Oh, it’s a sad day in techland.
On Nov. 12, Google will turn off 800-GOOG-411 forever.
It was one of the best, juiciest, most useful services in all phonedom. It didn’t cost anything. It didn’t require a smartphone. Its accuracy was uncanny.
In case you missed it, GOOG-411 is a free, voice-activated directory-assistance service. You say the business name or category you want—“Freestyle Gym,” “taxi,” “Sakura restaurant,” “hospital,” whatever — and the city and state. In one second, the guy’s voice starts reading a list of the best eight results.
You interrupt him by saying, “number two” or whatever. Then you can say “details” to hear him read you the address and phone number. Or you can say “text message” to have him text you the information. But if you just hang on, he connects your call for free.
You never actually hear the phone number. But why should you care? You just want to call the place, right? It’s like having a little assistant dude back at HQ connecting your calls — and if you’re driving, which you often are when you use this service, never once did you take your eyes off the road. Or even write anything down.
People who knew about GOOG-411 adored it. But Google is about to turn it off forever.
The blog gives no explanation. Instead, it simply says “Goodbye to an old friend” and suggests that you use one of Google’s voice-driven tools on an Android cellphone instead.
Well, that’s great if you have an Android cellphone. What about the 95 percent of us who don’t?
I asked Google why Google pulled the plug. The PR person’s (non)-reply:
“Our focus is to provide the most value that we can for our users. In this context, we see the combination of speech technologies with the increasing growth of smartphones as a better opportunity to provide more value for users, so that is where we’ve chosen to focus our efforts.”
I wrote back: “Thanks for the information. But if Google’s focus is to provide ‘the most value,’ then certainly a service that works on 100% of phones provides more value than one that works only only 5% of phones. Is there a more plausible reason?”
The reply this time was no more helpful: “GOOG-411 showed that a fully-automated service could connect callers and businesses all over the country. We will continue to invest in voice recognition technology.”
The real answer was one Google search away. Here’s Google’s Marissa Mayer, talking to Infoworld in 2007, when she was Google’s vice president for search: “If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples.”
In other words, GOOG-411 was never intended to be a permanent exhibit; it was a phoneme-harvesting operation for honing Google’s voice technologies.
Anyway, if you intend to soldier on in the post-GOOG-411 world, here are your options:
* Use Google’s even older, text-message version of GOOG-411, which is still available. You can text, for example, “home depot dallas tx” to the address 46645—that is, GOOGL—and you’ll be texted back with the information. Unfortunately, that’s nowhere near as quick or as hands-free as GOOG-411.
* Use the Google Mobile App. It’s available for Android, iPhone or BlackBerry. You speak what you want, just as with GOOG-411 (“CVS pharmacy San Diego”), and you’re shown the best matches on a map, complete with prominent, one-tap phone numbers.
Unfortunately, it’s not hands-free and it works only on those three app phones.
* Use Microsoft’s competing service, 800-BING-411.
It works very similarly to GOOG-411, except it also offers turn-by-turn driving directions, news headlines, travel info, cheap gas, horoscopes, weather for any city, traffic, sports scores, movie information, and so on. (Say “Tell me my choices” at any time to hear this menu.)
This service would seem to be a natural successor for Google’s service — it works from any phone, for example. It does, however, take more steps to get to the information you want. A typical call might go like this:
Darby: “Bing 411. Say a city and state.”
Me: “Cleveland, Ohio.”
Darby: “Cleveland, Ohio. Is that right?”
Darby: “OK. What business or type of business are you looking for?”
Me: “Home Depot.”
Darby: “OK, Home Depot. What street is it on? Or say ‘I don’t know.’”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Darby: “I found nine locations. When you hear the one you want, just say it. Brook Park Road. Center Ridge Road. Mayfield Road…”
(To get to this point on GOOG-411, you could have just said, “Home Depot Cleveland, Ohio.” It would have read you the listings immediately.)
Me: “Mayfield Road.”
Darby: “OK. There are two numbers for Home Depot at 3460 Mayfield Road, rated 2 stars. The first number is 216-297-1303. The second number is 800-887-3395. Now you can say, ‘Driving directions,’ “Share this listing’ or ‘Connect me.’ You can also say ‘Repeat the info’ or ‘Start over.’”
And so on.
At least you can interrupt Darby at any time, cutting the conversation short. (Yes, that’s her name. I actually met her once. She’s the voice of TellMe and about a million other voice-activated customer-service lines.) Also, you get a text to your cellphone automatically when you identify the listing you want, which is handy.
Note that Bing lists (and identifies) advertised search results first, which is annoying (but may mean that this service will carry on). Then again, if all you want is a phone number (and are willing to listen to an ad to get it), services like 800-FREE-411 are still around.
GOOG-411’s fans will miss it dearly. But BING-411 will get us through.