Directory Assistance

Kelsey: 38% of Mobile Users in US Accessing Internet

To promote its upcoming conference, The Kelsey Group put out findings from a new consumer survey on mobile usage. The survey was based on an online survey of 512 US mobile phone owners this October. The information is directionally accurate and the data are interesting, but I would argue with particular data points.

Here are some of the publicly released findings:

  • Downloaded or looked at maps or directions: 17.6 percent, up from 10.8 percent in 2007
  • Searched the Internet for products or services in their local area: 15.6 percent, up from 9.8 percent in 2007
  • Searched the Internet for products or services outside their local area: 14.3 percent, up from 6.4 percent in 2007
  • Obtained information about movies or other entertainment: 13.7 percent, up from 8.2 percent in 2007
  • Connected with a social network, such as MySpace or Facebook: 9.6 percent, up from 3.4 percent in 2007

The Princeton-based firm also reported, "the percentage of mobile users who access the Internet from their mobile devices increased from 32.4 percent in 2007 to 38.9 percent in 2008, an annual growth rate of 20 percent."

We previously found (as did TMP Directional) using larger sample sizes that 16% had conducted local searches using mobile devices. This figure appears generally in agreement with the Kelsey data.

However, in my view, the mobile Internet access numbers and social networking numbers are too high to be representative of the mobile population as a whole. It's probably because of an overrepresentation of smartphones in the sample.

On this point the Kelsey data show that about 19% of survey respondents have a smartphone. It's closer to 13% (or so) for the general mobile user population. This discrepancy probably accounts for why some of the numbers in the survey are high.

In a previous online study with about 800 respondents we found that 29% had accessed the mobile Internet, and these LMS proprietary numbers were higher than Nielsen and comScore's numbers. (More important than the question of whether people had ever accessed the mobile Internet is the question of frequency and engagement.) I would argue in general that the trajectory of growth Kelsey shows from 2007 to 2008 is correct, in terms of mobile Internet access, but the figure (38.9%) is too high in terms of the general mobile user population in the US.

We all have seen that smarphones dramatically affect mobile Internet access and mobile search activity. From the recent TMP data:

 Mobile search usage -- comscore August 2008

In addition the 9.6% social networking number in the Kelsey findings is also directionally correct but too high regarding the mobile user population more generally. We found, as did comScore, that the number is closer to 6%. 

Clearly mobile Internet access is gaining rapidly and future gains are tied largely to smartphone adoption. Perhaps the most interesting data point released in the Kelsey findings is that just over 49% (49.2%) "plan to purchase an advanced mobile device" (presumably a smartphone) "in the next two years."

Despite these intentions, price will determine how many of these aspirants actually purchase smartphones (see this post). But, as we've argued many times in the past, are where the market is heading.

The Kelsey Group based much of its mobile revenues forecast on the expectation of growth for ad-supported free DA. Logically this made lots of sense and I also was quite bullish on this segment at one time. But it simply hasn't materialized as a major driver of call volumes (or revenues accordingly) at this point. And as more people adopt smartphones -- and go direct to the Intermet from mobile -- the ad revenues contribution we can expect from the "Free DA" segment is propotionately smaller.

WSJ on Free 411

A short article on the Wall Street Journal site discusses saving money by using Free 411. It only mentions two sites: 1-800-Free-411 and Goog411.

However there are a wide range of free directory assistance alternatives:

  • 1-800-Call-411 (Microsoft)
  • 1-800-555-Tell (Tellme/Microsoft)
  • 1-800-YellowPages (AT&T)
  • 1-800-2ChaCha (ChaCha)
  • 1-800-THEINFO (Verizon)
  • FreeMobile411 (V-Enable, not voice-based) 
  • 1-800-Call-Dex (RH Donnelley, powered by CallGenie)

There are some additional, smaller ones.

In our most recent mobile user survey (August, 2008) we found that a substantial majority of users had never tried one of these services. It's mysterious why they're not being marketed more heavily, given the opportunity to reach the majority of users who own non-smartphones (85-87% approx in the US), want information on the go and don't want to pay for traditional 411. 

Microsoft in particular would be in a good position to gain usage for one or both of its two services and could potentially leverage those users into other mobile offerings.

