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4/1/2008
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Microsoft Upgrades Mobile Search With Voice, Maps

The expanded features for Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices are designed to regain market share Microsoft is losing to desktop search.

Microsoft is adding new features to mobile search for Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices, including better mapping services for Windows Mobile and a voice interface for the RIM Blackberry.

Later this spring, Microsoft Live Search for BlackBerry will allow users to speak queries into the device, rather than typing them into a text box on the device screen. That means that instead of typing with the BlackBerry's tiny keys, users will find businesses, restaurants, directions or local maps simply by saying the name of whatever it is they're looking for.

Windows Mobile will also soon get a number of new unrelated Live Search features. Those include the ability to map a contact's address directly from the contacts list, view custom maps made for Virtual Earth, more easily launch Web searches and view local weather conditions. It's unclear when Microsoft plans to add these features.

Microsoft has targeted mobile search as an important market even as it loses share in desktop search. Jupiter Research recently said that overall annual mobile search ad revenue would approach $5 billion within five years.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has also long championed development of more natural computer interfaces such as voice, touch and pen-based computing, but pick-up of voice recognition long stumbled in the face of technology and usability obstacles.

Within the last year, however, voice recognition has begun being featured prominently in Microsoft's mobile and automotive software and services. Live Search already has similar voice search capabilities for Windows Mobile devices. Some Sprint phones, meanwhile, combine GPS and voice recognition to allow users to search for local businesses or directions by voice without ever having to physically enter or say their location. Microsoft's Tellme and Live Search 411 both have voice-activated 411 services. And the highly-advertised Ford Sync employs Microsoft voice recognition technology to play and manage music and phone calls in the car.

The common bond among these services is that voice is easier than traditional methods of interaction with computers. Typing on mobile devices' tiny keys can be a pain, even for experienced Blackberry addicts, while fiddling with buttons on a car stereo takes the driver's eyes off the road. It's possible that if Microsoft is able to make inroads in voice on mobile devices and in cars, it will be able to collect use statistics and use scenarios in order to make Windows' as of now little-used voice recognition capability better in future Windows versions.

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