Tellme Launches Phone-Based Service

Tellme Networks Inc. Monday launched a new service designed to change the way people think about and use the Internet.

On Monday, the company debuted a free service that allows anyone in North America to use voice commands to find and connect to people, businesses and information nationwide, generally available. Connections to the service are made by dialing 1-800-555-TELL.

“For the first time, anybody, anywhere can get the benefits of the Web from the phone,” said Mike McCue, chief executive officer of Tellme. McCue said Tellme’s service turns the Internet into a behind-the-scenes engine, making it accessible to everyone, even people who don’t have access to or are intimidated by computers or surfing the Web.

“We have grandmothers who use Tellme on a regular basis,” he said. “When people use Tellme they don’t really think of it as using the Internet.”

“We’ve handled millions of different speech recognitions,” McCue added, referring to the recent three-month trial in which Tellme successfully completed 1.6 million calls. “Overall, we’ve been very happy with the results and we’ve had lots and lots of people give us feedback. Everybody loves it.”

Tellme uses sophisticated voice recognition software that utilizes keywords to enable callers to access the Internet with a telephone. For instance, a caller can use Tellme to find a restaurant, hear a review (courtesy of Zagat’s Restaurant Guide) and then immediately call the restaurant by saying “connect me.” Some of the keywords include:

  • “Taxis” — Callers can find and connect with a local taxi service anywhere in the United States
  • “Restaurants” — Tellme can find and connect callers with any restaurant in the U.S. based on the restaurant’s name, cuisine type or location
  • “Airlines” — The service instantly connects users with any major airline simply by saying its name
  • “Movies” — Tellme users can find out what’s playing at any theater and get show times and reviews
  • “Stock Quotes” — Users can check a personalized portfolio and track company news
  • “News” — Tellme provides callers with CNN’s top stories, business, technology, entertainment and health watch news
  • “Sports” — Callers can get up-to-the-minute sports scores and post-game wrap-ups
  • “Weather” — The service has weather forecasts for 35,000 U.S. cities
  • “Phone Booth” — Users can make a free two-minute phone call anywhere in the U.S.
  • “Horoscopes” — Callers can get daily horoscope readings
  • “Soap Operas” — Users can find out what happened on their favorite soap operas
  • “Black Jack” — Tellme callers can play a hand of blackjack
  • “Lottery” — Callers can get the latest lottery numbers for every state.

Tellme has qualified each listing to ensure that the information is accurate. “We actually called up every taxi service in the United States,” McCue said. “We found out whether they answered the phone, spoke English, if they would actually dispatch a taxi over the phone.”

Part of Tellme’s ease of use lies with its close connection with AT&T , one of its backers. McCue said Tellme sits right on AT&T’s backbone, allowing the service to quickly resolve the locations of callers. Callers who desire information about an area outside of their calling location can access it by saying the name of a city and state or entering an area code.

Other Tellme backers include Benchmark Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, The Barksdale Group and Brad Silverberg of Ignition Corp.

While the service is free to users and the companies that list with Tellme, McCue does see profits in the future. First, businesses can use Tellme’s software to build their own telephone services that recognize speech. Currently, companies that want automated information lines and the like have to shell out a small fortune to build the infrastructure and hir

e the talent to program the service. Instead, McCue said Tellme customers can build an application with Tellme that is Internet-based, completely enabled and outsourced. Tellme can host the service and charge a fee to answer the phone. McCue said other revenue streams include preferred listings, promotions (getting your ski resort listed on the weather channel), and percentages of transactions.

“We’ll eventually go public, I’m sure,” McCue said. “We’re already generating revenue. This is a really good revenue rich business. We think we’ll be able to be profitable in the long term.”

He added, “More people buy more things on the phone than anywhere else. I think this space is going to become really big. There are two billion people in the world who have access to a telephone.”

With Monday’s successful launch, McCue plans to turn his attention to overseas markets. He said the service will probably be extended to English-speaking countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia first, but Europe and Asia are also in the picture.

“In the next two or three years, you’ll see us really build out our presence,” he said. “In the next year, we should have an international presence.”

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