Wireless War Heating Up

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applauds during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday Jan. 25, 2007.
Flexing its muscle on a new Internet battlefield, Yahoo! Inc. is launching a free telephone service that enables users to call and have their e-mail, news and other information read to them.

The move pits Yahoo! against America Online and some high-profile startups in a race to "voice-enable" the Web so that people who are not near a computer can still get online information.

The urgency to introduce listening-based Web access was evident in Yahoo!'s decision to rollout its telephone portal without any of the speech-recognition or voice-activation features offered by Tellme and BeVocal, pioneers of the new niche. So for the time-being, users of the new Yahoo! portal will be required to enter numbers on a touch-tone telephone keypad to select the information they want to hear.

While Yahoo! and AOL weren't first to this arena, both are confident that their millions of loyal users will opt for the consistency of using the same service provider to access information by computer, phone or wireless device.

One major advantage AOL and Yahoo! boast is that their users already have online profiles with personally tailored information preferences, making it unnecessary for those people to recreate everything from scratch for the telephone versions of those services.

"I think people may try out TellMe. But if they have very extensive profiles someplace else, the novelty may wear out," said Megan Gurley, a research analyst for the Yankee Group. "I don't want to set something up again. I'd much rather use Yahoo! What the large portals are banking on is that their relationship will garner more users."

Like competing telephone portals, the new 'Yahoo! by Phone' service has a toll-free number, though many of the more likely users - those calling with mobile phones - would still be expending minutes from their calling plans. The Yahoo! service can also take voice mail messages at the same phone number.

To hold down costs, Yahoo will route calls to the toll-free number over Net2Phone's private Internet-telephony network, avoiding the access fees charged by operators of traditional telephone networks. And to generate revenues, Yahoo plans to play brief three-to-eight second ads.

Yahoo said it decided to hold off on voice-activation features because it was still dissatisfied with the quality of speech-recognition through the latest technology.

"We want to provide a service to users that works 100 percent of the time," said Anurag Mendhekar, director of the company's 'Yahoo! Everywhere' initiative.

Analysts agree that quality is important, but say it is crucial for Yahoo to introduce voice-command capabilities soon.

"The service has to work pretty well. You can't have a high misunderstanding rate, and a couple of them haven't got that part of the service right yet," said Ken Hyrs, an industry analyst with the research firm Cahners-Instat.

Still, Hyers said, because voice-activated portals may prove especially popular with mobile phone users, "I think Yahoo should fix that soon. Say I'm on the road, I don't want to be fiddling with punching in numbers while I'm driving."

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