Speech-Enabled Mobile Search Marches On

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Of flying cars, rocket packs, and speech-enabled mobile search, the first two are visionary and highly unlikely to find mass acceptance during the next five years. Opus Research sees the third accounting for phone-based activity that keys more than $7.5 billion in revenues in 2010.

That estimate is for North America only and indeed may turn out to be wildly conservative, considering that voice-based transactions already generated more than $120 billion in revenues for wireless carriers in North America in 2006. They came in the form of phone calls. In the United States alone, mobile callers rang up about 1.8 trillion minutes of use on wireless networks. A minute of use has long been a commodity for wireless carriers and, for this reason, their average revenue per user (ARPU) has been declining steadily for years.

Voice Search and Data Revenues
For mobile carriers in North America, data ARPU was about one-fifth the size of voice in 2006, but its growth exceeded 100 percent for some carriers. That growth is fueled largely by broader availability of high-speed data links, coupled with the mobile mob’s insatiable urge to text message. In spite of the acceleration of the data services juggernaut, speech-enablement is about to give it a second wind. The surge, will be a team effort, requiring cooperation and comarketing by the giants of search, content aggregators, wireless carriers, device makers, and niche-oriented specialty firms.

Nuance Mobile, for example, is designed to partner. Nuance’s work with Promptu and V-Enable established a model for using distributed speech processing to support voice browsing through product catalogues or 411-like local business searches. Its recent acquisition of MobileVoiceControl moved it closer to cooperative efforts with wireless carriers like Sprint/Nextel.

Speech-enabled search spawns opportunities for specialty technologies. Mobile search specialist Medio, for example, helps optimize the search utility for Verizon, which, in turn, sells a few phones from Samsung and others with embedded speech recognition. Front-ending Medio’s capabilities with embedded speech provides the beginnings of a much more efficient way to order media products as part of Verizon’s V-Cast.

There are also promising opportunities for speech-enabled mobile search independent of wireless carriers. In the automotive aftermarket, a promising use case teams All Media Guide (AMG) with Avoca, Johnson Controls, and IBM. It puts IBM’s embedded ViaVoice in front of a robust indexing system developed by AMG to help people find the music they seek using their own words. Big Blue partnered with Johnson Controls, a manufacturer of automotive dashboard technologies, to develop a system allowing people to download and play songs by pressing a button on the steering wheel and saying either the name of the desired artist or song title or a few selected lyrics.

Toll-Free DA Evolves
We are well beyond the rocket pack and flying car stage; we’re into product refinement, promotion, and popularization. The $7.5 billion forecasted is a mix of advertiser support and direct subscriber payments. Free services will evolve in parallel with paid services.

In the United Kingdom, paid-DA search leader InfoNXX offers a free, advertiser-supported automated search service using VoieSignal’s V-Search product. Mobile customers can push a button, say their search term, and receive the results as a text message. They can also search for other local information like sports scores, news headlines, movie times, and more.

Stateside, Tellme (now a Microsoft subsidiary) has launched speech-enabled business search through 800- 555-TELL (8355), as a text-input service with the short code 83556, and also in speech-in/text-back mode in a beta project with AT&T Wireless and Sprint/Nextel. Tellme’s offering brings Microsoft to parity with search giant Google, whose Local Voice Search (800-GOOG-411) launched with rave reviews in April.

As a modality for initiating mobile commerce, the spoken word will prevail. This will be even more evident as embedded phonebooks, buddy lists, and instant messenger-like client software obviate the need for telephone keypads on the most popular wireless handsets. Beyond handsets, there is a wide world of opportunity surrounding a wide range of mobile electronics, including automotive stereo systems and personal navigation devices.  

Dan Miller is the founder of and a senior analyst at Opus Research. He published Telemedia News & Views, a monthly newsletter featuring developments in voice processing and intelligent network services. He can be reached at dmiller@opusresearch.net.

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