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Voice Input for using the cellphones

PARIS: One of the biggest divides among mobile phone users is between those who can manipulate their handset's tiny number keys to tap out text messages, e-mail or Web addresses and those who can't, won't or just don't.

But there is one universal input device that is far easier to use than any miniature keypad or even a touchscreen keyboard, and it works with every cellphone: your voice.

SpinVox, a British company led by Christina Domecq, a native of Spain, is among a handful of aggressive technology companies that are trying to use voice as the next on-ramp to the Internet via the mobile phone.

SpinVox's main product is voice-recognition technology that translates phone voicemail messages into text and then sends them as SMSes or as e-mail. It says four million users have already sent 50 million messages this way, in English, Spanish, German or French. (Italian is coming later this year.) Say you call someone who happens to be a SpinVox customer and her mobile phone is off. You leave a voicemail message as you would ordinarily. When she gets back to her phone, it displays an SMS with your message typed out in full. Because it is text, it is searchable, savable, forwardable - basically, actionable.

The company also markets a service that lets you publish a text entry to your blog on the Internet just by making a phone call - handy when you want to post right from a conference, trade show, concert or other event.

A third niche service allows you to send yourself an e-mail with a reminder or "note to self" with a call.

You can imagine other ways that voice input could make interacting with the Internet by phone much simpler. So can Google and Microsoft, which are also dipping a toe into the "voice" waters.

Google is testing a speech-activated search service (labs.google.com/goog411/) that you use by calling 1-800-GOOG-411 for free. It is available only in English and only in the United States.

Microsoft, meanwhile, bought a company this spring called Tellme that provides phone-directory service (free but with ads). Tellme is testing a mobile application that will automatically bring up a map of your destination on your phone screen (www.tellme.com/products/TellmeByMobile), but only for customers of certain U.S. carriers.

Their presumed goal is to be the leader in "mobile search," whether by text or voice, while SpinVox is emphasizing speech-to-text "conversions."

Domecq co-founded SpinVox with Daniel Doulton, who left the pioneering British technology company Psion several years ago with some ideas for using speech in new ways.

Although SpinVox started out by selling to individuals through CarphoneWarehouse in Britain in 2005, and British consumers can still sign up at www.spinvox.com for a package of 10 conversions for ?3, or $6, it now is focusing on mobile carriers.

This week, it signed up Alltel, an Atlanta-based network with 12 million subscribers. Alltel said it would offer its customers the voice-to-text service late this year, though it didn't say whether or what it would charge.

Domecq, 30, said SpinVox expected to announce nine more deals with carriers and Internet service providers by the end of the year, five of them in North America and at least one a "tier one" name. Her goal is six million customers by December. Now she is focusing the company, which employs almost 300 people, on the States.

"Europeans understand the texting side really well," Domecq said in an interview. "But I'm not sure they get the voice business as well as in the United States."

To persuade carriers, SpinVox is citing company statistics that people using the services make 7 percent more voice calls and send 14 percent more text messages as a result.

The success of these services assumes that voice-recognition technology is adequate to the task. So far, investors and analysts have not made this into a show-stopping issue, but subscribers still could if they see "phone" translated as "foam" too many times.

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