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Surf the Internet Without Touching a Keyboard
By Kalpana Srinivasan   Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Drivers yapping on their cellular phones while cruising down the street is one thing. But what about checking e-mail, getting stock quotes, even shopping online on the go?

Mobile consumers increasingly have more information at their disposal. So companies are developing "voice portals" that let people using wireless gadgets navigate the Web by voice commands or even listen to e-mail messages being read to them.

A person could dial a number and ask for the weather or stock prices. An automated voice system would reply — "What city?" or "Which company?" — until it can provide the desired information. Or a user could ask for his mail and have e-mail read back or voice mail played back.

Consumers even could respond to e-mail by recording messages to be sent as attachments that can be played by the recipients.

Such capabilities for phones were among the most talked-about at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association meeting, which ended last week.

The features could help ease fears about safety and spur consumer interest in wireless data services.

"We have tried to absolutely minimize the number of keys you have to use to access information," said Murali Narayanan, director of marketing for Motorola's Internet Exchange product group.

The technology from Motorola and others convert text content from the Internet into voice responses. That means consumers do not have to squint at the small screens of wireless devices to get the information they want.

"It's going to bring everybody into the computer age," said Clarence Friend, president and chief executive officer of AirTrac, which has developed a system called Wireless Web by Voice. Callers dial a number and can request a specific Web address; the system "reads" the text from that site to the user.

AirTrac is looking to partner with wireless carriers to offer its product as an enhanced service on phones.

Companies such as Phone.com, which provides software to bring Internet-based services to wireless phones, also let users customize what information they want to hear.

A user could go the Phone.com site and set up such personalized services as their own calendar. With a Web-enabled wireless phone, callers could give commands such as "move to my address book" to have the day's schedule read out or to add an appointment.

A host of products — earpieces and speakers that attach to cell phones, for example — are designed to make it even easier for people to use their devices hands-free.

Plantronics Inc. and others have created a variety of headsets that connect to cell phones. Such add-ons were popular among the thousands of people touring the noisy floor of the convention exhibits with their cell phones.

These products and services come as local lawmakers around the country review safety problems raised by on-the-road cell phone calls. According to analysts, 70 percent of all wireless calls are made from inside vehicles.

"Our strategy is to offer all sorts of solutions to make using wireless devices easier and safer," said Debra Carroll, vice president of marketing for Bell Atlantic Mobile.

The company is pushing vendors to include jacks on their phones that allow people to plug in headsets. It also offers a feature that allows people to program numbers so they have only to say someone's name and the phone automatically dials the person's number.

Beyond safety worries, voice recognition in particular may help speed consumer adoption of wireless data services. Many of today's wireless phones that offer World Wide Web access allow only a limited number of characters and are small.

"Voice access is important for wireless Internet," said Mark Lowenstein, vice president of The Yankee Group research firm.

Some kinks remain. With thousands watching, a presenter demonstrating a voice recognition system on stage at the convention could not quite get to the menu he wanted.

"It has to be perfected," said Richard Sulpizio, chief operating officer and president of Qualcomm. But "it's getting better."

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