KGB Uses Election to Promote SMS Question & Answer Service

Directory Assistance provider KGB has introduced a text-based service that seeks to capitalize on interest in the election. From the press release:

[KGB] will be answering consumers questions about the election with its beta text product, kgbkgb (542542), a text-based information service that uses real humans to answer consumers questions. Consumers simply send their question via text to 542542 on their mobile phones and then a kgb agent helps answer their question . . .

By simply texting 542542 from any mobile phone, users can send their questions to a kgb agent and receive a real-time response. Users can ask questions such as:

  • What does Obama propose for reforming education?
  • Who won in Ohio?
  • How did John and Cindy meet?
  • Where was Barack Obama born?
  • Who is leading in Florida?
  • Where does McCain stand on offshore drilling?
  • What is the latest electoral count?

This service is built on the same infrastructure as KGB's previously announced Text411 service. However it costs $.30 per query. Competitor ChaCha offers its service free to consumers.

CallGenie Seeking to Expand into New Markets

Voice and local mobile search provider CallGenie announced that it's expanding its services beyond its core directory and DA markets. From the press release out this morning:

Call Genie is now bringing its groundbreaking mobile local search and advertising products to newspaper, television and triple-play publishers and is attracting both local and national brand advertisers interested in capitalizing on this newly created inventory. 

In a very challenging economy with a limited number of buyers in the core YP and DA segments, local and mobile search vendors need to diversify. 


800-Call-Dex Exits Trial, Expands Services

The CallGenie-powered 1-800-CallDex free DA service is exiting its trial periond and expanding its offering. The new services include SMS (listings back), enhanced business name search (previously there was only category search) and live operators.

Publisher RH Donnelley owns Dex and the CallDex service.

The following is data from a recent LMS survey asking people which of the free DA/voice search tools they'd used. Dex isn't on this list because it's not a national service. 

Free DA

Source: Opus/Multiplied Media, Sept 2008 (caution small sample)

Note: The people that answered this question were a subset of mobile search users. I'm surprised that the Google Maps with voice ranked as highly as it did because it was only recently introduced and Goog411 is a much more well-known service. The most reliable data point here may be the 63% who haven't used any of these services, indicating a general lack of consumer awareness. 

KGB Adds Yahoo Exec to Management Team

Directory assistance and mobile search provider KGB (formerly InfoNXX) has added a former Yahoo! mobile executive to its team:

[KGB] announced the appointment of Bruce Stewart as CEO of the new global Mobile & Digital division. Stewart leaves his post as Vice President & General Manager of the Connected Life Americas Division with Yahoo! (YHOO) based in Sunnyvale, California to join kgb, a privately-held, New York-based company known for having built some of the most highly successful and recognizable brands in the telecommunication services sector. Stewart will join kgb this fall . . .

Stewart also drove the growth of new mobile services including mobile search, mobile advertising, and launched mobile finance and news content sites, and new sports properties such as March Madness, Olympics, and Fantasy Football. He has significant experience developing major Web properties within Internet brands and has had responsibility for a large revenue and employee base. Prior to Yahoo!, Bruce served as a Senior Vice President with America Online (AOL) working on the Netscape brand,

iPhone App in Microsoft/Tellme's Future?

The dearth of speech-enabled applications in the iPhone App Store is self-evident. In a truly "open" process for mobile phone applications, a significant percentage would involve speech recognition or text to speech. But the iPhone is barely a phone. It is a mobile, communicating computer with an elegant user interface that presents a multiplicity of popular applications in response to touch (or MultiTouch). Nuance and Dial Directions have both demonstrated applications for the iPhone and now, according to a report in YahooNews, Tellme (now a subsidiary of Microsoft) is moving closer to introducing its own iPhone application.

Tellme's voice portal and Tellme's enhanced directory assistance are both available from any telephone, through 1-800-555-TELL and 1-800-CALL-411, respectively. To reach Tellme's enhanced local search on an iPhone users need only press the Tellme entry in the iPhone "Contact" list. One press, one utterance, and the job is done. That may explain Apple's reticence to add speech enabled services to the virtual shelves in the App Store.

