With new, innovative technology, you can listen to your e-mail through a regular cell phone.
Sitting at the computer reading and responding to an ever-increasing volume of e-mail can occupy a large part of your workday. But now you can receive e-mail without being tied to a desk.
The solution is listening to your e-mail through a regular cell phone as it is read to you. You can get this handy service by signing up for a subscription to a service provider, by getting your company to provide the service or by installing software on your own PC.
While the approaches differ in details, they all use computer technology to convert text to speech, without the need for it to be read by human eyes.
One of the newest players in this arena is Etrieve, a Hillsboro, Ore., company that just began offering its service in June. You load Etrieve's software on your PC and, when e-mail comes in, the messages can be forwarded to any phone.
You can prioritize the messages you want to read first and end a message anytime to make the system time-efficient. If you have a PCS phone, you can use the pager feature to notify you when you receive e-mail from addresses you have designated high priority. Or instead of listening to your mail through a phone, you can have messages faxed to any fax machine.
Etrieve offers four different plans ranging from $19.95 a month for a basic plan to $49.95 a month for unlimited toll-free service. You can try the service in a 30-day trial. If you choose the fax option, the cost is 95 cents a page.
While not cheap compared with the free e-mail accounts you can get virtually everywhere, turning text to speech gives you significant added value.
"Being able to have constant access to your e-mail is empowering," says Sarah Van Dyck, vice president of marketing at Etrieve. "I think the wonderful thing is that there are no new devices or skills. We use the phone and e-mail you already have."
Evolving Technology We have had text-to-speech technology for a while. But affordable text-to-speech solutions have, until recently, stayed out of the mainstream because of their unnatural sound and the difficulty many people have in understanding computerized speakers. But better speech synthesizers are now available, so the quality of the voice has gotten better.
If you're considering a text-to-speech service, don't place too much emphasis on the human-sounding quality of the voice. Understandability should rank higher, according to Alan Black, a computer science researcher at Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"Most manufactures focus on the naturalness of their systems because they know that customers won't buy the service if they don't like it after the first call," Black says. "But, in the long run, it is more important that customers are able to understand the machine, rather than how natural it sounds."
Voice synthesis, however, is still a few paces behind natural speech. In particular, it can be tedious for longer e-mails.
"It's not as fast as perhaps you'd like," says Robert Mahowald, a research analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass., technology research organization. However, slower speed is better when listening to a machine. When you're talking to a person, you can ask for elaboration if something isn't clear, he says.
Future Trends Text-to-speech technology and pricing are both improving at a rapid clip. Lucent Speech Solution's latest text-to-speech software, a $595 package usually sold to corporations, can handle multiple languages. Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software from Lernout & Hauspie comes in several varieties for Windows and Macintosh machines starting at $59.
Most experts agree that text-to-speech conversion will eventually become commonplace.
"This is definitely technology that will be demanded by people," Mahowald says. "I don't know many people who wouldn't like to be able to have e-mail access away from their computers."
If you need to communicate by e-mail while on the go, you can create messages by talking into a pocket-sized device. Lernout & Hauspie sells a package that enables users to speak into a mobile recorder, then download the speech into a PC as text. Once the speech has been transferred to text, it can be entered into the user's e-mail system.
L&H's $229 Voice Xpress Mobile Professional PC comes with speech-to-text conversion software that runs on your PC plus a portable digital voice recorder that lets you record up to 75 minutes of speech.
"The nature of business requires people to be on the road a lot, trying to talk to clients," says Hank Pokigo, senior speech applications product manager at Lernout & Hauspie in Burlingame, Mass. "This system ensures that you capture all your ideas even when you're away from your PC."