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The Longform

Dial I for Information8 min read

It’s the top of the 5th inning and the NY Mets have a runner on first. I’m sitting with three of my closest friends at Yankee Stadium, enjoying a crisp summer evening when suddenly it hits me: I didn’t check the price of a single stock I owned. Did it close higher today? Did it sink a few points and I should consider buying more? There’s only one thing to do. I pull out my Nokia 3310 and dial the number for TellMe. A computerized system picks up, I ask for the stock quote and get the answer seconds later.

The year is 2000 and long before the iPhone, Windows Mobile, apps, 5G, 4G, or even Edge mobile data, there were good old phone services. This is the story of one of those services. One where you never spoke to a person and could ask a multitude of things. This is the story of TellMe.

Information By Phone

TellMe was the brainchild of by Mike McCue and Angus Davis and launched in 1999. The concept of TellMe was a simple one: a person calls a number and is connected to a computerized system in which they can ask for information. No humans to deal with and you could ask as many questions as one wanted. The computerized system had fantastic voice recognition. It was rare to need to repeat a question. The service had a simple phone number (I can’t remember it but the last 4 digits spelled the word TELL) and was answered by a friendly “Tell Meeee” jingle.

The service, which was free aside from using your allotted cellular minutes, provided over seven choices.

TellMe had a broad offering of information. The service, which was free aside from using your allotted cellular minutes, provided over seven choices. You could ask for the time, weather forecasts, a news brief or scores of sporting events. Of course there was the aforementioned stock quotes. Most-interestingly was the ability to provide driving directions. Being the turn of the century, the world was still adjusting to MapQuest and the ability to get accurate directions on your computer. Printing directions out was becoming commonplace. It’s easy to see a scenario where one needed directions, called TellMe, then jotted them down as its friendly voice spoke them out. Antiquated? Sure. Vital in a pinch? Absolutely.

Internet Before Ubiquitous Internet

The early 2000’s were a strange time for the internet and communications. If compared to the phases in which a child grows into an adult, this would land firmly in the awkward teenager stage. TellMe was one of a bunch of companies working to make information more accessible while still bound by current technology. A similar ambition was a mobile internet service called Ricochet. Their goal was to install internet transmitters on top of lampposts across cities. It’s laughable now when cellular data does it faster & better. But Ricochet gave people in the mid-90’s what we all use now without any thought: internet on the go. TellMe may have been only voice-based, but it was a way to get new ideas pushed into current technology. If one was lucky enough to have a cell phone at this time, TellMe was a useful tool.

Investors were warm to TellMe’s concept. McCue was former vice president of technology at browser company Netscape and in conversation with Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr, a deal was struck to invest money. Perkins’ and other venture investments brought $238 million into the company by the fall of 2000. In speaking with The NY Times, Mike McCue admitted the windfall. “Even back then, it was a lot of money.”

TellMe Pivots

Running a free information service for normal people is great in concept. As a business model, it sucks. TellMe learned this quick and only two years after it’d debut they switched to a business-to-business model. The publicly available phone number would no longer be their focus. The technology they developed was perfect to integrate into other’s businesses. In that 2003 NY Times article, TellMe was servicing large companies such as American Airlines, Merrill Lynch, and Verizon. They also pitched the service as a cost-savings model for phone companies who’s directory assistance was still a human-ran feature. At the time, dialing 411 to get the phone number or address of a business was a vital service for customers.

TellMe worked to handle AT&T’s directory assistance which increased automated call handling from 15 to 70 percent. Each time someone called those magical numbers on their AT&T cell phone, TellMe got paid. TellMe’s technology worked well and it made the experience good for callers while reducing costs at the carrier. For a business looking to grow, marrying their tech to a company looking to modernize, it was a great fit.

Competing With Portals

The idea of a “portal” or “landing page” was a major focus for many companies back then. Businesses learned from AOL that if you could stuff as many things possible into a single web page AND get that person to make it their start page, you could keep visitors on your site much longer. This meant more ads displayed to each person and more potential revenue.

Now a call to TellMe would let a caller find movie times, locations, buy tickets to that movie, then get directions to the theater.

“Stickiness” was the term du-jour. This is how the Yahoo website morphed from a simple search to a monolith of content that was as messy as a K.B Toys. Netscape, AOL, Microsoft, ABC (go.com), all had portals just to name a few.

In 2006 TellMe expanded with Cingular (which was originally AT&T and would subsequently become AT&T again soon after) to not only offer directory assistance, but directly compete with these portals. Taking a page out of Google’s Voice Search beta, TellMe threw everything at the wall. Now a call to TellMe would let a caller find movie times, locations, buy tickets to that movie, then get directions to the theater. The service’s expansion also allowed the caller to get that information sent to them via SMS. This was a marked improvement from a computer dictating directions six years prior.

Redmond Calling

Five months after expansion, TellMe said yes to giant bags of money (skip to the 3:20 mark). Microsoft acquired TellMe on March 14, 2007, for approximately $800 million. Their goal was to incorporate the technology into things they had in the works.

“We’ve made great strides in speech technologies, but have only scratched the surface of what is possible. The acquisition of Tellme will bolster Microsoft’s existing speech capabilities, bringing both immediate and longer-term value to our customers and partners.”

Microsoft Business Division President Jeff Raikes

It is interesting to think of the push Microsoft made with their Cortana assistant for Windows Phone and into Windows itself. Did TellMe’s technology power any of what it could do? Did it lay the groundwork for further voice analysis products? It’s not too difficult to draw a direct line from TellMe to Cortana.

Only a year post-acquisition we saw Microsoft demonstrate TellMe directly integrated into their mobile OS. TellMe was no longer working as a phone call system but one where you spoke to your phone and got answers on your postage stamp flip phone screen.

Technology Catches Up to TellMe

2007 was a monumental shift for mobile phones. With the iPhone’s debut in June, everything changed. Android shipped a year later and officially started a turf war. Microsoft gave it the old college try, but Windows Phone did not last. The road to from 2007 to 2012 is littered with the corpses of many companies. Tons of products died that could not survive in any meaningful way. In February of that year Microsoft announced it was selling TellMe and shifting its 400 employees to a company called 24/7 Inc.

By this time Siri was already in customer’s hands and the Google Assistant was gladly answering queries for Android users across the globe. TellMe’s place in the world was gone and if Microsoft didn’t want it anymore, it made sense to sell it. 24/7 works on AI systems that handle automation, which lines up plenty with TellMe’s original mission. TellMe’s time had passed, but through any company using 24/7’s services, it continues to live on.

TellMe didn’t necessarily falter from being too early, but a service like theirs would’ve likely blossomed in 2003 or 2004. Siri was a powerful iPhone app that Apple purchased before integrating it into every iOS afterward. Apple saw its potential. TellMe was easily a competitor if it hung on long enough. Perhaps Apple or Google would’ve purchased it for their assistants instead. TellMe had potential and it was realized. Just not in the way anyone thought back in 1999.

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