Elgan: Control your BlackBerry with voice commands

How to turn your 'CrackBerry' into a 'YakBerry' using two free services

The BlackBerry from Research In Motion Ltd. is the most popular line of cell phones in part because they tend to be easier to type on than most other phones. We e-mail addicts love them.

But while millions of BlackBerry users have been mastering the art of thumb typing, two companies have developed sophisticated technologies that replace typing with voice commands.

The services, called Vlingo and Jott, are free of charge, easy to use and together can utterly transform how you use your phone.


I introduced Vlingo in a June 25 post in my blog, The World Is My Office. Vlingo is a multipurpose voice-command system compatible with the BlackBerry Pearl, BlackBerry Curve and BlackBerry 8800 series handsets.

Here's where to download Vlingo. After installing, it's a good idea to open the application and select the Options bar at the bottom of the screen. This is where you can associate Vlingo with one of the side buttons on your phone, switch the default search engine from Yahoo to Google, for example, and change other personalization settings.

There are just a few more things you need to know about using Vlingo:

  • When Vlingo makes a mistake while typing, it retains alternative words. By hovering the selector over the mistaken words, Vlingo provides the alternatives. Just choose the right one if it's there. Otherwise, you'll have to -- gasp! -- re-type the word.
  • Because Vlingo repeats what it heard, you don't really have to look at the phone for basic use.
  • Vlingo by default adds a tag line, basically a short text-and-link pitch for its service, to the end of e-mails and texts, but you can easily turn that off using the Options feature.
  • Recognition isn't perfect. But the application learns over time, adapting to both how to pronounce words and how you express things, according to the company.
  • You can add some punctuation by saying the name of the punctuation mark. For example, if you say, "Tomorrow question mark you must be joking exclamation point," your message will say, "Tomorrow? You must be joking!"


Jott is a free service that lets you send text with a simple phone call. You set up contacts, including yourself, at the Jott Web site. Put Jott's phone number on your phone's speed dial. When you call, a recorded voice asks, "Who do you want to Jott?" You say a contact's name, then say whatever you want to say. A text "transcript" of what you said is sent to that contact, along with a Web link to the audio. When you send Jotts to other humans, it's like both e-mail and voice-mail together.

Jott also offers a free application for BlackBerry users. I first reported on Jott for BlackBerry in a March 29 blog posting. Jott for BlackBerry is a relatively limited utility that doesn't even add an icon to your phone. It simply adds two menu items to your BlackBerry e-mail application: "Reply with Jott" and "Reply All with Jott." To use Jott for BlackBerry, you'll need a regular Jott account.

Jott for BlackBerry is compatible with the exact same list of devices that Vlingo is: the Pearl, Curve and 8800 series.

Here's where to get the Jott account. To download Jott for BlackBerry, visit www.jott.com/bb via your phone's browser.

Here's what you can do

Send e-mail. Press and hold the side button you've associated with Vlingo, and say, "Send e-mail to Steve," then let go of the button. (If you have more than one Steve in your Address Book, clicking on the Steve Vlingo chose brings up the alternative Steves, which you can choose.) Move the cursor to the Subject line, press and hold the button again and say the subject. Repeat for the body of the message. Press the Send button when the e-mail is correct. This is the beginner way to send e-mail.

A more advanced way is to do it all in one recording. Simply preface Subject and e-mail body with the words "Subject" and "Message." Say this: "Send e-mail to Steve subject today's meeting message I want to meet you ten minutes before the meeting today to go over our proposal." When you see that the e-mail is correct, press Send.

Reply to e-mail. With the e-mail open, simply press the menu key and choose "Reply with Jott" or "Reply All with Jott," then start talking. When you're done, send as usual. They'll get your reply, plus a link to the audio.

Send a text message. Sending a text message with Vlingo is just like sending e-mail, but without the Subject line. For example, if you press and hold the side button and say, "Send message to Janet message hey thanks for the card," the command "message" tells Vlingo to start the body of the text message. Press Send.

Search the Internet. Just say whatever it is you're looking for. (You can precede your search with "Web search," as in "Web search Dallas Cowboys," but it's unnecessary.) Just press and hold the side button and say "Dallas Cowboys," and it will place that into a search window. Press Search to get the result. Other common searches might be for, say, weather, say "weather Los Angeles," and your browser will show weather information for that city.

Send a reminder to yourself. You're driving and you think of something you need to do. You can't write it down. Voice recognition is perfect for this. Vlingo has a nice Note2Self feature. Just say "note to self" and say what the note is. This note can show up as an e-mail, a text message, a Task or a Memo. You set the default in the Vlingo Options screen. You can change where it goes on the fly, however, in a drop down menu on the screen after you give the command. And you can even skip the step of the drop-down menu by changing the command. Say "new task remember Janet's birthday" or "new memo remember Janet's birthday," and the note will go to the respective application.

You can also use Jott. Press the speed-dial number you've associated with Jott, and a recorded message will ask, "Who do you want to Jott?" say "myself," say your reminder and hang up. Jott will send it to the e-mail address you set it up with.

You can use any of these approaches for sending notes to yourself. But why not turn up the power and use an online to-do list? Jott offers its own separate "work" and "home" to-do lists. Just send Jotts to "work" or "home," and your reminder will go to the right list. Then, you can manage your to-do items from Jott's Web site.

Alternatively, Jott supports most of the major Web 2.0 to-do lists, including Remember the Milk, 30 Boxes, I Want Sandy, Vitalist, Toodledo, Nozbe, Keep Up, Mentat, SmartSheet, 43 Actions and Kwiry. By simply selecting the productivity service you want to use at the Jott Web site (you'll need an account first), Jott adds it to your contacts. To add a to-do item, just call Jott, say the name of the service, then speak your action item.

Open applications. Vlingo will open any of the following BlackBerry applications via voice command: Browser, MemoPad, E-mail, Messages, Task Manager, Voice Dial, Maps, Calendar and Address Book. To open these, simply say either "Open" or "Start," followed by the name of the program.

Add items to your calendar. Jott supports Google Calendar. On the Jott Web site, select Google Calendar as a contact. To add an item to your calendar, call Jott, say "Google Calendar" as the contact, and speak your appointment name, plus the day and time (Google Calendar can usually figure out casual speech -- for example, "Dentist next Tuesday at one"). Jott will add this to your calendar. You can also use Google Sync for BlackBerry to synchronize these appointments back to your phone.

Blog. Jott supports both blogging and microblogging services, including Twitter, Jaiku, Blogger, Live Journal, TypePad and WordPress. Just call Jott, say the service. When Jott beeps, start talking. The first sentence or phrase will be the headline of your blog post. The rest will constitute the body. Jott will add a link to the audio, so your readers will be able to listen to your post as well.

Record business expenses. Jott supports an online service called Xpenser. Just select it in your Jott list. Jott will add it as a contact. Next time you have a business cost (say, a Grande Slurpaccino and a muffin), just speed dial Jott, choose Xpenser as the contact, and say your expense item.

Welcome to the wonderful world of voice recognition on a BlackBerrry. It's fast, easy and a whole lot of fun (in a Star Trek kind of way).

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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