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Copyright 2000 The News and Observer 
The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) 

June 5, 2000 Monday, FINAL EDITION 

LENGTH: 995 words 

HEADLINE:  Computers - The Web connection to your phone 
BYLINE: Paul Gilster, Staff Writer 

Everybody talks too much. Let's face it - you can't go to a movie without some people gabbing through it as if they were in their living room, and half the world thinks of drive time as talk time via their cellular phones. The great physicist Philip Morrison estimates we burn 10 trillion minutes on the phone every year in the United States alone. 

Yak, yak, yak. Does it ever end? Not if a dozen or so new companies have their way with computers and telephones. Companies like and Internet Speech are figuring there's a confluence between your telephone and the Internet. You want information? Pick up the phone, and use voice recognition to talk to a computer. 

Here's the pitch: You don't need a computer at all to get to what you need. Any telephone will do. With, you call an 800 number and, after listening to a brief introduction, speak keywords into the phone. "Weather," you might say, and the computer will read the weather to you. It knows where you are because it's using caller ID. No mouse, no Web, just you and a phone. 

Despite my skepticism, Tellme ( is actually a lot of fun to play around with. You can get information on movies, restaurants, stock quotes, news, even traffic by speaking commands into the phone. The down side is when you're dealing with lengthy offerings. I wanted to find out what was playing at a certain theater, so I said "Movies" and was sent to the movie listings. 

Tellme knew about theaters in and near Raleigh, but I had to cycle through until the computer got to the theater I was interested in before I could ask what was playing there. Having done that, though, Tellme gave me everything I needed. I think it works well on quick items like weather and traffic, but it's cumbersome with the news. You can sign up to preview Tellme for free at the Web site. 

Other companies take a different tack. Talk2 (  and Internet Speech ( are trying to develop a truly Web-enabled voice technology. Imagine calling in to ask for a Web page and having its information read out to you, minus, obviously, the graphics. You could also pick up e-mail and faxes, or even manage an e-commerce transaction. Internet Speech's NetEcho application offers a voice-enabled 
demo at the Web site that features a spooky computer voice that reads a Web page to you. It's going to get fatiguing listening to a voice portal, because although computers can figure out human speech better than ever before, their vocal skills leave a lot to be desired. 

Behind all this is a twin set of tools. Voice recognition  itself has been gaining rapid ground in being able to understand  speech without extensive training to an individual voice. And VoiceXML is a language that allows developers to create voice services in a way not unlike the way Web pages are created from HTML. 

Maybe we should think of these "voice portals" as an enabling tool. Right now about half the population of the United States has some kind of Internet connection. But phones are ubiquitous and they don't have to be cellular for you to use these services. Moreover, at least for now, the call is free. It stands to reason that the first contact many people may have with the Internet will be through calls to outfits like Tellme or Internet Speech. 
The telephone, in other words, is at least one way to start  closing the digital divide. It's not an elegant solution except for the voice recognition technology itself, which is, frankly, dazzling. But if you need information and there's not a computer in sight, the voice portal option could be a lifesaver. Just keep talking. 


Check it out 

The Library of Congress, which just introduced its new Web site at, is one of America's treasures. It houses 28 million items in its print collection, and another 90 million items in video, audio and other formats. 

But don't expect books on its Web site. When Librarian of Congress James Billington spoke to the National Press Club in April on the role of technology in libraries, he took direct aim at electronic text. 

Billington stands behind the notion that books - the printed variety - aren't going to be replaced, not even by the most sophisticated electronic reading devices. He attacks "mindless futurists" who read books on screens. And he speaks of the "arrogance" of people who believe that they can find everything they need on the Internet. 

Well, he's right, at least insofar as he takes on the "digital at any price" crowd. As we've discussed in this space many a time, the Internet isn't anything like a library - for reasons too numerous to repeat here. 

But where does the fear that electronic books will take the place of print come from? A more likely outcome is that the strengths of print will be so unassailable that we'll use electronic books for those things computers do best, such as textual searching and research, and continue to enjoy printed 
books at leisure much as we do today. 

The electronic book is a corollary to the printed volume, not a replacement for it. Both offer their own distinct strengths, and particularly in terms of saving money and paper, the electronic book has a future in places like industrial documentation. It's said that the paperwork that describes a 
Boeing 747 would fill the actual aircraft. Why not make all that documentation electronic? 

I know that some computer people, including Bill Gates, say that the printed book is dead. But some people claim they talk to Elvis, too. 

Computers enrich the library experience rather than replacing  it; in no way do they have the strength to eliminate the print medium. It would be better if both sides of this debate would stop talking past each other and start listening for a change. 


LOAD-DATE: June 5, 2000 

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