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Google 411: Mission Accomplished

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When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) launched its free 411 service in 2007, its purpose was never a secret: The company aimed to collect voice samples to build Google's homegrown voice recognition technology.

Well, it looks like Google got enough samples. 1-800-GOOG-411 is shutting down in a couple of weeks. I don't think you'll miss it, and neither will Google.

Big G has put those millions of voice searches to good use on the Android platform. Voice-based phone number searches with automatic connection have become an integral part of the Android experience, and that technology is constructed from statistical analysis of the 411 data. It's such a good idea that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) had to copy the "free 411" idea for Bing. Perhaps we'll see the fruits of that less-heralded effort in the upcoming Windows Phone 7 launch.

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) decided to forgo the data-collection route; it simply bought voice search specialist Siri this spring. I don't know whether that acquisition has been worked into iPhone's voice commands yet, but the standard voice dialer seems to handle your contact list and spoken numbers, instead of running a yellow-pages search. In the meantime, Google's technology is available in the form of an app.

So from Google's perspective, the 411 project accomplished its mission, and it's no longer needed. The Bing service wants to send you advertising back via SMS unless you opt out, while Google never monetized 411 at all. A lot of the time, Google's business moves and service announcements are not meant to generate revenue on their own, but to help the company make money in other ways. Building a better smartphone experience would certainly qualify in this case.

Google shareholders might feel slighted by this lack of patently obvious cash-generation effort, but if so, they're owning the wrong stock. If clearly defined revenue streams and profitable projects are all you care about, you'll be happier owning an Income Investor pick like Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) or Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE: EPD  ) , where you'll find exactly that kind of profit focus translated into rock-steady dividend payouts.

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Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Enterprise Products Partners LP and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of and has written covered calls on Procter & Gamble. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (1)

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  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2010, at 11:05 AM, arucnav wrote:

    Google 411 is being used by people that are blind and retired on fixed incomes. To suggest that this service is now outdated and will be un-missed is very inaccurate. There are a great many people that don't have the fancier much more expensive phone services that will now be required to make a critical call using the newly obsolete goog411 service. These handicapped people are now being asked to fork over an additional $15 to $100 a month for advanced services and phones that they really don't need or can't properly utilize simply because they are blind. The service worked and, so far, there is nothing that can replace it at the same cost or convenience.

    You try living one year on a social security income and see how soon you will need to unload your fancy phone service

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2010, at 12:55 PM, skdelmar wrote:

    The marketplace has an alternative: 800-FREE411 (800-373-3411). It costs your time to listen to sponsor ads, but it is more useful than Googles as it can look up people as well as businesses.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2010, at 2:03 PM, safefool1 wrote:

    Classic case of "If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold." Now that Google have built their Phoneme database for their Android voice search database, it's goodbye to the freeloaders. I realize companies have to generate profit, especially for most readers here. Google could have used their hordes of advertising pros to make GOOG-411 sustainable.

    @arucnav great point. a chance to generate publicity for social responsibility. free-411 is a great service for everyone,especially on the road while driving around looking for a business. Though the fastest growing, currently smartphones comprise less than 20% of the US cellphone market.

    @skdelmar The other free alternatives, have some differentiating features 1-800-FREE-411 (residential listings) and 1-800-BING-411 (directions, traffic , weather) are ad-supported with complex menus (hence slower) and less robust. The Indian company JustDial 1-800-500-0000 (human operator) recently launched in the US with an interesting model: local search with a human touch.

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