By 2007, Google knew enough about the structure of queries to be able to release a US-only directory inquiry service called GOOG-411. You dialled 1-800-4664-411 and spoke your question to the robot operator, which parsed it and spoke you back the top eight results, while offering to connect your call. It was free, nifty and widely used, especially because – unprecedentedly for a company that had never spent much on marketing – Google chose to promote it on billboards across California and New York State. People thought it was weird that Google was paying to advertise a product it couldn’t possibly make money from, but by then Google had become known for doing weird and pleasing things…What was it getting with GOOG-411? It soon became clear that what it was getting were demands for pizza spoken in every accent in the continental United States, along with questions about plumbers in Detroit and countless variations on the pronunciations of ‘Schenectady’, ‘Okefenokee’ and ‘Boca Raton’. GOOG-411, a Google researcher later wrote, was a phoneme-gathering operation, a way of improving voice recognition technology through massive data collection.
Before I had an iPhone I used Google 411 a lot. I recommended this to my dad, who called the 555-1212 information line for nearly everything he didn’t have in an address book. When my brother got a Droid and demonstrated its voice recognition it all of a sudden clicked why Google 411 was free.
Now my dad has an iPhone and could use it to look up this information he called Google 411 and 555-1212 to get. He could use the Yelp app for restaurants near a hotel. He could use the Maps application for directions and GPS. But he’s not one for apps. He’s still more comfortable on the phone talking to a human or robot than he is tapping buttons.
The best use case I can think of for smart phone voice recognition is while driving. More cars have their own voice commands so you can call someone with your voice or play music. The ones I’ve used are pretty terrible for the same reason that Phil Schiller states in the iPhone 4S keynote: you have to talk the way the system understands, like some kind of robot english. With Google’s voice recognition, and now Siri, I think the best thing these car manufacturers could do is get out of the way and let the phone do the work.