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IBM brings web pages to voice browsers

Researchers put web content in audio sequence

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With software being created by IBM researchers, developers will be able to adapt a web page for voice browsers - and for mobile browsers that fall short of a PC-like web experience - with easy-to-follow lines.

The visual editor technology, which doesn't yet have a formal name, was designed to solve the problem of taking information from a web page, with multiple columns and boxes, and presenting it to people who can't see or get to a full-featured browser. To reach those people, the various parts of a web page's content - headings, columns, tables and so on - need to be presented in sequence.

IBM's new tool allows developers to dictate that sequence using a series of arrows, on a view of the web page itself, that connect to form a single line around the page from the first element to the last. The company has posted a video that demonstrates it. Eventually, it will automatically generate those lines, which developers will then be able to fine-tune. The system could give some developers greater control over how pages appear or sound to users, according to analyst Bill Weinberg of Linuxpundit.com.

Turning a traditional two-dimensional web page into a single stream of content can help to get its information out to more users. Voice browsers are already available for computer users with impaired vision. Handset makers are increasingly using voice input and output for many functions on a phone. This can help consumers use their phones when it's not convenient to look at the screen or find the right buttons, though today these capabilities fall short of full web browsing.

Meanwhile, the iPhone introduced consumers to phone browsers that are like those on a PC, but some users are getting fed up with having to manipulate the view on a small screen in order to see parts of those pages close up, Weinberg said. In addition, most of the world's mobile phones are so-called 'feature phones' that don't have full HTML browsers.

"If we're talking about the global mobile marketplace, we still have to deal with a mix of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and ad hoc browsers," Weinberg said.

IBM's software lets webmasters edit the flow of content created with AJAX, Javascript or XMLHttpRequest (XHR). By making the process simple, the company hopes to make it accessible to web developers of all skill levels, according to IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind.

By addressing AJAX and Javascript, IBM should be able to reach most web developers today, Linuxpundit's Weinberg said. But the tool might appeal most to small and medium-sized businesses and small mobile development houses, he said. Enterprises with large amounts of material to present tend to use content management systems on the back end that can reformat the content for mobile delivery. There are also other specialised tools on the market that can adapt traditional web pages automatically based on a set of parameters. However, IBM's technology would probably give more hands-on control, he said.

Presenting an entire web page audibly still presents the problem of making users listen to a lot of content they didn't need to hear, though there are some techniques used for visually impaired people that give the gist of a passage and let them skip over it, Weinberg said. Still, there may be no way around some hands-on editing to optimize content for new settings.

"Even if you format the content correctly, it's usually best if you actually change the content a bit," said analyst Michael Cote of Redmonk.

IBM announced Monday that the development tool works, though its features might change and the company hasn't yet determined how or when it will be offered. It might be included in software from IBM's Lotus or Rational divisions, or offered as an open-source tool, IBM's Fishkind said.



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