Dot.com lets you dictate `texting'

November 01, 2007|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you're over the age of 30 or just have big fingers, you may have decided that "texting" isn't for you.

By texting, I mean composing a message using a cell phone keypad or one of those Lilliputian QWERTY keyboards attached to a BlackBerry or some other hand-held device.

Adults should never be seen texting in public - it's rude and reeks of adolescence. And in some circumstances - when you're driving, crossing the street or having a conversation with your spouse - texting can be downright dangerous.

That's why I was delighted by a new service called Jott.com. Its premise is simple: if you have a cell phone, you can dial a toll-free number, dictate a brief e-mail and have it delivered as text to a single recipient or a group.

In fact, Jott will send the message simultaneously to a recipient's e-mail address and cell phone. For now, the service is free, and it works remarkably well - as long as you keep your messages relatively simple.

I learned about Jott from my son, who, like many of his twenty-something friends, relies strictly on a cell phone. Since our phones are on a family plan and I still get the bills, I've noticed that he makes far fewer voice calls than he used to, but sends a lot more text messages. Others have noticed the same trend.

"It's the whole asynchronous communication effect - society is being trained that they don't want to have face-to-face conversations anymore," said John Pollard, Jott's chief executive.

That may be a bit of hyperbole, but the proposition made sense to the tech-astute venture capitalists who financed Pollard and another Microsoft veteran, Shreedhar Madhavapeddi, when they started Jott last year.

I'm obviously part of the Jott's target audience.

Although I'm a fast touch-typist on a full-size keyboard, texting on a cell phone still ties me in knots. In the time it takes me to tap out a sentence or two, I can write it out longhand, put it in an envelope, drop it at the post office and have it delivered. My sons find this hilarious, which is why I love the idea of Jott.

To get started with Jott, all I had to do was sign up at Jott.com. The company wants your cell phone number and e-mail address, which it uses to identify you when you call and send copies of messages. That done, it's time to set up a list of contacts. Besides a cell phone number and e-mail address, the form for each contact includes a "sounds like" field where you can enter a phonetic spelling of the name - a nice touch.

Users can also create message groups with simple names such as "family" or "work," along with folders for stored or incoming Jotts, from others or reminders to yourself. How long this takes depends on how fancy you want to get. It took me about 10 minutes to set up a basic list of family and office contacts.

To send a Jott message, all you have to do is dial Jott's toll-free number (which I added to my phone's speed dial and voice command menu). When Jott's automated attendant asks who you want to contact, just say the name, or the name of the group. If there's any confusion about sound-alikes, Jott goes through the list till you confirm the right entry.

You can leave a message up to 30 seconds long. Hang up when you're through, and a few minutes later the message shows up in your recipient's e-mail box and cell phone message list.

What's going on in the background? Pollard says Jott uses a combination of voice-recognition software and human transcribers when the software determines a successful transcription is dicey. This happens more often than the founders originally thought it would.

"At least for the time being, we have to have people in this. There's always noise on the line, and people in America have so many different accents and dialects," Pollard said. "People also Jott with unlimited vocabularies, using proper nouns and place names. Speech recognition isn't that advanced yet."

Pollard said transcriptions take place in the same type of "clean" environment used for medical records: Transcribers don't know the identity of the sender or receiver.

I also was worried about the security of cell phone numbers - one of the few bastions of relative privacy in today's wired word - but Pollard says Jott doesn't give them to anybody, period. Nor is there an online directory of Jott users.

So how good is Jott's transcription? Not bad. All my test messages were understandable, but even with human intervention, Jott wasn't perfect. Some substitutions were harmless, but Jott did leave the "ir" off the word "irrelevant," which certainly affected the meaning of the message. But if you keep the messages simple and don't use a lot of proper nouns, you'll be satisfied.

One outstanding question is how the company plans to make money. After all, you can burn a lot of venture capital giving away a valuable service like this. Pollard says the company now envisions a combination of advertising on Jott's site (but in messages), along with two tiers of service - a relatively limited version for freeloaders and an unlimited model for business or professional users.

However it works out in the future, Jott is free and a pleasure to use right now. If you have trouble texting or just want to be able to dictate e-mail hands-free, it's worth the time it takes to sign up. (Visit www.jott.com)

Department of Corrections: In last week's review of Apple's iPhone, I understated the resolution of the gadget's built-in camera. It takes 2-megapixel images. My apologies for the error.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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Find Mike Himowitz's column and podcast archive at baltimoresun.com/himowitz

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