Still, voice services are still destined to weigh heavily in the mix of smartphone and feature phone applications. As an alternative to traditional keypads and QWERTY keyboards, push-to-talk, spoken input is a marked improvement, especially in situations that are mandated to be hands-free (most commonly, while driving). Adoption of speech input has proven to be "success-driven", meaning that subscribers who have successfully used their voice to input commands and text are more likely to try again. In addition to Tellme, Nuance and Dial Directions, V-Enable has created a set of local search services that a number of wireless subscribers are using their voice to invoke.

Empirical evidence is that they use the mode of communications that makes the most sense "in context". Thus far, the iPhone "context" remains devoid of push-to-talk and speech-enabled applications.

Jingle Launches "Connect" Ad Network to Increase Reach

In something of a strategy shift, Jingle Networks is introducing what it's calling JingleConnect. It's an effort to build an ad network, beyond in-bound 800-Free-411 calls, incorporating "call centers, information lines, or any high volume call environment where their consumers are on hold." While Jingle has historically been the leader in  free 411 services, partly because it's the incumbent, over the long term it's potentially vulnerable to competitors (e.g., Goog411) and the "mobile Internet" more generally.

Ad-supported, free 411 services are appealing to consumers and potentially to advertisers because of the massive potential reach these services have. They're totally device independent. Yet nobody is doing any consumer marketing to build awareness, which our research shows is generally low among the US population.

Some analyst firms have made big bets on free 411 as a driver of mobile ad revenues. Initially we had agreed that free 411 services would potentially be a broad consumer entry point for mobile search and a strong advertising opportunity. However, that does not seem to be the trajectory of the market of late. We still believe that free 411 services have a role to play and will generate meaningful call volumes over time, depending on awareness. But they won't be as significant a way, as once predicted, that people get information on the go.

The JingleConnect effort is logical. But there's a question about the quality of "leads" generated in these other environments (e.g., consumers on hold in call centers). It would seem to me that JingleConnect (depending on the distribution) is probably most valuable as an awareness vehicle rather than a direct response medium, which is primarily how free 411 is positioned. 

Jingle claims 130,000 advertisers today. Some of those are direct but many of those are delivered via third parties (e.g., Superpages, ServiceMagic, Ingenio/ 

Yell Integrating Mobile Services

Late last week UK publisher Yell introduced a new offering to make its mobile services more "holistic":

Yell, the directories company, is launching a new mobile internet service in a bid to join together its 118 24 7 directory and mobile offering . . .

Callers will receive an SMS when calling the directory service from a mobile phone. A hyperlink on the text will take the consumer to a "landing page" that gives company content in text.

It will include information a 118 call handler would give to a consumer, such as prices, e-mail addresses and web addresses of businesses.

It will also provide maps and directions to find the advertiser - a service that Yell claims is the first of its kind.

The top "use case" for mobile 411 is someone in the car on his/her way somewhere seeking directions, inventory information and/or hours of operation.

This "multi-modal" model is also what most companies will need to adopt -- if they haven't already -- to optimize mobile offerings and make them accessible and more effective for users who are arrayed across a broad range of handsets.

GOOG411 and Ubona Offer Voice Search in India

In what it characterizes as a "trial", Google is offering voice search on a toll-free phone line that is accessible in Hyderabad, India (population 10+ million). Callers to 1800-41-99-99-99 reach live operators who provide information on local business and movie showtimes. As with the GOOG411 service in North America, callers are also offered the option to be connected directly to the local business for free and Hyderabad residents will also be possible for users to request this information through SMS.

Like so many voice search services these days, this offering is characterized as a way to gauge user preferences and refine the service before a full-fledged launch.

In a realated story coming out of India, Bangalore-based Ubona Technologies scored Series A funding to help subsidize further development and marketing of a phone-based voice search service for "foodies" in Bangalore. Its patent pending speech recognition software claims that its differentiator is the ability to recognize utterances in various local dialects.

Its Web site exhorts visitors to call the toll-free, automated service at 080-40700000. It says that caller can "just say ‘Mainland China' to get connected to [the restaurant called] Mainland China, or to get their address and phone number." Callers can be connected for free and then "Go on...reserve a table, order a takeaway, or just check out the menu."

