Bing 411′s Three-Year Run Ends June 1
With very little fanfare, Microsoft is ready to deep six Bing 411, the free voice search and directory assistance service that grew out of its acquisition of Tellme Networks (which took place in may 2007). Tellme’s 1-800-555-TELL (also slated for a June 1 cut-off), is the prototype for a conversational voice assistant. The toll-free number, which launched in 2001, was referred to as a “Voice Portal” attracted millions of calls for the evergreen pay-per-call topics: sports scores, weather, news headlines and the like.
By 2006, Tellme had graduated to become the platform for automated, “paid” DA services from AT&T Wireless (first Cingular) and Verizon landlines. Carriers were able to charge $2.00 or more per call (which phone companies continue to do today). At the time, Tellme co-founder Mike McCue confessed to Business Week reporter Steve Hamm that “only about a million people” were using the free voice portal service.
When Microsoft bought Tellme, roughly a year later, execs in Redmond saw Tellme’s voice portal and DA platform as a way to take on Google in the local, mobile search marketplace. By the time the deal had consummated, Google countered by launching its own “free,” speech-enabled DA service, Goog411 and joined Jingle Networks and a small handful of other companies trying to coax callers into using their phones to conduct local searches and carry out business.
The idea of using your voice to transform the phone into a mobile assistant was on target, but very premature. After investing in both technology and market conditioning, Jingle Networks was purchased by Marchex in April 2011 and is now integrated in its mobile voice search product line. Google shuttered Goog411 in October 2010. At the time it noted that smartphone users could conduct voice search using Google’s speech recognition in conjunction with Google Maps.
On June 1, Microsoft will follow in Google’s footsteps (or voiceprints?) by closing its hosted voice search platforms and directing people to “visit www.bing.com on [your] PC or mobile device.” There’s no mention of a speech-enabled option – just the end of Tellme-powered voice search as we know it. By contrast, when Google closed GOOG411, it let it be known that the service had helped it build a corpus of utterances to make its voice-search more accurate, and the microphone icon is a ubiquitous feature on all Android-based devices.
In the 20 months since Google closed GOOG411, Microsoft has busily gone about recasting Tellme from the innovative provider of Dialtone 2.0 to a cast-off that is now part of multi-channel customer care specialist 24 Inc. During that time, the mobile assets that were exemplified by Bing411 and the Tellme Voice Portal were largely neglected and, presently, will cease operating altogether.
Six years ago, we believed that wireless DA was a viable, and sure to be profitable, vehicle for mobile business search culminating in commerce. Today, it is more likely that mobile assistants, like Apple’s Siri, are more likely to take on that role. Siri is destined to have company in the very near future as solutions providers emerge from the ranks of knowledge management, artificial intelligence, speech analytics and other closely related disciplines. Indeed personal assistants, front-ending the Internet’s vast array of information, navigation and communications resources are successfully supplanting directory assistance, front-ending little more than an enhanced phone directory, as the go-to resource to support of local commerce.