Tellme expands voice search for mobile devices

New searches also possible with text from mobile

Tellme Networks Inc. announced today expanded services that will enable use of voice or text from a mobile phone to find specific businesses or business categories, such as flower shops, in a specific town.

Tellme Networks is being purchased by Microsoft Corp., which views the services announced today as an indication of the future of speech as an interface to all manner of computing applications.

All the new services announced today are free to users. However, Tellme is venturing into supporting the services through advertising that is deemed "unobtrusive" by users, said Megan Dyer, a Tellme spokeswoman.

One of the services, called Tellme by Mobile, will allow users to download a beta version of Tellme’s software to a mobile phone, Dyer said. Then, a mobile user would speak a request for a business name or category, and the results would be displayed on the phone screen in text, with links to a map and driving directions.

Another service, Tellme by Text, allows a user to send a text message via a mobile phone to request much the same information, Dyer said. For example, a user who texts, "pizza boston ma" to TELLM (83556) would receive a text message with a listing and link to a map showing the location of a chosen restaurant. A business can pay for a priority listing, meaning the business will get highlighted on a list of similar businesses, Dyer said.

The third service, Tellme by Voice, allows a user to call 1-800-555-TELL and to say "business search" to find a specific business or a category, such as "flower shops," Dyer said. That number is already being used to give users information for sports scores, movie listings and stock prices but has recently been expanded to support business search.

Microsoft announced it was purchasing Tellme on March 14, and the deal is expected to close in several weeks, Dyer said. Financial details were not disclosed. At the time, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described the importance of the acquisition, saying, "speech ... holds incredible promise as a key interface for computing.”

Ballmer said the acquisition would give Microsoft new capabilities to deliver new products for human-computer interaction. Over time, Tellme technology is expected to enhance the Windows Vista operation system, Office, Windows Mobile and Windows Automotive, Microsoft said in a statement.

Tellme, with about 300 employees, is expected to continue as a business unit within Microsoft, operating from its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. It has been operating since 1999 and introduced in 2002 the long-distance information service 1-800-555-1212, which provides voice-activated information.

Neal Polachek, an analyst at Kelsey Group in Princeton, N.J., said the voice interface and mobile search technologies will continue to grow, noting that Google Inc. recently announced its own test of voice-enabled mobile search on the Google Labs site. Yahoo Inc. is expected to follow suit, he said.

"Everybody wants to seamlessly move the computer to the mobile telephone," Polachek said. "As these mobile devices become more capable with music and phone and other features, they have to increase capacity with search as well."

Polachek said the choice of voice is natural. "Voice is the easiest way to ask for something and is easier than typing or cutting and pasting. After all, we learned to talk first, before writing. You might call it the default mechanism."

He said that Tellme by Mobile will be especially valuable because it uses a voice input with a text response. "Having voice come back would not be good, because you’d have to write it down," Polachek noted.

Tellme seems to be willing to go slow with advertising to support its applications, but Polachek believes that users will tolerate advertising if it is relevant to what they are doing. If a user searched for "pizza in boston" and got back an ad for a recent video, it would be annoying and irrelevant, he said.

Tellme plans to continue to offer its automated 411 service to carriers, Dyer said. Tellme handles an estimated 2 billion 411 calls a year in the U.S., about 80% of the total. Dyer and Polachek said the carriers are seeking ways to reduce the cost of a 411 call, which averages about $1.25 per 411 call. Many are weighing the option of adding advertising to pay for the service, Polachek added.

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