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Google India launches voice-based internet search on mobiles

Leslie D'Monte  |  New Delhi 

Google has launched a free voice-based mobile internet search facility in India that has been built entirely by the internet search giant’s India engineering team.

Currently available only to the estimated 400,000 Blackberry cellphone users, the company hopes to extend this facility to other handsets by the end of the year.

The voice-based mobile search throws up results similar to a PC-based search query. A user can log on to the internet on his/her mobile, open the Google search page, and ask for a particular location, pizza joint, taxi stand or florist while driving a vehicle. Simply speaking the word “weather” into the phone, for instance, would throw up the top results.

A couple of months earlier, Google India had also launched an SMS-based search in Hindi and Telegu in cities like Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. The mobile internet-based voice search, however, is currently available only in English.

Right now, Google is struggling to reconcile India’s variegated accents and pronunciation with the search engines. “Accents are indeed a problem, and we are working towards improving the application,” said Vinay Goel, head of products, Google India.

For its SMS-based “voice search”, Google uses a combination of an automated voice recognition engine and operators to provide this facility. To make the service faster and better, it is also experimenting with voice recognition technology, which will ensure 24-hour support. The company plans to extend the to other cities once it is confident of the quality of its speech recognition “in any region of the country”.

Meanwhile, as handsets and data plans get cheaper and the number of mobile internet users grows, Google India is gradually moving its focus away from just SMS to other value-added services (VAS) like social networking, Google Maps and voice-based internet-based search on mobiles, according to Goel. The logic is simple. Mobiles (slightly over 415 million) outnumber personal computers (PCs — slightly over 30 million) in India.

On the social networking front, “one out of 10 mobile internet users use Orkut in India. The users are primarily in the age group of 19 to 25,” said Goel, adding that Orkut “is the largest source of photo uploads in India. Many users upload photos from Orkut to YouTube (another Google property)”. The Google Maps application, on the other hand, provides a cheaper alternative to GPS or global positioning system-loaded devices. Unlike GPS, which uses satellites to guide users, Google Maps uses mobile operators’ cellphone IDs (from towers) to help users identify locations, especially in cities.

Google also hopes to be a catalyst in the dialogue between device manufacturers and carriers to foster the development of Android (its open software platform which any handset manufacturer can use) phones in India.” Pricing is the key to Android’s success in India. While pricing is the prerogative of each handset manufacturer, the Rs 10,000 figure is a sweet spot. This should foster data usage and growth of mobile internet,” asserts Goel.

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First Published: Fri, July 17 2009. 00:17 IST