January 09, 2001, 3:12 PM — I don't know whether Al Gore deserves credit for inventing the Internet, but I know the 'Net has long since taken on a life of its own. Anyone thinking they can devise tomorrow's Internet is crazy. IP telephony is a case in point. The main application for IP telephony was supposed to be free international phone calls. Now all eyes -- make that ears -- are focused on an entirely new idea: talking Web sites.
A whole industry has emerged dedicated to the simple proposition that people should be able to access the Internet from their telephones. Adding voice access will not only extend the 'Net's reach to roughly one billion wired and wireless phones, but it also will give the Internet a more human face.
Consider voice portals. They are springing up all over the Web and attracting sacks full of venture capitalist money. Tellme (www.tellme.com), which offers a menu of free services from traffic reports to restaurant reservations, has received a whopping $238 million in funding. BeVocal (www.bevocal.com) is doing pretty much the same and has raised more than $45 million. Quack.com (www. quack.com), which helps businesses create their own voice portals, was snapped up by AOL.
But voice portals are just the start. If they succeed as expected, there will be a major push to voice-enable existing Web sites. Companies such as ITXC (www.itxc.com), Firetalk (www.firetalk.com) and HearMe (www.hearme.com) are just a few of the firms helping e-tailers do this. Companies such as Virtual Personalities (www.verbot.com) are even developing talking avatars, or verbots, they hope will make shopping on the Web as natural as going to the local mall.
And that's not all. Voice application service providers are building virtual PBXs and even virtual central offices that companies will access remotely, letting them reduce their investments in telephone equipment, support personnel, training and facilities.
Voice-powered Web services will also benefit brick-and-mortar businesses. Look for today's interactive voice response systems to be replaced by more powerful Web-based systems using automatic speech recognition. Similar systems, only on a larger scale, will reduce the costs of operating call centers.
Making all this possible are technologies such as VXML (a voice extensible markup language), human-sounding text-to-speech and more circumspect artificial intelligence.
This doesn't mean the application originally conceived for IP telephony, free or inexpensive long-distance calls, will fade. The more we use voice to access Web sites and Web-based services, the easier it will be to make or receive IP telephony calls. To wit, no PC will ship without a microphone, speakers or headset.