Interview: Free answers to almost anything by texting ChaCha

One of our readers commented in my earlier Google 411 service post that another text-message-based service worth exploring as an alternative to pricey 411 services is the newly launched and free (at the moment) ChaCha. I had a chance today to speak with the company's President, Brad Bostic.

He explained that ChaCha is designed to do far more than simply supply 411 info. It has gathered together a community of 30,000 paid guides with specific areas of expertise, who read and respond to the text queries. Having human beings reading and responding to your questions means that you no longer have to phrase them in Googlespeak in order to get a good answer. And, because the guides are selected for their knowledge rather than "crowdsourced" from a temp pool, Bostic is confident the responses will be more timely and accurate.

The scope of questions that ChaCha handles is unlimited, too. As a test, I had earlier asked my guide, who didn't know who I was, what that vertical groove between the bottom of one's nose and upper lip is called. (I honestly couldn't remember.) She came up with 'philtrum' in less than a minute.

ChaCha queries can be sent in two ways; as text messages from a cell phone to 242242 (CHACHA), or via the internet site, which offers an IM-like interface.

Bostic was particularly proud of the company's involvement with the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. There, the company will operate as a virtual information booth. No longer will visitors have to wait in line to ask the address of the nearest macrobiotic restaurant, the time of the next Michael Moore flambé or where to get a high heel removed from the barrel of a 1000 mm camera lens. Visitors simply text ChaCha and the answer will be texted back. ChaCha will have a 1,200-person army on the ground at the festival to help educate the participants about the service.

ChaCha was just launched on the 3rd, and for the time being is extending free trials to one and all. Bostic tells me that a paid subscription for unlimited usage is coming in a few months, cost unknown but probably in the $5-10 range, which can be rolled into your cell phone bill.

Bostic readily admits the company has international ambitions, once they have fine-tuned their product. I also wouldn't be surprised to see them integrate voice inquiry and response at some point. He told me directory assistance was a $10 billion business last year, an enticing target I suspect could swell substantially if people had more confidence that they could obtain the info they need.

ChaCha seems to have found a unique niche in the rapidly growing area of human-aided search staked out by companies such as Mahalo. Its funding is impressive, with investors including Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

There are so many free services in the internet age that I'm loathe to pay for one, but ChaCha may well change my mind. Especially if the guide could tell me where I left my damn car keys.

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