Saturday, February 19, 2011

Voice: The Obvious and Yet Unutilized Tool for the Web in the Developing World

Practitioners of technology in the developing world have long accepted that the "normal" ways of interacting with the Internet, the ways that we Westerners have become accustomed to, don't always apply in the developing world. Mobile is a central and critical aspect to any well thought out technological offering for the developing context. At Google, we focus on it relentlessly. The numbers are clear: mobile penetration outstrips traditional Internet penetration by at least an order of magnitude in Africa. This picture becomes even more revealing when we look at the types of phones that people have. The majority of African mobile users don't own smart phones or even feature phones; the majority rely on phones with only basic calling and messaging services like SMS and MMS. So if we're going to reach the vast majority of Africans, we need to focus there. To this effect, a lot of work has been done around SMS. Google has launched its Health and Agriculture Tips, for instance, but SMS has a number of serious contextual limitations: illiteracy, lack of functional literacy, and local languages not supported by phone keyboards. But there's also another route that hasn't been so explored: What about voice? What about voice as a tool for interacting with the Internet?

I would posit that just as voice is becoming a popular tool for accessing the Internet in the developed world, it will become an even more important tool in the developing world. Sure there are limitations. Voice recognition is still technologically imperfect, let alone in dealing with the myriad accents and languages of the developing world, and interpreting voice commands is certainly more computationally intensive than text. But really, what choice do we have? By comparison to SMS, voice is immeasurably easier and more intuitive. Compare trying to type in precisely structured commands into a text message, especially in cases of limited literacy, with simply interacting by voice. Yes, the technology is more complex, probably the reason we've seen so little of it to date, but the value provided to the end-user is incomparable.

While Google is yet to do much in this domain, the World Wide Web Foundation has taken some interesting steps. The projects of greatest interest that they're working on are called Voice-Browsing Acceptance and Trust and VOICES (an acronym that makes very little sense if you click through to see what it actually stands for). Check them out. Both projects are in their early stages, so it's a little too soon to draw any conclusions, but it's very satisfying to see that the ICT4D community is actively investigating this avenue. In my opinion, it holds a huge amount of promise.

What do you think? Could voice be the tool that allows the developing world to reap the benefits of the web?

No comments: