BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : DECEMBER 4, 2000 ISSUE
FRONTIER -- FORECAST 2001

A Wireless Web Wizard


Clarence E. Friend isn't paying lip service to the wireless Web--he's making it a reality. For two years, the founder of AirTrac Inc. in Huntington Beach, Calif., has worked to bring voice-activated Web browsing to the masses. Later this month, he'll watch his dream come true: Cellular One Group will begin offering AirTrac's Wireless Web by Voice service on its Internet site (www.cellularone.com).

Wireless Web by Voice, AirTrac's first product, lets cell-phone users browse the Web--in very limited fashion--by voice. Callers will be able to send and receive e-mail and request stock quotes, sports scores, and other tersely worded items. Technology developed by AirTrac and Conversational Computing Corp., of Redmond, Wash., translates text sent over the Internet to speech--in English or Spanish.

The pact with Cellular One is AirTrac's first big contract and may help the tiny, 25-person developer to be heard above the din of other ''voice portal'' Internet companies. Scores of technology companies, large and small, have been scrambling to offer voice-activated options. Among them is America Online Inc., which in October launched a service that allows its members to listen to e-mail over the phone. AOL's speech-recognition technology was developed by SpeechWorks International Inc. of Boston, a direct competitor of AirTrac partner Conversational Computing. ''It's like the gold rush of 1849,'' says Friend, a 25-year veteran of the telecom industry. ''There is such an opportunity for young, new companies with entrepreneurial spirit.''

AirTrac's service has its share of hiccups. Listening to incoming e-mails is easy, but sending them is another matter. Callers can send a voice-mail audio clip attached to an e-mail, or build an e-mail by linking a series of standard phrases, such as ''thank you'' and ''I received your e-mail.'' Either way, the caller may have to repeat the message several times, until the automated response system processes the answer. As for browsing, most Web sites were built to be seen, not heard; only a handful can be surfed via voice commands. So which voice portals will ultimately succeed? That's anybody's call.



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