Free 411: Putting Google and Microsoft to the Test

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Google and Microsoft both launched their free directory assistance services this week. Google's GOOG-411 (800/466-4411) came out of beta on Sunday. The next day Microsoft announced its own free directory assistance service, Live Search 411 (800/225-5411; that's 800/CALL 411). Each offers an attractive alternative to paying the nearly $2 that most mobile carries charge for the service.

Why are the companies giving away these services? Charles Golvin, analyst with Forrester Research, says in the end it's all about making money.

A free directory service figures into Google's mobile platform ambitions. The more you use GOOG-411, the more Google will know about you. Eventually it will be able to tailor mobile ads to you, Golvin says.

For its part, Microsoft is eager to push its "voice as a platform" agenda. Using speech to navigate and retrieve information has long been a Microsoft ambition, with its launch in 2003 of Voice Command for mobile handsets. Microsoft has steadily increased its interest in voice and telephony services, Golvin says.

Test Driving Free 411

I gave both services a real-life test drive. As I navigated suburban Boston traffic, I attempted to find the phone number of Galilee Groceries in Narragansett, Rhode Island.

I thought I'd have both services beat with a business name and a town that I had trouble pronouncing myself.

Google stumbled in the first attempt to find the city and state, prompting me to repeat myself. It took 1 minute and 7 seconds from the time I called to when I was connected to the phone number that I requested.

Microsoft's service found the city and state, but asked me to repeat the name of the business I was looking for. It took 40 seconds for Live Search 411 to find and connect me to Galilee Groceries.

Both services use voice recognition and menu prompts to guide you to the state, city, business, and the phone number you're looking for. (GOOG-411 also repeats what you say, which is why it took longer than Live Search 411.) They also both give you the option to have a text message of the street address and phone number sent to your cell phone; if you're using a smart phone equipped with a compatible Web browser, you can click a link to a map that helps you pinpoint the business's location.

It's a Draw

Which one do I recommend? It comes down to the extras that you find valuable.

Microsoft's Live Search 411 ties you into a network of voice services such as weather updates, movie show times, and airline information. Google's GOOG-411 is sparse by comparison, offering business listings and that's it.

Microsoft's automated voice sounded human, while Google's sounded stiff and robotic.

Google may not offer as many bells and whistles, but that can be a good thing. The less these services offered, the less likely they were to stumble. For example, Microsoft's Live Search 411 lets you send a text message of the directory listing that you looked up to another cell phone. When I tried this feature I quickly got bogged down into repeating myself and having to direct the service to go back. In the confusion, Live Search 411 sent a SMS text message to my own phone. And as I paused, wondering what to say, the service unceremoniously cut me off with "Thanks for using Live Search, good-bye."

Want another option? Jingle Networks offers free business and residential listings via 1-800-FREE-411 (800/373-3411)--but it doesn't connect the call, and you have to sit through advertisements.

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