You Tell Us: Your Mobile Secretary

Image: Jott

Everyone could use support staff to take a memo or remind us of important events. Jott Networks, based in Seattle, offers an online service that does this and more. The company’s Jott software, which came out of its beta phase late last year, turns your mobile phone into a digital secretary by transforming voice messages up to 30 seconds long to text and sending them as e-mail messages to you or anyone else or as text messages to your contacts’ cellphones.

This is especially useful when you want to share information with more than one person at the same time. Just call Jott’s toll-free phone number, say the name of the group (whose contact details you enter on your personal Jott directory) when prompted, leave a voice message, and everyone on your list will receive an e-mail or text.

If you are looking for a reminder about, say, an upcoming business lunch, the service will ask you what day and time you’d like to be alerted, and you can leave the details regarding who and where in your voice-to-text message. You will receive an e-mail and a text message 15 minutes before the time you specify.

The service will also track multiple to-do lists for you, allowing you call up a particular list by name, prioritize tasks, and mark them as complete when you finish them. Jott also lets you connect to the Internet with your voice to send Twitter messages, buy books on Amazon, or check your Facebook page for recent contacts.

This is all great in theory. Anything that will keep drivers from hunting and pecking on a cellphone when their full attention should be on the road is a beautiful thing. But what’s the reality like?

Anyone who has ever used speech-to-text software can testify to its maddening capacity for switching homonyms and homophones and otherwise making a mess of their verbiage. One Spectrum editor recalls using an earlier iteration of Jott, sending an innocuous message to two of our colleagues about the reappearance of a certain mobile food vendor. If the editor had been a Catholic schoolboy instead of a technology journalist, the e-mail message his colleagues received would have gotten his mouth washed out with soap.

However, in a recent test of its abilities, Jott accurately parsed the nonsensical phrase ”Send seven smiling monkeys a message about the rain-forest depletion in Brazil”—complete with a period at the end of the sentence and a capital B in Brazil , plus the lyrics to a couple of songs. How did it improve so dramatically? The company explains that after a message goes through a series of automated speech recognition engines, it is sent to a customer service hub in India, where it is checked by human eyes for quality control and then routed to your device. So sending a message to yourself turns out to be a globalized version of tacking up a Post-it Note. And to fully cover its bases, Jott’s e-mail messages each come with a link to an audio file that allows the recipient to clear up any miscommunication by replaying a missive in the sender’s own voice.

But Jott’s improved ability to hear and translate your messages has not translated into an improvement in the human-machine interaction that makes it so frustrating to use an automated system to get movie times or check your bank account.

In one instance, I wasn’t sure whether the service had recorded what I had intended. A minute or so later, it sent an e-mail containing the message ”I hope this thing got that last message.” Mystery solved.

I’m willing to admit that I may have contributed to the problem. But that’s why I am willing to wait the extra minute or five it takes to speak to a live person when I contact my bank or the cable company. Listening to cheesy hold music is less frustrating than repeating myself to a computer that can’t decipher what I’m saying unless there is practically no background noise. And because this service is targeted to people who are driving or in other places where pen and paper aren’t handy, the chances are slim that there won’t be horns honking, machines moving, or other people talking.

If you have a little more patience or a knack for speaking digitalese, Jott has a free version and premium plans, starting at US $4 a month, that offer a few extra bells and whistles like apps that allow it to work with an iPhone, a BlackBerry, or any computer using Microsoft Outlook.

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