NEW YORK (AP) -- In Dante's epic poem "Inferno," the main character has a guide, the Roman poet Virgil, to show him through the nine circles of hell. Seven centuries later, a Web site wants to be our Virgil, guiding us through the torments of automated phone menus.
Fonolo, a Toronto-based startup, has mapped the phone menus of more than 300 companies in the U.S. and Canada and presents them on its Web site. Then the site also does the job of getting you through the menus.
Web surfers can click on the option they want to access in a voice menu system, like "Change Mailing Address." The Web site then calls the company and sends sound signals that mimic the user's button presses. When it reaches the right place in the system, it calls up the user and connects him or her to the system.
For instance, if you want to reach an agent at The New York Times who can handle a one-time payment, you can click that box on the Web site. Fonolo calls up the newspaper, then enters a three, a two and a one at the prompts. When it reaches the agent, it rings you up.
Fonolo announced Wednesday that it has opened a free "beta" version of its site to the public. Next year it plans to introduce paid subscription memberships with expanded features, said Shai Berger, the company's founder and chief executive.
The Web site has two big limitations for now. The number of companies charted is relatively small. And it also doesn't go deep into the phone systems, because it doesn't yet allow users to pre-enter their account information so the Web site can get past such prompts.
Berger said the company is working on addressing both issues.