Up next for Ubona, according to its Web site is voice search of Automotive, Entertainment, Fashion, Healthcare, Hospitality, Travel & Leisure, Beauty & Wellness, Banking & Financial Services, Insurance and Real Estate.

Jingle and MapQuest in Reciprocal Branding Push

It was pointed out to me that there's a bit of reciprocal branding going on between Jingle Networks' 1-800-Free-411 and MapQuest. The former is promoting "directions" from MapQuest, when users call. MapQuest is promoting "driving directions & free directory assistance" from 1-800-Free-411 (below).

Here's the page online (after one selects "print"):

Mapquest + Mapquest

Dial Directions provides the speech recognition and related functionality on top of the Mapquest routing for 800-Free-411.

Jingle Achieves 'Per Call Profitability'

Some in the industry thought the day would never come. However, Jingle has announced that 1-800-Free-411 has achieved "per call profitability":

Since the companys launch in September 2005, Jingle has become the countrys largest provider of free directory assistance and has amassed a base of more than 130,000 paying advertisers. Jingles advertisers include hundreds of major household names like McDonalds, WalMart, Ford and Radio Shack as well as tens of thousands of small independent retailers in virtually every Yellow Pages category and local market. In the quarter ahead, Jingle expects to pass two other key milestones -- answering its 500 millionth phone call and serving over 1 billion in call advertisements.

There's also be an executive shake up:

Jingle also announced today the relocation of their corporate headquarters from Menlo Park, Calif. to Bedford, Mass. In conjunction with this relocation, the company is also announcing the promotion of two key executives. John Roswech, formerly SVP of Sales and Business Development, will now be joining the Board of Directors and will serve as the companys President. Scott Kliger, the companys founder, will now assume the CEO role. George Garrick, Jingles former CEO remains on Jingles Board as a key strategic advisor to the company.

This milestone is significant for the company as it faces intensifying competition from a range of well-heeled advertisers such as Google, AT&T and Verizon among others. Free DA also faces competition from the mobile Internet itself as it becomes more mainstream over time.

Jingle not long ago did a deal with Dial Directions to add text-based directions to any listing provided to users. It remains a differentiated feature among free DA providers.

Goog411 Launches in Canada

Goog411 has been operating in Canada for awhile but the service has now officially launched:

We incorporated some Canadianisms such as "eh," "Traw-na," "Cal-gry," and, of course, "aboot." We also took into account geographical differences. Whereas users in the US are prompted for "city and state," Canadians are asked for your "city and province." We incorporated some Canadianisms such as "eh," "Traw-na," "Cal-gry," and, of course, "aboot." We also took into account geographical differences. Whereas users in the US are prompted for "city and state," Canadians are asked for your "city and province."

The service is still experimental but offers all the same features available in the U.S., such as free call, free connection, SMS info, iPhone "Map-It" integration, and more. For now, the service supports only English queries, but we're working hard to make it disponible en Français dans un proche avenir.

Google did a small amount of promotion (outdoor) in the U.S. for the service but the company has continued to rely upon traditional PR, promoting Goog411 on its O&O properties and word of mouth. While Google's service arguably isn't the best of the free DA offerings (see our report), it has the benefit of Google's brand equity and near ubiquity. Currently Jingle Network's 800-Free-411 is the market leader in terms of awareness and usage.

Free DA

However, that may change over time. Since we conducted that survey, ChaCha and Verizon have entered the market. There are also new DA-substitute applications and offerings from V-Enable, Tellme, Live Search (with voice) and Yahoo! (+ Vlingo).

ChaCha's Mobile Search Volumes

ChaCha struggled on the desktop but seems to really be taking off with its Mobile Answers service. Given that the common mobile search frequency is around nine (9) per month, I was struck by the statement in a press release that ChaCha was “seeing usage rates that exceed 40 queries per month. Our most active users are tapping ChaCha multiple times per day resulting in over 150 questions per month.”

That compares favorably with desktop search and seems to outstrip what I've heard and seen in most of the mobile ecosystem.

I spoke with the company's co-founder, Brad Bostic, today to get more insight into the numbers. Most of what he shared with me he didn't want to share publicly but the growth was impressive. (Also the categories of queries are broader than one might expect to find in a conventional DA service.)

