What if someone built you a new computer capable of amazing feats – provided you operated it exclusively with your thumbs?
Oh, and your new device would be called a smartphone.
Handset makers and wireless phone companies seem to understand that if they want their devices to become truly ubiquitous, to end the dominance of PCs, they will have to find new ways for people to use them. And since it is a voice communication device, why not let people speak commands instead of pecking away at the keypad or touchscreen?
Voice-recognition technologies have recently made notable strides that are making this possible. This month, for instance, Microsoft's Tellme division introduced a new addition to its Tellme for BlackBerry software that allows users to press a button, speak the name of a sports team and get a screen with the latest results.
No squinting into the screen, no veering into oncoming traffic while typing, no thumb-tendon inflammation.
Tellme's mobile software, which is free, also allows users to speak commands into the phone, find local businesses and movie times and get a heads-up on traffic jams. You have to speak the category name first – like “sports” – then make your request, so it is a slightly stilted experience.
Still, it is reliable, as you would expect from a company that operates half of the nation's 411 services.
Tellme is working on similar technology for phones that operate with Windows Mobile software, as well as Nokia devices and others on the Symbian software platform.
For a better experience than Tellme, BlackBerry users should consider thumbing their way over to Vlingo.com. There, they can download Vlingo Voice, also free, and start talking to their phone more conversationally.
With Vlingo, users can simply say, “Get me the New York Mets scores.” The technology captures your phrasing – usually with impressive accuracy – then quickly scans Yahoo's database. Up pops a screen with headlines of the latest games (and scores), as well as links to articles, team pages and the like.
The system isn't perfect. In searching for “Pepe's Pizza,” for instance, it repeatedly returned “Cappy's pizza” instead. Vlingo says the technology learns the new word quickly if users correct an incorrect result. And not long after I corrected it, a search for “Pepe's” worked.
Assuming there could be higher uses for technology than finding good pizza and game results, another Vlingo feature may qualify. Vlingo users can push a button and say: “Send a message to Mom. My therapist says it's all your fault. Exclamation point.” Vlingo activates the messaging application, transcribes my e-mail message and, with the push of one button, sends it.
IPhone users will get a shot at Vlingo in November. Around Jan. 1, the company will release a version for phones using the Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems.
If you can't wait that long, you have another option, but it will cost you. Nuance Communications, which produces the Dragon speech-recognition software for PCs, sells a mobile version of the application, called Voice Control, for $6 a month. The application works on newer Windows Mobile devices, BlackBerrys and Palms.
As with Vlingo, Voice Control lets you search the Web and compose e-mails and text messages. And on the Sprint Instinct, Voice Control will read messages back to you – a feature that will probably come to all Voice Control users in the not-too-distant future.
Whether it will be enough to make the roads safe from driving-while-texting fools, one can only hope.