Will Voice-Enabled Mobile Search Kill Directory Assistance?

Local media research firm The Kelsey Group just forecast “portal-backed wireless voice search [will] reach 1.45 billion queries in 2010” and cause “a significant disruption of the directory assistance market.” On one level, this is self-evident. Because of increasing competition and free alternatives, consumer-pays wireless directory assistance (DA) will eventually go away, unless it becomes incredibly valuable and useful. Cingular is trying to do just that with help from Tellme.

I don’t have the report referenced in the release so I can’t comment on the forecast methodology itself or, more generally, its analysis. But I can comment on the general issues of usability and the mobile space in general.

Like other traditional local media, directory assistance (if I can use the term “media”) is under pressure. According to Opus Research, worldwide DA revenues (wireless and wireline) are roughly $13 billion. But free directory assistance and its various cousins (e.g., 1800-San Diego, 4Info, UpSnap, 1800-Free-411), SMS, WAP-based search and mobile applications will chip away at consumer-pays wireless DA to the point where it’s got very limited usage. The only question is: how long will that take?

In my mind the more interesting questions surround the usability and interface issues in the larger context of mobile-local search. This is something we’ve posted about multiple times in the past.

Voice has the capacity to be a much more efficient and user-friendly interface than a keypad on mobile devices (especially if you’re not on a smartphone). But voice-driven mobile search must work. Deep Nishar of Google previously said to me that he didn’t think that voice was “the key” to driving mobile usage. There are issues of background noise, accents and so on that impact query “disambiguation.” In addition, the DA databases used to support voice-based mobile search can be inaccurate (just like local listings online.)

DA has been a surrogate for mobile-local search, since it has been the only game in town, so to speak, until recently. Now, as mentioned, there are a range of mobile alternatives, most are not great, to find local information while on the go. Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and InfoSpace all have people working, to varying degrees, on voice interfaces. Nuance, Tellme and CallGenie are voice infrastructure companies that can voice-enable mobile applications for carriers or direct-to-consumer applications.

Right now, voice is not “the killer app” for mobile. But it could well accelerate usage of mobile data services and mobile local search if it works well. There will probably be a range of applications and user experiences that gain traction with mobile users, chiefly because of the range of devices out there and their capabilities and limitations. The optimal mobile interface and user experience will involve some combination of “modalities,” perhaps with voice as an option but certainly the ability to use the keypad to enter text and save listings and/or browse content.

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