Google today announced it is shutting down its free U.S. and Canada directory assistance service, 1-800-GOOG-411, to put its focus on its other speech-recognition services and extending them to new languages. At one point, Google had billboards for GOOG-411, which was an unusual spurt of advertising for the company and seemed to signal it was a larger project. But as of Nov. 12, the number will go dead. The company didn’t give a real reason for why it is shutting the service down besides a tightening of focus.
GOOG-411 launched in 2007, and I’ve had it in my contact list ever since. When compared to paid directory assistance or pre-roll ad-supported ones like Jingle Networks’ 1-800-FREE-411, it was an easy choice. Now, Google’s only providing free voice search for users with an Android phone or an iPhone, BlackBerry, and Nokia S60 V3 with the company’s Google Mobile app. For folks without smartphones, Google invites them to “send a text message with the name and location of the business to 466453 (‘GOOGLE’) and we’ll text you the information” — which sounds onerous — or to use Gmail’s new free calling service.
Google had long said that GOOG-411 was a way for the company to amass data for experimenting with speech recognition. Marissa Mayer said in a 2007 interview:
The speech recognition experts that we have say: 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 so that when you call up or we’re trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.
Now, Android phones with the latest operating system not only have voice search, but also “Voice Actions,” where users can give the phone more complex commands to complete various tasks. Those apps are great and all, but GOOG-411 had one killer feature — the human “biddy-biddy-boop” sound that played while the service fetched responses to users’ queries. For more on the much-loved sound effect, see Chris’ 2007 interview with its creator, Bill Byrne.
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