New Tellme Client, Services Reflect Evolution of Voice Search

Tellme is one of the true incumbents in the "voice search" and automated directory assistance segement having been around for a decade. And two years ago to the day Microsoft acquired the company for just over $800 million, making it one of Microsoft's largest acquisitions. Today the company is announcing a range of improvements and upgrades to the underlying core speech technology and consumer-user experience that hold great promise: 

These advancements include the rollout of a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) carrier service that reduces customer transport costs, advanced speech services that improve automation of customer service calls, and a new "voice font" technology that delivers a more natural text-to-speech experience.

The new speech services are a result of collaboration between Tellme and Microsoft's Speech Components Group. These jointly designed technologies will be leveraged to advance natural user interfaces across Microsoft products to benefit billions of customers worldwide.

Because Tellme operates as an on-demand service, the new capabilities are immediately available to enterprises across Tellme's platform. In addition, Tellme is now using these technologies to power its mobile services, including the Windows Mobile 6.5 application announced today.

Much of this will play out in enterprise applications, which Dan Miller discusses in a forthcoming report. On the consumer side, Tellme is promoting a single button for voice-initiated calls, SMS and search:

The new service puts many of the most popular phone functions behind a single button. Windows phone users just press the side button of their phone to:

  • Send a text by saying "text" to open a text box, then speak the text message and send to call anyone in their contact list
  • Initiate a call simply by saying "call" and then the name of anyone in their contact list
  • Search the Web with Microsoft Live Search by speaking your request, such as "weather in San Francisco, California",
  • "Pizza in Kansas City" or "mother's day gift ideas"

We saw the demo, which was impressive, but we didn't have an extended opportunity to play with the technology. On the search front Tellme says that anything one can or would do "manually" with Microsoft Live Search on the mobile handset one can now do using voice with Tellme.

As the press release excerpt above indicates, Tellme will be "baked in" to Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 at a deeper (network) level. This is a potential differentiator for Microsoft Windows phones but it's not clear whether Microsoft sees the strategic value that voice search and the Tellme user experience bring to its mobile OS. 

When we were briefed Tellme presented data from a recent consumer survey that indicated a preference for voice as a way to initiate a wide range of lookups and actions, from making calls to looking up movie showtimes and getting driving directions. We have proprietary data that shows the same set of preferences in the abstract. But the abstract promise of voice has yet to translate into significant changes in mobile user behavior from our observations and tracking of the market. 

Tellme also cited Sprint's real-world experience with the Instinct and Tellme voice-powered Live Search as further evidence voice's potential to impact user behavior. The company said there has been impressive adoption and use of voice search on the Instinct. And we continue to believe that voice search (done right) has the capacity to increase usage frequency and deepen user engagment. 

Tellme and Microsoft of course have a range of competitors including Vlingo, Google, Nuance and others. That competition and the increasing emphasis on voice search holds great promise for the mobile user experience. 

However the proof of whether speech can deliver the kind of mobile UX we've been anticipating and writing about for some time is in the actual usability and accuracy of the consumer experience. But Tellme's novel, unified "call, text, search" approach and OS-level integration with Window Mobile represent a potentially significant evolutionary step in that process.