a professional surfer named Jennifer answered the call at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles. She asked if Clearwater was one or two words and whether it was close to Miami. No? All she initially found was the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, even though a number of media sites and city guides offer restaurant recommendations for the Tampa Bay area. Then she checked ActiveDiner.com and came up with the requested Italian restaurants.

Jennifer had a hard time helping a caller get to a chosen restaurant. At first, she couldn't find Palm Harbor, the caller's starting point. And U.S. 19 may be infamous in the bay area, but Jennifer initially put it 70 miles east of its location. Finally, she found a map online and gave directions that would work, although they would have required a few unnecessary miles of driving. All was accomplished in less than 5 minutes.

Then it was the machine's turn. BeVocal (www.bevocal.com) is free and uses speech recognition to help people navigate a menu of information. While the system automatically detects the caller's location, thanks to caller ID, it was befuddled by other questions.

A request for an Italian restaurant in Clearwater came back with an "I didn't understand" from the prerecorded voice. U.S. 19? That brought an inexplicable response of "Westwind," until the request was worded "U.S. Highway 19." The machine kept asking the caller to repeat, or said "I didn't hear" or "I didn't understand," throughout the call. Once settled, its driving directions were more precise, including distances in the various legs of the trip.

BeVocal sells advertising on the service, though none was heard during the phone test. It also sells its technology and services to businesses such as financial services companies.

INetNow's Young says speech-recognition services and wireless Web devices have a place in the growing Internet-anywhere scene but argues they are not solutions by themselves. A Web-enabled phone gives the user freedom to move around, he says, but it has a tiny screen and isn't that easy to use. Speech recognition works for limited information.

"The best out there is still a human being when it comes to language," he said. "Speaking to a computer will never be the same as speaking to a human being.

"People will pay for content that they can get quickly and accurately."

INetNow uses a search engine it developed, but Young won't say how it works. Its research department searches the Net daily for changes and additions to keep its surfers updated.

"I think even for people, especially for people who are Web savvy and spend time on the Web, you'd be surprised about the resources on it," he said.

- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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