One of the advantages of a voice-based (or SMS) system is that it can attract the market of non-smartphone users, which still represent more than 90% of mobile subscribers today in the US. However, smarthphones are growing much faster than feature phones in terms of sales.


The NY Times' David Pogue favorably covers ChaCha.

How Microsoft Could Rid the World of Telephone Numbers

Last week, long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Joe Foley opined that Microsoft has a “grand plan to eliminate phone numbers.” She cited direct quotes from speeches that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have made among the international carrier community. Foley refers to a new software “platform” called Echoes designed to enable telecom service providers to sync diverse address books, seamlessly send messages between IM and SMS and assign a local telephone number to people using Windows Live Messenger.

The coverage has provoked skeptical responses from just about every quarter of high-tech punditry. Within three days there were more than 160 responses to Foley’s blog posting, compared to a mere four that are associated with the original post in which she described Echoes. Overall, commentators doubt Microsoft’s ability to carry it off (where “it” means the elimination of phone numbers). They see the efforts as too grandiose, in that it ties many diverse software elements together, or totally unnecessary, given that synching services have been around forever as a “local” function and that telco’s have been largely ineffective in marketing their own flavor.

As for generating a local number associated with Live Messenger namespaces, it’s an idea that closely resembles the initial intent of Grand Central (now owned by Google), which provides a single number through which people can reach a recipient’s office, home or wireless phone (or voicemail service) according to rules established and maintained by the Grand Central subscriber.

The pithiest and most scathing critique came from Om Malik who criticized Microsoft both for lack of originality and for blind adherence to its long-standing business practices, noting that “…there is nothing new here, except for the need of being tied to Microsoft’s platforms. Echoes’ outlines Microsoft’s biggest challenges: the inordinate amount of time they spend on developing products that are either a platform or a suite forces them to make too many compromises.”

This Shouldn’t be About Phone Numbers
Telephone numbers are largely passé. People with wireless phones dial from their contact list. The most common protocol for wireless phones is to enable subscribers to automatically associate inbound phone numbers with the name of the individual. Efforts for both fixed line and wireless carriers to market a “network address book” have been largely unsuccessful.

Rather than concentrating on Echoes, Microsoft would have a better chance of eliminating phone numbers with “voice dialing”. It would involve speech-enable the contact list, associating multiple “namespaces” (meaning phone numbers, IM user names, aliases on social networks, etc) with an individual’s identity and then replacing dialtone with a spoken prompt like, "what's up?". Users could respond by saying “call Dan” and have it look up "Dan" in a local or network-based directory and then prompt you through any disambiguation that you might require (e.g. "Do you mean 'Authour’? Do you want to call him at work, home or on his wireless?...).

By the way, this is a major part of Tellme’s long-standing vision of Dialtone 2.0. It provides a model for using telephones (including softphones embedded in IM clients or Web browsers) more like a voice portal, capable of carrying out searches, delivering information or connecting with friends or businesses. No need for telephone numbers.

Whose Idea was the "One Number for Life?"
Single-number service is almost 10 years old. For instance AccessLine Communications (now owned by Telanetix) has been plying its Find me/Follow me service since 1998. There are many others, including One Box, ephone and single number offerings from incumbent phone companies, like Bell Canada, Telus and even Comcast.

It has garnered a certain amount of appeal with geeks and road warriors, but not mass appeal. Number portability has proven to be more important. Rather than fostering yet-another-personal-phone-number, people like to keep the numbers they already have. They are less apt to change to something else without a specific benefit. I, for instance, signed up for a Grand Central number when it first launched. I still have it. But I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what it is, even though single-number access to me at home, mobile, office or VM would solve a lot of problems in my life.

The Challenge: Speech-enabling Self-maintained Metadata
Microsoft’s approach with Echoes assumes that a carrier will maintain "network address book" (NAB) with rules and protocols developed to ensure that it contains the most recent listings from multiple sources. Sprint PCS, for one, has long offered a mechanism for subscribers to upload and “sync” their contact information, without too many takers. Meanwhile almost every social network and search service provider has figured out how to mine contact information from multiple address books on a person’s PC. It’s all transparent.

