Who Will Listen When the Web Talks?

Web portal Lycos took a big step toward making the wireless Internet more accessible when it hooked up with Boston, Massachusetts-based Mobilee to develop a voice portal to the Net. The companies plan to unveil the talking portal before the end of the year.

Lycos isn’t alone. In fact, the “Lycos Anywhere” strategy falls right in line with efforts at dozens of other big-name Web companies. eBay is especially eager to activate mobile bidding in Europe, where cell phones rule.

Voice recognition is being hailed as the key to unlocking the potential of the cell phone as a Web device. However, as a Forrester analyst said in a recent report, there is no gold rush here. Fool’s gold maybe, but not the real stuff.

Big Rush

In any case, there certainly is a rush. Lycos is racing to get its portal up and running. Brian Payea, a spokesman for the company, told me that Lycos ended an earlier agreement with Quack.com because things were not moving ahead quickly enough.

Mobilee already has about a million customers for its streaming audio service, which pushes news, weather and other information to subscribers’ cell phones. Lycos and all the others intend to tweak that technology and allow everyone to roam the Web even while roaming in their cars.

There are some obvious benefits. Hands-free phone operation would be a huge safety advance, I’ll grant that. Also, voice technology would help sight-impaired people and others who have difficulty fully utilizing the Web.

Over the Top

But Lycos’ claims that a voice portal will help break down the digital divide by offering Net access on cell phones — which are relatively inexpensive compared to PCs — flies in the face of reality. Even Lycos acknowledges that few wireless users will surf beyond a tiny, customized corner of the Web where they can get a limited amount of information — at least not at first.

But even if wireless technology were to make my cell phone a close approximation of my desktop PC, that would not be enough to turn the world on its head. Sorry.

The fact is, I meet the Internet halfway, in a nice quiet place where I engage it as a souped-up version of my newspaper and magazines. I am not in any big rush to stream video or audio over my connection, although I’ve experimented with both. I have other appliances in my house and car that handle sound and moving pictures just fine, thanks.

I Hear That

Which is not to say there is no use for this technology. The ability to get movie listings over a Web phone — a feature often cited by Lycos — is a good example. But will it then be practical to take the next step and order tickets? Maybe I could manage it while driving in my car, though it would be a challenge. But if I’m on a train surrounded by fellow commuters, or on a busy sidewalk, I’m not going to broadcast my credit card information to the world. There’s the rub.

Don’t forget, security is one of the huge issues holding e-commerce back. It’s still a major bugaboo for hardwired connections. A host of new problems arise when the signals transmitting financial information, passwords and PIN numbers are bounced off towers, allowing anyone with a crude scanner — some eavesdroppers use a baby monitor — to intercept them.

Besides, the world already has enough people yelling into mobile phones in public places — we don’t need to be assaulted by cell phones that yell back. What Lycos envisions is that you or I will politely ask the Web portal for a stock quote and a silky smooth (though unmistakably digitized) robot voice will then supply it.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Would that be an improvement over typing my request on a tiny little keypad? Absolutely. Enough to turn the Internet on its ear? Hardly. The wireless Web may well be the wave of the future, but that particular wave isn’t crashing on the shore just yet.

Like the earlier browsers, the voice portals are going to be clunky and clumsy. Forrester notes that typical voice recognition software makes one mistake per sentence — more when the person speaking has an accent or a speech impediment — and in the beginning, it will probably cause more frustration and waste more time than it saves.

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I’m just not ready for humankind’s next giant leap — but I don’t think so. More likely, the Web without wires is not yet ready for prime time.

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