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February 3, 2010

Q&A with Ashley Griffiths, managing director, EMEA, Vlingo

Mobile voice firm Vlingo has been enjoying impressive growth recently, particularly in the UK. EMEA MD Ashley Griffith speaks to CBR.

By Steve Evans

Q. Can you give us a brief overview of Vlingo?
A. The vision was to take voice recognition from a constrained basis to a non-constrained basis. What I mean by that is we’re all familiar with the voice recognition service when you’re booking cinema tickets – if you say 101 Dalmatians the system will understand what you say. But if you move away from the vocabulary of words that it has it doesn’t recognise it. You go round and round until you get to speak to an operator. That doesn’t work in a mobile environment, where people might want to say anything for a web search or a text message. So the early vision was to create unconstrained voice recognition. That means you’re allowing the user to say anything they like.

If you think about the billion or so devices that are shipped every year, the majority of them have Internet access. The one constraining factor is the keyboard – even on a QWERTY keyboard if you want to search the web, you have to find the browser, open it up, type in what you’re looking for. Wouldn’t it be simpler if you could just ask the phone? The premise of the company is: How do we unlock all the capacity of these devices that is constrained by the keyboard.

Q. How is the product developing?
A. We’ve moved beyond US English to UK English, Spanish, Italian and German and we’re rolling out more languages during 2010. It adapts to the user’s voice and the way they say things. As new words come into the vocabulary every day and someone searches for it, the word can be added to the system. It’s completely automated; there are no humans involved, we don’t know who the user is and we couldn’t identify them in any way. We are compliant with the appropriate legislation on privacy in the EU and US.

Q. Why offer your app through a freemium model?
A. We recognised that a lot of people have had pretty bad experiences of voice recognition; there is quite a lot of scepticism in the market place. We deal with that by initially offering a free product to build up usage. We then moved to a freemium model where you can download our app with some free functionality, such as web search, open applications and Facebook updates. Users wanting more functionality, such as email and SMS, can upgrade for a one-off payment or a monthly fee of $21.

Q. You software comes pre-installed on a number of devices, such as BlackBerrys and Nokias. Why did they choose you rather than Google?
A. I think the handset manufacturers and carriers are recognising that if they allow Google to route the information through its voice application then they will lose control over what is now recognised as the future stream – the services you can get through a phone. Nokia realises that their future is not just in manufacturing phones, the revenue is going to come through the services they provide through the Ovi app store. If companies have control or influence over where they route the traffic it’s an additional revenue stream.

Q. What do you make of Google’s voice technology?
A. It’s good technology and you’re always looking to benchmark yourself against other competitors. Right now the strategic landscape shows that there are probably three companies competing with us: Google, Microsoft and Nuance. We’re the leaders and as such I think we’re 18 months ahead of the competition. None of them yet have the same level of deployed technology that we do. We have the greatest language converge, feature set and we’ve been in market longer. But clearly that gap is closing when a company like Google can throw endless resources at it. We believe that there will always be a market for a company that isn’t Google.

Q. So do you think you may be an acquisition target for Google?
A. Clearly with any start-up business you’re looking at the exit strategy in terms of an IPO or an acquisition. We could probably come up with a list of five or 10 companies that might have some reason to buy Vlingo and I’m sure Google would be on that list, as would several others.

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