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Cell Services Keep It Easy, and Free

Thursday, 5 Jun 2008 | 11:29 AM ET

You hear it all the time: “These cellphones are too complicated, by cracky! I don’t want to play music or surf the Internet. I just want to make phone calls!”

It may turn out, though, that these complaints are misdirected. Maybe the real problem isn’t new features — it’s the complexity added to the phones’ designs.

But what if there were a way to add features without changing the phone itself?

There is. Several super-simple cellular services are so sweet and satisfying, you can’t believe they’re free. They work by recognizing your voice, so you don’t have to master anything new on the phone itself — all of the complexity is hidden from you.

chacha.com

Certain voice-driven freebies, in particular, have earned a permanent place on my phone’s speed-dial keys. All work alike: you dial an 800 number, speak your request and get the results in seconds, usually in the form of a text message on your phone.

(Yes, the sort of person who uses the phrase “by cracky” may be unfamiliar with the glories of text messaging, and may bristle at having to pay 10 cents a text message, or $5 a month for hundreds. But remember: the services described here don’t require you to master sending such messages — only receiving them, which requires no skill at all.)

800-GOOG-411. Cellphone carriers have plenty to be ashamed of. Case in point: when you dial 411 to look up a phone number, you’ll be billed $1.50 or $2.

If it’s a business or store you’re looking up, for heaven’s sake, dial 800-GOOG-411 instead. It’s a voice-activated, national phone directory run by Google. It’s fast and efficient, and there are no ads or charges.

A typical transcript goes like this. “GOOG411. What city and state?”

You: “New York, New York.”

Google: “New York, New York. What business name or category?”

You: “Empire State Building.”

Google: “Empire State Building! Searching. Top listing: Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue. I’ll connect you.”

And your call is connected, just as though you’d dialed yourself. Or you can interrupt by saying “details” (meaning, “read me the phone number and address”) or “text message” (meaning, “send that info to my cellphone, so I’ll have it in writing”).

For residential listings, you can dial 800-FREE411 (not a Google service), although you have to listen to a 20-second ad. And don’t miss Google’s free SMS service, which offers business phone numbers, weather, sports, flight info, and more (details at tinyurl.com/ymeupk). But neither of those services compares with the spectacular speed, convenience and reliability of GOOG411.

ChaCha. Here’s another voice-activated service (800-2CHACHA) — but this time, you can ask any question at all. “What’s that German word that means, ‘pleasure from other people’s pain’?” Or “Who ran against Abraham Lincoln for president?” Or “What’s on the front page of today’s New York Times?” Or “How do you jump the battery in a Prius?” Or “Where’s the cheapest gas in southeast Connecticut right now?” Or “What’s the last flight to New York out of O’Hare Airport?” Just about anything, in fact, you could find on the Web.

After 30 seconds, you get a text message confirming that ChaCha is working on your question. A minute or two later, you get the answer, typed out in friendly English (“Thanks for asking!”), as though there were a real person on the other end.

That’s because there is a real person. ChaCha employs thousands of amateur researchers across the United States to field your questions, find the answers online and shoot them back, with a link to the Web page where they found the information.

They’re paid $5 to $10 an hour, which may explain the occasional unhelpful replies. (Q: “Why do British and American cars drive on opposite sides of the road?” A: “Because the British have their steering wheels on the other side.” Gee, thanks.)

Even so, ChaCha does a tantalizingly good impersonation of a personal concierge who caters to your whims, and saves the day with amazing frequency. Best of all, there’s no fee, no software, no signup or registration; you can dial it right this instant.

Jott. What do you do when you get an idea you want to remember? A brainstorm, a to-do item, a reminder you want to set for yourself? Writing it down is the only solution — so most of the time, you don’t, because you’re driving, or you have no pen, or you’re away from your computer.

Meet Jott, your personal transcription service. You sign up at Jott.com by providing your cell number and e-mail address.

If you’re a Verizon customer, you must also request that your carrier’s “premium text-message block” be removed from your account. That safeguard is meant to protect people from racking up bills using premium texting services (which Jott is not). Votes to “American Idol” by text, for example, cost $1 a vote. (I found that out by asking ChaCha.)

From now on, Jott is your personal transcription service. Speed-dial 866-JOTT123, and the conversation goes like this:

Jott: “Who do you want to Jott?”

You: “Myself.”

Jott: “Jott yourself.”

You: “Great idea for Act 2! Doing the laundry, Minna finds lipstick on her husband’s collar and sues the detergent company.”

Five minutes later, the transcribed, typed message appears in your e-mail in-box, complete with an audio attachment of the recording — and, if you like, also on your phone as a text message.

Like a new Internet bubble in cell services

You can also fill your Jott.com address book with other people’s names, or even add them to groups. That way, you can text your spouse by saying, “Hi, honeybones — can you turn off the oven at 6:30?,” or alert everyone on your team that you will be late for a meeting by placing a single phone call.

More advanced features: after you speak, the Jott lady says, “Do you want a reminder?” If you say yes, then you can speak the date and time when you want the transcript sent to your phone — a brilliant, free way to set a wake-up call, remind yourself to file quarterly taxes, buy a gift for your anniversary, whatever.

Reqall. Reqall is the same idea as Jott, but it’s primarily a reminder system — it even recognizes words like “buy” and “meeting” and stores transcripts as separate lists on the Web.

You can dictate reminders by calling 888-9REQALL, or send them by instant message, e-mail, text message or Web browser plug-in. Later, Reqall tries to remind you of things at the right time, using e-mail, text message or instant message (your choice).

Alas, the accuracy of the speech recognition (which, as with Jott, is done by a combination of humans and software) leaves something to be desired.

All of these services are so good, so efficient and so free, you have a right to be suspicious. How will they make money?

GOOG411 is technically still in testing, but even once it’s fully baked, Google has no intention of charging for it.

ChaCha is trying to sell its services to cell carriers and syndicate its system to other information providers, and one day intends to attach relevant ads to its text-message answers. (The company insists it will not spam or repurpose your phone number.)

As for Jott and Reqall: technically, they, too, are in beta testing. When they go live, the companies plan to charge for the advanced features, but they will always offer a free basic service.

The bottom line: There’s a new Internet bubble blowing, folks, and at least in the short term, it means freebies for all. All of these companies, and more, are beginning to party like it’s 1999.

So yes, it’s conceivable that the free ride may end someday. But in the meantime, enjoy it while it lasts. There’s no reason not to start using these life-changing freebies this very day.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.