A new service gives people the option of calling a toll-free number to ask any question.
The mobile phone remains a cumbersome device for getting information from the Internet, so Web site AskMeNow is offering search with a human touch.
To spare people the hassle of navigating through link after link, and typing queries through keypad, AskMeNow, owned by Ocean West Holding Corp. in Irvine, Calif., launched on Tuesday a service that gives people the option of calling a toll free number to ask any question.
The caller won't be talking to a person. Instead, communication is with voice recognition software. But behind the automation are people at a Philippines call center transcribing calls, in case the software fails to capture every word, and looking up answers, which are delivered as a text message or email in about a minute, on average, according to the company.
Given the erratic quality of mobile-phone connections, the chance of software misinterpreting a question is too great to depend solely on automation, Darryl Cohen, chief executive for AskMeNow, said.
"Until someone makes voice recognition perfect, you need the human element," Cohen said.
AskMeNow does not charge for basic questions, such as weather, stock prices, directory assistance, driving instructions or sports scores. Those are answered at no charge.
But ask for the closest French restaurant, or why the sky is blue, and the company charges 49 cents for each query. Carriers charge separately for downloading answers, which would fall under a person's normal data service.
Besides charging for questions, AskMeNow expects to make money through advertising. To use the service, people have to first sign up through the company's Web site. Once registered, AskMeNow builds profiles on customers based on the questions they ask, and sends one or two targeted ads with each answer.
Cohen believes his service is far more effective as a marketing tool for advertisers than the traditional keyword search advertising offered by search engines Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and others.
"This (service) is an extremely rich value for advertisers," Cohen said. "You can hone in very specifically to your potential customer."
For the first week, the AskMeNow service will be available at no charge, while carrier partners arrange for billing. AskMeNow charges will be added to a person's cellular phone bill.
Carriers supporting the service include Sprint-Nextel, Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon, and all Canadian carriers.
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