Look, Officer! No Hands!

Companies seek ways for employees to comply with wireless laws

The ban on talking on cell phones while driving in New York has spurred a flurry of activity among developers of hands-free and voice recognition products, and is expected to stimulate the market for such devices. Enterprises are already considering how to outfit mobile workers with gear to comply with such regulations, because other states are expected to enact similar legislation soon.

I-managers who want to upgrade mobile workers with hands-free products wont have an easy job.

"Its going to be a great challenge for corporations to do that, primarily because companies dont know what wireless devices they have in their organizations," said Jeff Kohler, CEO of Reason, which manages devices such as wireless phones for large corporations. In a recent survey, Reason found that one company performed a wireless device audit and discovered that 7 percent of its devices belonged to people who no longer worked for the company. The lack of knowledge about what the mobile work force is using stems from the common practice of allowing workers to buy and expense their wireless devices.

"What you dont want to do is tell employees to buy their own hands-free kits," Kohler said. Such an edict could lead some employees to invest in expensive units or purchase products that might not be compatible with their phones. Kohler urges I- managers to handle the process themselves in order to achieve discounts for buying in bulk and to control costs.

Voice recognition services for wireless phones are also growing in popularity, though they have reliability problems. Operators such as AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS offer voice command services for a monthly fee. Comverses Voice Solutions provides the technology for Sprint PCS voice command offering, which can enable users to navigate through voice-mail systems using voice commands. Sprint PCS offers to work with enterprises to allow workers to access corporate e-mail using voice commands.

BeVocal sells technology that can be deployed within an enterprise, letting workers access corporate information using voice commands. "Weve seen a move toward interest from enterprises to have corporate voice portals," said Amol Joshi, co-founder and vice president of marketing at BeVocal. Workers can dial a toll-free number and use voice commands to hear e-mail messages, and access corporate directories or other information stored on corporate intranets.

When driving a car, however, workers using voice recognition also need a headset. "The problem is you have to have your mouth within inches of the microphone on the phone," said Pat Kennedy, chairman and CEO of Cellport Systems. Cellport implements systems within vehicles that include an antenna for better reception and use the cars existing speakers. Such systems aim to make it easier to use voice commands in a noisy environment.

Cellport plans to announce a deal next week with an automaker that will build Cellports system into cars, and also offer it as a dealer-installed option. The automakers are expected to be a source of innovation for hands-free systems, said Michael Rolnick, a partner at venture firm ComVentures. Some high-end cars already offer integrated services with certain cell phones that display phone options on the dashboard, instead of the small handset screen.

Although voice recognition technology has come a long way since its inception, many dont think it will fully replace hands-free devices. "I dont think the technology is reliable enough or easy enough for people to use," Reasons Kohler said.