'You will talk to the Web... and the Web will talk back,' predicts IBM in its latest list of innovations that "have the potential to change the way people work, live and play over the next five years".
The IT giant, however, wants this web to work on cellphones rather than a personal computer (PC), since mobile devices dramatically outnumber PCs -- over 335 million cellphones versus below 30 million PCs in India alone. Moreover, IBM's Institute for Business Value predicts the number of mobile web users worldwide will reach one billion by 2011.
The concept is gathering steam with a project named "Spoken Web" that is being led by IBM's India Research Laboratory (IRL) team, and also being incubated in IBM's eight global labs in six countries. In fact, the corporation recently completed a pilot in Andhra Pradesh to implement the concept.
"The project was very successful. It started out with around 100 villagers but many hundreds joined later after seeing the response," Guruduth Banavar, director, IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL), told Business Standard.
The reason for this enthusiasm, he said, is simple. "Most people do not have a PC. Even smartphones are far and few. Besides, most people, especially the semi-literate kind, are not comfortable using a visual interface. But what most of the Indian population can do is talk. So the spoken web project makes immense sense." he added.
The spoken web works like the World Wide Web. Just as the web is a collection of websites, the spoken web is a network of voice sites or interconnected voice applications. These voice sites are accessed through a telephone over an audio channel. Callers can create their own voice sites or access those of others. The calls are routed through a telecom operator.
A semi-literate plumber, for instance, can create his voice site by calling a dedicated phone number. The IBM solution guides the plumber (in his local language) through a voice-driven interface, prompting for inputs whenever necessary. The plumber provides basic information about himself, such as his service description, working hours, etc. He does not understand how the system enables this, but selects the option through a voice-prompted "yes". He then gets a message stating his phone has been enabled with a voice site.
Local citizens in the area who encounter a plumbing problem simply use the telephone directory or an online yellow pages service to locate plumbers in the vicinity. If the plumber is busy, the call gets routed to the voice site, which presents a voice prompt, stating that the plumber is busy currently and provides the caller with an option of scheduling an appointment.
A fisherman, on the other hand, can create his own voice site that has information and pricing of fish available with him. He can further link his voice site to a payment gateway voicesite to enable transactions. Villagers can call his voice site and order fish and make payments, while the fisherman is busy fishing in nearby waters.
To manage these transfers, IBM has developed a new protocol, Hyperspeech Transfer Protocol (HSTP), which is similar to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that the web uses to help people move from one website to another. IBM's IRL team is also working on a simple audio browser to make surfing voice sites possible, and creating a true internet. The browser can also be implemented on the device itself, but that would require speech recognition support on the device.
The possibilities are endless, notes Banavar. Fishermen need weather information before heading out to sea; farmers need to look up commodity prices; plumbers can schedule appointments, set up transfers to partners, use advertisements; and grocery shops can display catalogues, offer order placement and display personalised targeted advertisements or reminders.
Such locally-relevant information is not available for a majority of the world's population. Computer access, he adds, is not enough because there is a need to know what to look for, how to access it and how to use it.IBM has also begun pilots in regions beyond the southern belt. The company, admits Banavar, eventually plans to go to market with partners that include telecom operators (IBM already has relationships with Airtel and Idea Cellular) and content service providers. "Some telcos are talking to us about possible business models," is all that Banavar would reveal.