Visual Voicemail Gets Personal

Personalized voicemail provider YouMail today announced it will  add a free speech-to-text (STT) visual voicemail feature to its services.

The Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based company takes a different approach in its services, garnering the power of Web 2.0 and allowing users to customize their voicemails by sharing recorded greetings and important voicemail messages with one another. The company's STT launch works similarly in that users can rate the company's transcriptions online and point out the specific words or phrases the speech recognizer misunderstood. YouMail CEO Alex Quilici says the program will work similarly to other user-powered Web communities.

"You can rate [the transcription] like you would a YouTube video," Quilici states. "If you rated it poorly, you get an opportunity to edit it, and that feedback is sent back to our engine. Over time, if we noticed the same mistakes being made, we can fix them."

YouMail uses a third-party partner, YapMe.com, on a hosted basis, for its speech recognition engine. Messages will be converted in full length, and users can choose to read transcriptions as text messages or through a YouMail Web site account. And though the STT voicemail market is currently dominated by companies like SpinVox, Call Wave, and Simulscribe, Quilici says YouMail will not participate in large-scale marketing initiatives to advertise its services. Rather, like most Web 2.0 sites, YouMail relies on word-of-mouth advertising from its user base. He notes, for example, that one of YouMail's services, personalized voicemail "smart greetings" that allow users to create messages catered to each person on their contact list, helped the company build steam.

"If someone calls a YouMail user and hears a personal greeting, he will ask people how it's done," Quilici says. "Our entire product is designed to be viral. We're not going to be placing ads on Yahoo!; we don't think we need to do that to make this service grow."

The company faces the challenge of going head to head with visual voicemail companies like SpinVox, which recently received more than $100 million in funding from Goldman Sachs and other investors. SpinVox has also announced plans to extend its service to even more mobile carriers. Quilici says YouMail has never planned to enter the mobile space as a direct partner to mobile service providers, and that though the company competes with SpinVox, its offering is markedly different in its approach.

"SpinVox is focused on selling into carriers and trying to get services embedded into offerings from premiums," he notes. "We're out there with a free service with a heavy community aspect."

Though the company has no plans now to offer its services through a paid program, Quilici says YouMail may charge for its STT products once the speech recognizer is fine-tuned. He estimates that if a paid program were established, the cost would not exceed $4 per month. SpinVox's Voice2TXT service with Alltell currently costs between $4.99 and $19.99 per month, based on the number of transcriptions provided.

It remains unclear how willing users will be to take time to rate YouMail transcriptions' accuracy, but Quilici remains hopeful.

"We're all about community, so I don't think [people rating our services] is a stretch," he says. "If you look on the Web, you can see people posting bad STT transcriptions on blogs or sites. This is a much easier mechanism for doing that. You don't have to create a blog or post entries to make fun of us."

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