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Old 10-05-2005, 07:38 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default [2005-10-05] Go Ahead, You Can Ask Anything

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Go Ahead, You Can Ask Anything

Go Ahead, You Can Ask Anything

AskMeNow Service Sends Answers
To Your Handset In a Matter of Seconds
October 5, 2005; Page D12
If you're one of those people who thinks he's always right, but can't prove it on the spot, we might have just the technology for you.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested a new service called AskMeNow that attempts to be like a digital version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's phone-a-friend. This service works by answering questions of all sorts in just a few minutes for free, or in some cases for 49 cents per question.


AskMeNow answers your questions in SMS or email format, sent directly to your mobile device, for free or 49 cents each.


AskMeNow, based in Irvine, Calif., is a division of Ocean West Holding Corp. and is currently only available in beta (or prerelease version), but its full-scale service will come out in the beginning of next month. Its concept is very straightforward: You send questions to the service by calling from your cellphone or emailing directly from a portable smartphone, and answers are sent back to your phone or hand-held via Short Messaging Services (SMS) or email within about a minute.

Questions can be asked for free using a form-entry method, called "auto answers," or by calling in questions that don't fit into one of the form-entry categories. (These are referred to as "AskAnything" questions, and they are the ones that cost 49 cents each.)

To answer your questions, the company employs real people who sit at computers in the Philippines, furiously researching the Internet (using data from content partnerships) trying to respond to your queries within three minutes. This doesn't always mean the response is correct. It simply means that the retrieved information was online somewhere. But our results proved rather accurate.

If your question has been asked before, it's more likely to get a faster response because its answer is already on file. AskMeNow reserves the right to not answer questions that aren't family friendly. The service sometimes answers opinion questions using opinions posted online, but we couldn't get an answer to our question, "What is the hippest bar in Washington, D.C.?"

To start using AskMeNow, users must go to its Web site, www.askmenow.com, to enter sign-up information including your name, ZIP Code, country and cellphone number; you'll never have to enter credit-card information as fees are all charged through your carrier. BlackBerry users also need to enter their email addresses, because answers are emailed to BlackBerrys. On all other phones and devices they are sent via SMS.

AskMeNow began its testing with BlackBerry devices, and these hand-helds are still the most compatible with the service right now. Katie used a BlackBerry 7290 to test a few features, including a downloadable version of the program that resides on your hand-held. This included eight icons for auto-answer questions, or form-entry categories, that make it simple to get information about certain categories including weather, stocks, directory assistance, sports, movies, flights, directions and horoscopes. Answers to these questions are free, excluding carrier fees.

Next month, AskMeNow plans to offer downloadable auto-answer programs for other phones and gadgets, including the Palm Treo and other cellphones. Extra icons will also become available, eventually including one that saves local settings so you can more easily ask about restaurants, movies and weather in your area.


Katie tested these auto answers with questions about the weather in the small town of Batesville, Ark., by entering the city and state in the appropriate blank spaces. About 10 seconds later, an email message including the five-day forecast for this locale appeared in her inbox. Another question returned the name, address and phone number for a nearby movie theater where "In Her Shoes" was playing, by just entering the movie title. She also saw final scores for a Red Sox game by selecting "MLB" from a list and typing out the team name.

I used my Treo smartphone to sign up for AskMeNow, and asked my questions by calling 585-419-0412. Currently, instructions for call-in questions are as simple as stating your question and hanging up, but when the service comes out of beta (and the phone number changes to 1-888-EZ-ASK ME), it will offer more-specific narrations to differentiate between auto-answer questions and others that fall under the AskAnything category and incur a 49-cent fee per question.

I asked why the leaves on trees were green and received a formulaic, but seemingly correct, answer involving chlorophyll.

Katie also tried the call-in questioning, asking a specific question about the average life expectancy of males and females, as well as a general question about whether it's worse for your health to smoke every day or drink every day. The first question returned a satisfying answer from the National Center for Health Statistics, but AskAnything said it couldn't respond to the second question due to company policy. The question was actually interpreted incorrectly as "What is worse for your house" instead of "health." Exaggerated pronunciation must be used for the call-in questions, we learned.

You can also ask these AskAnything questions using the downloadable hand-held program, which Katie did by selecting the AskAnything icon on her BlackBerry, typing out a question and pressing send, just like with regular emails. At its start, the company expected users to ask more cut-and-dry questions, but it soon found questions coming in that ranged from what to wear on a date to why the sky is blue (we also asked the latter).

We asked some tough questions like, "Where are the Rolling Stones playing tonight in Washington, D.C.?" and "Why do men have nipples?" But we got accurate responses to both. Katie even tried a snarky question: Why are girls smarter than boys? But the response just said that her question was unanswerable due to editorial policy.

In its release mode, AskMeNow will run one-liner "sponsored by" references to other companies at the very bottom of each answer response. It will also sell ringtones, cellphone wallpaper (screen designs) and games using icons in the auto-answer section.

Users who sign up for the service now will have to re-register with the revised version that will be released in November, as that new version won't be able to transfer accounts from the current registry. But sign-up doesn't take long at all.

If you're asking yourself whether AskMeNow is worth a try, we think the answer is yes. But take heed, all ye who think you've found the way to prove that you really are always right; AskMeNow just might prove you wrong.
http://online.wsj.com/public/article...f_main_tff_top
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