The Sound of ‘Ear Commerce’

by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today

You can navigate the Web from your desktop, your laptop, your palmtop, your TV top — now you can Web surf from your telephone too. No, we’re not talking about squinty little browsers on your cell phone’s LCD screen, were talking about accessing Web content over any telephone using only your voice. Welcome to “voice portals” (a.k.a. “ear commerce”). Venture capitalists and dot-com pundits say it could be the next big thing. We say, at the very least, it’s a cool way to get over-the-phone driving directions when you’re lost somewhere in meatspace.

How these voice portals work is simple: you call a toll-free number and use a series of voice commands to access whats available on the portal (which is, so far, things like directions, stock quotes, sports scores, weather, horoscopes, etc.). Some voice portals, such as Tellme.com, offer such enticements as free two-minute phone calls to anyone in the U.S. Some require you to fill out a registration for to get a special access code. So, what’s the “catch”? When you call, you have to listen to audio advertising before you get the info you’ve requested.

Here are a few of the more promising voice portals and the services they provide:

  • TellMe (www.tellme.com)
    TellMe, our favorite, is a very easy-to-use service that does not require registration to use. If you do want to fill out a form and become a member, you can create a Favorites list of categories, a custom stock portfolio, and make free two-minute calls in the U.S. The navigation is fairly intuitive and on-line help is readily available. The ads are very short and painless. TellMe content includes news, weather, sports, horoscopes, stocks, restaurants, and more. There are fourteen content categories in all. Unfortunately, TellMe does not include driving directions. To access the service, dial 800-555-Tell.

  • BeVocal (www.bevocal.com)
    BeVocal has less content than TellMe (driving directions, flight info, stocks, traffic and weather) and the navigation is not quite as smooth. The main feature it offers over other voice portals is point-to-point driving directions. Once you get this to work, it’s great, but we had a heck of time getting it to recognize our starting and ending points in our initial test (because both locations had numbers, numbered street addresses and north and south in their names). BeVocal’s server got confused and wanted to send us on a 142-mile trip from one location in Arlington, Virginia to another! You can easily fix such voice translation problems however by entering street numbers with your phone’s keypad. BeVocal also lets you create a customized stock portfolio if you register on their website. The access number is: 800-4-B-Vocal.
  • Quack (www.quack.com)
    Quack offers content in six areas: movies, restaurants, sports, stocks, weather, and traffic. Navigation is about the same as TellMe and no registration is required. We weren’t as impressed with the content as TellMe. We were shocked, for instance, when it rated our favorite (and shockingly cheap) Indian restaurant 2 out of 5 stars. This made us suspicious of the quality of their other ratings. The Quack website is also poorly designed and a bit confusing and the ads on the phone are more numerous and annoying than the other voice portals we tested. To try them out, dial 800-73-QUACK.
  • Shoutmail (www.shoutmail.com)
    This service is the most ambitious of the lot. It allows you to access your email (translated via machine-synthesized voice) over the phone (either from a free @shoutmail.com account or your regular mail account) and to send email messages over the phone as audio attachments. You have to register to use Shoutmail, but one cool feature is that you can register by phone (i.e. you don’t even need to have a PC or email account to use the service). Shoutmail also has hundreds of different subcategories in their information sections. For instance, in the Entertainment News section, subcategories like comics, movie reviews, video, etc. can be selected. Unfortunately, Shoutmail also has the most difficult interface. Using the phone’s touchpad to enter in email addresses can be a real chore. I also got stuck in a few submenus and had trouble find my way out. These problems are certainly worth overcoming if you need access to email and don’t have a computer or other email device handy. Shoutmail’s access number is: 877-W-MY-MAIL.

Where these services will be in a few Net years (read: six months from now) is anyone’s guess. Most voice portal providers are planning on greatly expanding their content to include auctions, e-commerce sites, and even Web pages that you specify. While getting directions over the phone, or finding out what movies are playing when you’re in the car, are obvious “killer apps” for such services, are people really going to shop e-tail via voice or listen to the latest DLT articles being read to them by a robo-voice? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we certainly plan on keeping the numbers to a couple of these services in the glove compartment of our car.

***DLT Tip: For information on a related technology called “Unified Messaging Systems,” check out Sean Carton’s article, “You’re Wanted on Line 1, Line 2, Line 3…”

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