Katherine Boehret

Directions Are a Cellphone Call Away

It’s hard to remember a day when drivers set off on road trips with just a few hand-written directions and the map in the glove compartment for backup. Today, a stop at the computer is for many people almost as essential as a stop at the gas station. With a few keystrokes, anyone can print a list of turn-by-turn instructions from a Web site.

But what about when you need directions and you’re unable to get to a computer? The same companies that you look to for directions on your home PC are eager to help out on your cellphone, including Google, Yahoo and MapQuest. But while the mobile versions of these services are improving, the user interface of a cellphone isn’t ideal for inputting addresses and extracting directions. Even smart phones with larger screens and full keyboards can be hampered by slow Internet speeds.

This week I tried a service that cuts the time it takes to get directions from a cellphone. It’s called Dial DIR-ECT-IONS, and it works as it sounds: You dial the word “directions” into a cellphone (347-328-4667) and speak the address, name of business chain or event to which you need directions. Step-by-step directions are instantly sent to your phone via SMS, or text message.

This isn’t a substitute for phones that have GPS and can give real-time directions, and it may not be ideal for those who need visual cues, like turn-by-turn maps, but it is very convenient on the go and works on any basic cellphone.

The service, from a determined start-up called Dial Directions Inc., is free — except for the cost of receiving text messages on your phone. After the first 30 days of use, a one-line advertisement will start appearing at the bottom of the last text message sent per set of directions (some take multiple text messages to include all of the steps).

In many instances, I found using Dial Directions to be helpful and efficient, a welcome change from squinting to see miniature maps on cellphone screens. It’s smart enough to ask you if you know how to get to the highway, thus saving you from reading directions you already know. I tried the service with a few different cities — you don’t have to be in the city to use it because GPS isn’t involved — and valued the instant gratification of returned results with so little effort.

Dial Directions is still a work in progress. The service prides itself on superb voice-detection technology, but in one instance, it interpreted “New York City” as “Newark, N.J.,” and didn’t stop to check the accuracy of this, forcing me to hang up to restart. And the two other aspects of the service, finding business chains and events, need just a little more time to include a better variety of businesses.

The service was launched in July, but this week marks its expansion to nine metropolitan areas, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento, Calif. The service still isn’t in major cities like Boston and Philadelphia, but these cities and others will be included within the next month, in the company’s attempt to take the service nationwide.

Dial Directions also plans to add landmarks in the next month. I tried asking for directions to the White House and Yankee Stadium without any luck. General terms will also be better integrated into the service. I tried saying “movies” but Dial Directions thought I was saying “Mervin’s” one time and “Arby’s” the next. Just 40 terms, including “hotel” and “gas station,” are usable right now.

I called Dial Directions from a Motorola Razr cellphone, a Research In Motion BlackBerry Curve and an Apple iPhone. All worked well. Since SMS messages are limited to about 160 characters, regardless of your phone, none of the directions came through in just one message; most directions required from two to five text messages. Symbols help to shorten the messages, like using “L @ Maryland Ave. SW” to tell a user to turn left at Maryland Avenue Southwest.

To receive these directions, you must first tell the service what you’re looking for. The female voice representing Dial Directions is friendly and doesn’t sound stiff and robotic. She offers to give instructions on how to use the service if you don’t know how. After telling her what you’re looking for, she asks what city you’re in and where you’re trying to go.

I tried a variety of addresses and intersections; the system suggests not saying “Street” or “Avenue.” In certain instances when a highway was involved, I was asked if I knew how to get on the highway, and if I did, that extra text wasn’t included in my directions. Once I confirmed what I was looking for, the voice said directions would be on the way in a couple of text messages. Each time, they appeared on my phone almost instantly.

In the case of business chains or general terms like “hotel,” the voice told me first of the closest one it knew, asking me to confirm whether or not it had found the right place. If I said no, it suggested four more that were the next closest. This worked well in most cases, including searches for McDonald’s, Bloomingdale’s, Starbucks and pizza. However, in a hunt for the closest Dunkin’ Donuts, it couldn’t find four stores that were located a mile from my office in downtown D.C.; instead, it thought the closest one was in Arlington, Va.

The company pledges that this and other faults will be improved over the next month as its database is improved and as more users report issues that can be corrected.

Directions to local events can be retrieved as long as the event is posted on DialDirections.com. Then anyone can just say the name of the event (like “DC Shorts Film Festival”) to receive directions to that event. But this feature, too, isn’t what it should be right now. On my way to a Washington Nationals game, I couldn’t get the service to recognize the name of my event, which was frustrating.

If the company can correct some of its hit-or-miss aspects, this free service could be a big help, especially for people who don’t own smart phones. But even if you do own a smart phone, it’s faster than typing in data and waiting for a Web browser to retrieve the directions. If this service can improve its ability to find nearby businesses, this alone could be really useful.

When it knows about more locations, Dial Directions will be a great service. As it stands now, it’s helpful for directions from one address to another in certain areas. Sometimes, the most straightforward solutions really do work best.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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