Yahoo adds voice commands to Web search on phones
By Sinead Carew and Eric Auchard
LAS VEGAS/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Yahoo Inc <YHOO.O> on Wednesday unveiled new features to make Web search easier and more relevant to mobile phone users, the latest step in its battle with Google Inc <GOOG.O> in the next frontier for Web use.
Yahoo mobile chief Marco Boerries said his company aims to make millions of Web links more accessible on phones, by tapping deeper into the sites and by enabling consumers to use voice commands to search the Web.
"This is really a sea change. This is not about simple Web links any more," Boerries, executive vice president of Yahoo's Connected Life unit, said in an interview ahead of a keynote speech at CTIA, the annual U.S. wireless showcase.
Yahoo unveiled the latest version of its oneSearch service as it forges ahead with its mobile Internet strategy in the face of an unsolicited Microsoft Corp <MSFT.O> takeover bid.
The Sunnyvale, California-company has struck deals with dozens of operators around the world to reach a potential 600 million phone users with mobile Internet services. Yahoo has said it is targeting deals to reach 750 million users.
Yahoo is opening up the way it finds search results for mobile phone users by allowing publishers to provide highly categorized information that gives them more control over what content users see and how it is presented.
This lets Yahoo understand more about the information inside a link rather than just the link itself, Boerries said.
This open approach is, in technical terms, a form of semantic Web search, which essentially means that computers recognize and categorize the type of information that appears on a Web page. It will be ready for network operators to offer to mobile phone customers this quarter, he said.
Yahoo also will let oneSearch consumers use voice commands for search services that go beyond existing mobile voice recognition systems or 411-based services that are structured into simple categories, such as "local listings."
Conventional speech recognition services limit potential search topics to certain items using very basic vocabulary. OneSearch allows "wide open" searches for flight listings, locations, Web site names, restaurants, news or game times.
Yahoo voice search allows users to switch between typing and voice search at any time, and offers alternative suggestions for similar sounding words, Boerries said.
Voice searches can take as little as five seconds: one to two seconds to recognize the search and two to three seconds to return search results to the phone. Slower networks may take 10 to 20 seconds to return most search results, he said.
Starting on Wednesday, Blackberry users can download voice-enabled oneSearch at http://m.yahoo.com/voice/. By the end of the year, Yahoo plans to introduce the service on 500 different devices and in international markets, he said.
Yahoo is relying on voice technology it has exclusively licensed from Vlingo Corp, a two-year-old Cambridge, Massachusetts-based start-up. Yahoo also is leading a $20 million funding round in Vlingo with existing investors Charles River Ventures and Sigma Partners.
"We've got exclusive rights in a company that we believe will change voice search forever," Boerries told Reuters.
Another set of features helps speed how fast mobile phone users make searches, using tricks like predictive text, which anticipates what words users are typing in a search query.
Depending on prior searches, the service also recommends more refined results so, for example, typing in Starbucks may recommend links to a nearby location, Starbucks' stock price or the company's Web site.
(Editing by Brian Moss)