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Tellme Networks Isn’t Saying Much

By Hal Plotkin
Silicon Valley Correspondent
CNBC.com

“If it’s just another way to get stock quotes or sports scores, it’s probably not that interesting.”

— Amanda McCarthy, Forrester Research

Despite the recent flurry of good press generated by Palo Alto-based Tellme Networks, Inc., key industry analysts aren’t convinced the secretive Palo Alto-based start-up is really onto something.

The press attention is based on the fact that tiny Tellme received start-up funds from two long-time antagonists in the Great Browser War: former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and Brad Silverberg, a former senior vice president at Mircosoft.

“The Internet is about to converge with the telecommunications industry, creating some very large new business opportunities,” said Barksdale when his investment was announced two weeks ago. “We’re funding Tellme because we believe this extraordinary team will be able to build a substantial new consumer business as this convergence progresses.”

Although Tellme won’t reveal key details about its technology, the company has confirmed that early next year it plans to roll-out services that “combine the power of the Internet with the telephone.”

Veteran industry observers, however, say that unless Tellme has something truly revolutionary to offer, there may not be much real-world demand for such services.

“It still seems to me the easiest way to look at text and numerical information is through the eyes and not through the ears,” says Lisa Pierce, an analyst at Giga Information Group, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Tellme seems to be banking on two factors: that deployment of inexpensive broadband Internet access will proceed slower than now expected; and, more importantly, that people who own phones but who are not yet online will want to use their phones to access information from the Internet.

Approximately 40 percent of Americans age 16 or older now have Internet access, up from 25 percent two years ago, according to Intelliquest, based in Austin, Texas.

In contrast, 97.8 percent of American households have a telephone, according to Forrester Research, based in Boston.

A number of lesser-known start-ups are also are pinning their hopes on achieving a convergence between the Internet and the plain old telephone system, according to Harry Fenik, vice president of Zona Research, an Internet market research firm based in Redwood City, Calif.

“The reality, though, is the number of people who need that information will be some very small fraction of the people who aren’t online yet,” Fenik says. “That’s one thing none of their business plans ever mention.” Fenik notes that he has not, however, seen Tellme’s closely-guarded business plan.

Amanda McCarthy, an analyst at Forrester, says Tellme’s success may be determined by the marketing partners it attracts.

“It really depends on what content streams they deliver,” she says. “If it’s just another way to get stock quotes or sports scores, it’s probably not that interesting.”

McCarthy notes there are already a variety of non-PC dependent ways people can obtain information from the Internet, including cell phones, pagers, and personal digital assistants.

According to a recent study conducted by Intelliquest, for example, approximately 19.5 million people in the U.S. are expected to use PCs to access the Internet for the first time over the next twelve months. An additional 15 million Americans, however, are expected to use the Internet for the first time over the same period without a PC.

“There will be lots of appliances connected to the Internet,” says Zona’s Fenik. “The telephone itself is going to be replaced by an Internet device. So there is not much reason to believe the market [for telephone-based Internet services] will be the size or shape they say it is.”

Skepticism about Tellme.com’s plans reflects the more seasoned outlook now taking hold regarding young Internet companies.

“The Internet’s age of gee-whiz, because we can do something we should do something, is kind of disappearing,” says Amanda McCarthy of Forrester Research. “Now, the question is: what utility does it have?”

In a kind of pre-IPO Kabuki dance, releasing the identities of Tellme.com’s early investors generated buzz and whetted Wall Street’s appetite for the company.

Now that the initial buzz is subsiding, Tellme must address some significant questions about how it plans to surmount the obstacles involved in turning the telephone into an Internet access tool.

“They must be thinking about these things,” says Giga Information Group analyst Lisa Pierce. “But until I hear more, I probably wouldn’t bet my money on them.

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