Just Dial: Another Attempt at Free DA

The free directory assistance business seems very compelling -- on paper. Almost 80% of the mobile market in the US doesn't have a smartphone. Directory assistance (411) costs $1.75 or more per call. Yet the market has failed to materialize despite repeated efforts by various companies, including Google and Microsoft.

Now a VC-backed, Indian company is trying it again with the US launch of 1-880-JustDial:

1-800-Justdial announced today the launch of its free, personalized directory assistance and category search services in the United States. Consumers can now dial 1-800-Justdial (1-800-587-8342) from anywhere in the country to obtain business listings and conduct category searches.

Justdial operators are available 24 hours a day and always provide one ring pickup service, enabling users to speak to a live person and obtain fast local search results or recommendations for nearby restaurants, movies, events, florists, plumbers, dentists, car rentals, or almost any other product or service under the sun.

Justdial offers more than simple local business search, making it quick and easy for people at home, at work, or on-the-go to receive information like listings and local recommendations, or even nearby hotels in a certain price range. Callers simply dial 1-800-Justdial (1-800-587-8342), reach a live operator that picks up within one ring and state what listing or category of product or service they are looking for by neighborhood, zip code or even intersection. Justdial sends callers relevant listings via e-mail or text message and also connects callers to the listing of their choice, all free of charge. Users can register their phone number and address for maximum speed and personalization when using Justdial, enabling the operator to recognize the user and provide recommendations and listings near their home, work, or any other registered address or location.

The service promises real people (probably Indian agents using the Internet) and flexible search parameters. We haven't tested the service yet so can't confirm or contradict any of the company's claims. Other services that offer "human-powered search" on mobile devices include kgb and ChaCha (although more and more queries are machine answered) -- and then there are myriad Q&A services such as Aardvark (Google) or Quora.

Just Dial said that it has proved the model in India, answering more than 70 million calls in 2009. 

A service like this behind a traditional 411 number would have a shot and customer loyalty and repeat usage. However I'm very skeptical that the service will break out and become a mainstream success. Jingle Networks' 1-800-Free-411 has been around for years and not been able to grow beyond a certain point.

There are two trends that conspire against these services:

  • The rise of smartphones (now about 23% or 24% of handsets in the US)
  • The inertia around traditional 411