Notes emotes: E-mail in your ear

It seems like there are never enough hours in the day. Who wouldn't want an extra few minutes to finish a project or make it to that meeting?

SpeechMail from Cambridge, UK-based Vocalis Group plc may not make the day longer, but it will help Lotus Notes users make the most of their time.

SpeechMail lets users listen to and manage e-mail over the telephone. Rather than reading messages in the office or logging on from home, one can manage e-mail in the car, on a train, or virtually anywhere there is phone access.

"If you take somebody who is making $40,000 or $50,000 a year, and you can add two hours to their workday... it obviously pays for itself," said Vocalis' US business development manager Brian Moorhead.

Moorhead uses SpeechMail to listen to his e-mail messages during his morning commute to Vocalis' office in Houston. He said the service adds an additional hour of productivity to his day.

With plenty of other telephone e-mail options out there, SpeechMail sets itself apart by relying on voice recognition technology, Moorhead said. Instead of just providing the touchtone keypad access option, users can access the mail management system by speaking to it, as well.

"If you're driving in your car, you can actually say 'play' or 'one' or 'two' rather than taking your eyes off the road," to push a button, Moorhead said.

To use the service, subscribers dial an access number (toll free in the US) and provide their account number and PIN. The SpeechMail server then downloads the mail header from any pop3 or imap4 compatible mail server, processes it through a speech engine, and reads the information over the phone.

The user then has the option of listening to the text of the message or moving on to the next header. After listening to a message, one can reply by creating a voice message up to 60 seconds in length. The sender then receives a replay as a .wav file.

To take advantage of SpeechMail, Notes users must make sure the program can retrieve mail messages behind any applicable firewalls. This can be done through configuration or with a server larger enterprise customers can buy to operate inside a corporate firewall.

Moorhead said that even though users must supply their e-mail password, using SpeechMail does not present a security risk.

"As far as our server, there are firewalls and [other] things in place that won't allow people to get in there and hack the system," Moorhead said. "As far as security with an ISP, there are numerous clauses that state that we're not using [personal information] for any other purpose."

Even though e-mail messages are downloaded for translation into spoken words, they are not retained afterward. Vocalis employees must sign an agreement that states they will not read clients' e-mail messages, Moorhead added.

SpeechMail was originally intended for consumers, but Moorhead said the emphasis is starting to shift toward enterprise customers. Vocalis offers several enterprise features, such as batch sign-ups, internal account management, and interface customization.

Just this week Vocalis began working with Novell to incorporate SpeechMail in a future version of its GroupWise collaboration software. Vocalis is already partnering with several ISPs to offer SpeechMail on a broader scale, such as UUNET Co., British Telecommunications plc, Freeserve plc and World Online.

Other features available in the near future include Spanish language support, an address book, and a choice between a male or female voice to read the messages.

An individual SpeechMail account is priced at $5.99 per month. Enterprise pricing depends on usage volume and any additional hardware.

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