"Welcome to U-Trade Online. For information about U-Trade, press 1; for product information, press 2; for client-account information, press 3; to open a new account, press 4."
Another painful excursion into voice-mail hell? Quite the contrary. It's a painless visit to the Internet courtesy of the Web-On-Call Voice Browser, a first-of-its-kind software product that enables telephone access to the World Wide Web.
Web-On-Call is easy to use — and surprisingly powerful. Callers dial into a Web site and surf around it by choosing from menu options. They can "download" a page by listening to it in real-time or receiving it via fax or email. (The software allows Web sites to make high-quality recordings of long-lasting material. A text-to-voice synthesizer automatically translates fast-changing data.) Web-On-Call even supports hyperlinks between Web pages. A background tone indicates the existence of a link, and callers choose whether or not to go to the new site.
Web-On-Call "means the Internet is not just for the 'information elite' or road warriors with lots of gadgets," declares Ken Rhie, president of NetPhonic Communications of Mountain View, California, the company that created the software. "Anybody can have immediate access to the Web without special hardware or an Internet connection. All you need is a phone."
NetPhonic shipped Web-On-Call in September, and lots of companies are experimenting with it. Rhie already sees several potential killer apps. Salespeople can use the telephone to download up-to-the-minute data on prices and inventories from corporate Intranets; production workers (few of whom have Internet access) can retrieve information from the Web on health benefits, vacation days, or retirement accounts; a Wall Street firm is experimenting with making sensitive performance data (project summaries, departmental budgets vs. actuals) available via Web-On-Call, so mobile executives can access the data without carrying laptops.
Web-On-Call costs roughly $1,000 per phone line. NetPhonic
(http://www.netphonic.com) advises companies to install at least four lines to support delay-free access to the Web.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.