2000 The News and Observer
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC)
5, 2000 Monday, FINAL EDITION
CONNECT; Pg. D3
Computers - The Web connection to your phone
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 Tellme.com 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
Here's the pitch: You don't need a computer at all to
get to what you need. Any telephone will do.
With Tellme.com, 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 (www.tellme.com) 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 (www.talk2.com)
and Internet Speech (www.internetspeech.com)
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
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 americaslibrary.gov, 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
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