Google Moves on Voicemail-to-Text Market

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Google has released Google Voice, an application offering a number of features for the telecommunications space.

The service, out since mid-March, allows users to place domestic calls for free from a PC, place low-cost calls internationally, switch phones during a call, record conversations, share voicemail, and transcribe voicemail to email or text with automatic speech recognition technology.

Google Voice is built on GrandCentral, a service Google bought in the summer of 2007. It allows a user to tie all of her phones to one phone number and uses the same proprietary automatic recognition engine used in Goog411, Google’s business directory service, and in its mobile voice search products.

Like the launch of the Google mobile operating system, Android phone, and Goog411, the launch of Google Voice is another sign that the company is serious about making a name for itself in the telecommunications space. The move also suggests that Google is looking to include new modalities, like voice, in its search capabilities.

With big household names behind the technology, the future might be poised for greater adoption of voice-to-text applications by mobile users. Google’s entrance, especially in voicemail-to-text, could also potentially shift the sands for players like Nuance Communications and SpinVox, the U.K. firm that recently invested significantly in the U.S. market.

“Google has a history of making disruptive changes to the marketplace,” says Jonathan Simnett, global director of communications at SpinVox.

And while neither SpinVox nor Nuance seems particularly threatened by Google at this time, Simnett is quick to add that he sees Google Voice as a legitimization of voice-to-text services.

“What Google has done here is given people an opportunity to test the potential of voice-to-text,” he says. “It’s a very much lower quality system in terms of the accuracy of its conversion. That is going to allow people to experience a benchmark in voice-to-text conversion.”

Michael Thompson, senior vice president and general manager at Nuance Mobile, doesn’t consider Google a competitor. Google’s product is targeted at consumers, while Nuance Mobile’s products are carrier-focused, he says.

Thompson asserts that even with Google’s large mind share, many of its mobile partners—companies like Verizon, AT&T, Samsung, T-Mobile, and Vodafone—use a range of Nuance Mobile products and have very powerful direct-to-consumer brands.

Bill Meisel, president of analyst firm TMA Associates, sees Google Voice as an immediate threat to traditional landline phone providers—particularly given the free domestic calling it offers and the market share losses the traditional industry has already seen.

While not yet a matter of survival, Meisel sees Google’s announcement as an impetus for mobile carriers to get proactive about providing services like those from SpinVox and Nuance.

“Unless mobile phone companies are very naïve, they won’t want people considering their Google GrandCentral number their primary number,” he says.

That would be ceding too much ground, he suggests.

“We saw what happened in the [personal computing] field when, in the case of the PC operating system, IBM was naïve and let Microsoft take over the operating system, and that turned out to be what defined the PC. Maybe the number you call defines your phone service.”

At the same time, though, Meisel cautions that Google’s fully automated system could pose something of a threat. SpinVox’s semi-automated offering, which has human transcriptionists ensuring quality on the back end, is potentially more costly and less scalable, though also more accurate. 

On the other hand, Nuance, which offers both semi- and fully automated systems, seems better positioned to adapt to this particular challenge.

Daniel Hong, lead analyst at Datamonitor, is also somewhat pessimistic about SpinVox’s prospects against Google.

“I don’t think there are any significant first-mover advantages anymore,” he wrote in an email. 

“SpinVox has a lot of great channels, but I still have not seen strong uptake in the service. This can be attributed to the cost or the strategy employed by the carrier. Overall, Google is in a good position to capitalize on new opportunities in the voicemail-to-text space without having to rely as heavily on channels and possibly introducing a free service that is monetized through ad support.”

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