The Next Evolution in Mobile Search Will Be Built on Voice

In a crowded market for speech recognition apps, Vlingo has decided to focus on becoming a personal assistant, signaling an evolution from voice as a mere user interface and a means to avoid cramped keyboards on mobiles, to voice as a natural means of getting a computer to do what you want. Much like Siri, the personal assistant app that Apple purchased last year (s aapl), Vlingo has decided its future rests on helping users get things done without worrying about how they phrase a request and which app they need to use.

It’s a subtle shift, so let me illustrate. When I use voice commands on my Android handset (s goog), I have to find my program, such as text, enter in the content, then hit a button to record my message. I then see the message and I can elect to hit send. The message is recorded verbatim if Google is feeling good, although I have to tell it how I want to punctuate the message when I’m dictating it. With Vlingo’s Android app, I open the Vlingo app, tap a button, and say, “Tell Kevin Tofel he should try the Vlingo app.” Vlingo then opens a text message addressed to Kevin and fills out the body text with “You should try the Vlingo app.”

Instead of dictating text, I’m dictating actions. As a user, it’s natural, intuitive, and far less awkward if I want to easily interact with my phone via voice commands in a public place. For Vlingo, it’s also going to be more lucrative, or so the company hopes. By elevating itself to a personal assistant app, Vlingo has opened up myriad opportunities to generate revenue, from automatically opening applications offered by paying partners, to taking a cut of the sponsored ads if a query for movie tickets or a certain type of restaurant results in a click or a call. When I tell Vlingo, “Find me a hotel in New York for next Tuesday,” it opens Kayak with a list of hotels on the appropriate night. As a user it’s delightful, and for Vlingo it’s a source of money.

If I don’t have Kayak on my phone in this situation, Vlingo prompts me to install it. If I elect to do so, Kayak plays Vlingo a fee. If I clicked through to make a reservation with a hotel, Vlingo might also get a cut of that revenue. While Vlingo doesn’t disclose sales, it says the company’s revenue has been growing and offered the following chart to show where it thinks it can go from here in terms of the average revenue per user each month. As you can see, in 2010 with 8 million users (this counts everyone who downloads the app) it got about 14 cents per month or about $13.4 million a year. The chart indicates that Vlingo expects to make 22 cents per user this year as it ramps up its personal assistant push.

It also wants to broaden its user base and is looking beyond smartphones to do so. Vlingo currently offers an Android app (s goog), a BlackBerry app and an iOS app (s aapl) for Apple devices, plus it just signed a distribution deal to put Vlingo on Nokia’s (s nok) handsets. How that deal fares in the wake of Nokia abandoning it’s software platform for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform is unclear, but there are more Nokia Symbian phones on the market than from any other platform for now. Vlingo has a Windows Mobile (s msft) app, but doesn’t yet have a WP7 version. However, smartphones are only the beginning. Hadley Harris, VP of marketing of Vlingo, says the company also has a deal with two carmakers and a smart TV company to offer its personal assistant inside vehicles and so people can control their televisions from their couch without using a complicated remote.

For a glimpse of this future, download the free version of Vlingo and check out the In-Car function. Once done, a user simply says, “Hey Vlingo,” and then issues a command. The app takes care of the rest including reading back a text or email so you never have to take your eyes off the road to ensure that it’s correct. When comfortable, just say, “Send.” It also will read your incoming emails and texts out loud while you’re driving, which is pretty awesome, although it does drain the battery. For fun, you can ask Vlingo questions about movie starts, the age of the universe or other bar bets and it will search various partner sites and offer an answer.

Much like Siri, which was almost magical in implementing certain tasks, Vlingo has built a breadth of intelligence on top of its voice recognition software to take voice a step further. Given the improvement of our devices in terms of processing speed and the availability of information available through apps and the web, the evolution from searching, finding and then taking action to giving an order and then having the device search, find and then take the correct action on your behalf could be expected. But that doesn’t make it any less cool.

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