Nov 15, 2008

Business - Google Offers Search By Voice, and iPhone Gets It First

Jennifer LeClaire

Google is pushing its voice-recognition technology to Apple's iPhone first, before devices running its own Android mobile platform.

The New York Times offered photographs of Google employees Vic Gundotra and Gummi Hafsteinsoon using an iPhone for a voice search. The free application was expected to be available on Apple's App Store on Friday. Google reportedly will soon offer the technology for other devices, presumably including the T-Mobile G1, which uses Android.

"This is an expansion of types of applications Google has already been developing," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "Google has GOOG411, which is the underlying technical engine. They also have a voice-search client for the BlackBerry which is limited to maps. So this is an evolutionary step."

Inside Google Voice Search

Here's how it works: The iPhone user asks a question, such as "Where's the closest Burger King?" or "How wide is the Grand Canyon?" The user's voice is converted to a digital file and transmitted to Google's servers.

Google Search then serves up the results -- in a matter of seconds if the user has a fast wireless network, the Times reports. The search results always include any local information.

"The question with these types of technologies is how good is the speech recognition? It's getting much better, and that's why Google feels this is the right time to introduce this," Sterling said. "Google has confidence now that voice recognition is good enough to open it up to the full Web search as opposed to the much more structured search on GOOG411."

Google is playing catch-up, in a sense. Yahoo and Microsoft already offer a voice-recognition option for mobile phones. Microsoft's Tellme service offers users information in specific categories, such as movies, maps or directions. Yahoo offers voice services through its oneSearch platform.

"In one sense this is new, but it's not new, because Yahoo and Microsoft have been doing versions of voice recognition -- and so has Google -- for some time," Sterling said. "A company called Dial Directions was the first to formally introduce voice search for the iPhone, but it was limited to selected local sites through the Safari browser."

Building a Killer App

Could voice recognition be the next killer app for mobile? The market is growing at breakneck speed. Voice-recognition technology sales topped $1 billion in 2006 for the first time. Datamonitor expects that number to swell to $2.6 billion by 2009.

The market is heating up -- and going global. Voice-recognition software maker Nuance Communications earlier this month acquired Austria-based Philips Speech Recognition Systems for $96.1 million. Philips develops speech-recognition solutions in 25 languages.

Voice recognition on the mobile phone is still not completely accurate, and may not see mainstream use until it improves. But Sterling said it is ever-improving and thinks Google's voice search will be a popular mobile-phone feature.

Specifically, he sees the new Google application for the iPhone as most useful when a user might need to call directory assistance or do a simple search, but can't do it safely on a keyboard while driving. Another benefit is the ability to enter potentially long search queries that would be difficult to type. But accuracy is still a factor.

"This is an evolutionary step in the whole realm of voice search," Sterling said. "So far it has not proven to be the killer app for mobile, but it's getting there and it's very useful in selective situations."

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