It seems to me, and I’ve heard Bill Gates say as much, that an approach that speech enables simple commands for e-mail management (read, forward, delete…) as well as for initiating phone calls would go farther toward eliminating phone numbers (and email addresses for that matter) than establishing a platform in the cloud that aggregates and syncs metadata from multiple sources. That being said, a truly useful platform for command and control of such “unified communications” will have to do both.

Jingle Goes Nationwide with Dial Directions

Jingle Networks' 800-Free-411 for now is the "free DA" market leader. But it has been joined by a broad range of competitors:

  • 1-800-GOOG411 (Google)
  • 1-800-Call-411 (MSFT, Tellme powered)
  • 1-800-Yellowpages (AT&T)
  • 1-800-2ChaCha (”mobile answers”)
  • 1-800-The-Info (Verizon)
  • 1-800-555-Tell (Tellme)
  • 1-800-555-5555 (potentially)

This also doesn't include the voice-powered (or operator-assisted) applications:

  • Yahoo’s oneSearch with Vlingo
  • MSFT Live Search with voice
  • The Tellme client (a new version launches today for the Blackberry)
  • V-Enable’s FreeMobile411

There's also the mobile Internet itself, which competes with DA in some cases. In the future, mobile social networks may also address some of the queries that might have gone to DA (e.g., category searches). Right now the latter is quite speculative however.

Against that backdrop Jingle needs to continue to develop, market and differentiate its service if it hopes to stay ahead of this increasing competition. One way it has sought to do that is by offering Dial Directions service, which as of today is now available nationally: any location to any other location (by address or intersection).

To test it, I called Free-411 from both my landline and from a mobile phone. The service distinguished between them accordingly and didn't offer the option to get directions from the landline (because there's no ability to receive a text). But it did when I called from my wireless phone.

Dial Directions' service also has the option to skip getting to the highway, which is great. And overall it's nicely integrated into the Free-411 service and call flow.

Maps & directions are a high demand, high-use category in mobile generally and for DA in particular. It represents one of the motivating reasons people seek local telephone numbers from DA (to then get directions).

Maps and directions in DA

The addition of the Dial Directions service to Free-411, beyond providing more utility, also provides more ad inventory at the bottom of various texts that are returned with the directions information.

Dial Directions has a range of interesting additional capabilities that are so far barely exposed to the marketplace. Its speech-enabled events directions is one example. Its "Meet Me" social networking/invitations capability is another. And there's more in the pipeline.

Query Volumes on 'Mobile Answers'

Scott Jones, co-founder of ChaCha is reporting in a press release that ChaCha's new "mobile answers" service is "seeing usage rates that exceed 40 queries per month. Our most active users are tapping ChaCha multiple times per day resulting in over 150 questions per month."

Below is the paid/traditional DA call frequency data we collected in our earlier consumer DA survey.

DA Call Frequency

Regarding mobile search frequency, we've observed anywhere from nine per month to nine per day in the case of one provider. Forty queries per month is consistent with average US desktop search frequency (per comScore), which is quite significant in terms of monetization potential.

The ChaCha figures also suggest what many people have been suggesting: that mobile query volume eventually has the capacity to overtake the desktop. The voice interface facilitates greater volume or frequency because it's intuitive and doesn't rely on keyboard entry.

800-555-5555 Launches in Legal Vertical

The Voice Internet has built a broad-based platform that has a range of intriguing capabilities -- so many that it may be confusing to people. Accordingly, the company is initially narrowing to focus on a single, if ambitious offering: 800-555-5555.

It aims to be a comprehensive starting point for all voice search. The first "product" rollout is "Just Say Legal," a PPCall ad network for attorneys. The idea here -- and this is a template for other content categories -- is that users call the "800 all fives" number and say the keyword "legal," which leads them into the directory.

The company can use this same approach to build out innumerable verticals. It can also connect to any third-party service, such as Goog411 or 800 Free 411. Accordingly it could become a kind of voice "meta search" or true "voice portal," but on a scale conceptually much larger than Tellme's 800-555-Tell service. The "800 all fives" brand and underlying technology offers that opportunity.

The challenge of generating revenue can't be underestimated but the first offering Just Say Legal benefits from a promotional and investor relationship with syndicated radio show host Bill Handel.