Update: Sarbvir Singh, MD of Capital18 has informed MediaNama that Capital18 does only VC and PE investments – the private treaty deals handled by Synergy18; (and this is a Capital18 investment, not a Synergy18 deal). Singh appears extremely bullish on Ubona as a white labeled solutions provider – with deals on revenue sharing basis. He said that the company will be rolling out solutions for 4-5 “Large National Brands” in the next few months.

Original story: Voice is the flavour of the season in India. After OnMobile acquired French Speech Recognition company Telisma, Ubona, a voice search company has received an undisclosed Series A round of investment from Capital18, the investment arm of the Network18 Group. Ubona apparently has developed a patent-pending set of speech recognition systems, tailored to the Indian context – languages, accents and dictions.

At present, Ubona has a Foodie Hotline for Bangalore, and I just tried it out, from Delhi, by dialing 080-40700000

Hey, it’s McDonalds, not…
Maybe it’s my sleepy 8:00am voice, but I just tried a voice search for McDonalds, and the speech recognition offered me the following choices – Monark, Inox, Mughals, Shinoi Foods, before finally getting it right. McDonalds is present in multiple locations, so this was a trick question, and I was interested in finding out how Ubona deals with that problem. They offered the following choices – Kormangala, Cunningham Road, Old Madras Road, Brigade Road, with an option to list more. On choosing Koramangala, they connected me to McDonalds, after which I hung up, since I don’t think they’ll deliver from Kormangala to Delhi. I’d also requested an SMS, which they sent across, with details for 7 McDonalds in Bangalore

How Local Search is monetized
The revenue model is around lead generation – in case of Ubona, they’d probably be paid for every call that they connect to a restaurant. I’d spoken to a JustDial client last year, and he’d told me that every time his information his given to a potential customer, he pays Rs. 70, and for this, he received the customers name, phone/mobile number and email address, if disclosed, by SMS and Email. The information is sent out almost immediately. The service can also be monetized by playing an advertisement before allowing the user to search for information. A premium service (charged according to minutes of use) is also an option, but unlikely to be very successful on a mass scale, given that free services already exist.

Automated vs Manual
Manual services are likely to be far more accurate, but scalability is an issue. For every additional line, you’ll have to add another call center executive, and users might have to wait for their turn. So scaling adds to employee costs. An automated system is more expensive to develop and difficult to refine – different accents, dialects, languages, particularly in a country like India where dialects can change from town to town.

More on Synergy with Network18, Competition and Context

Why Capital18?
Capital18 will be able to bring into play the “Network Effect” that Raghav Bahl has been talking about – there is clear synergy between Ubona and Infomedia India, which provides yellow pages and online search. Since it is mentioned that this is a Series A investment, it doesn’t appear to be isn’t a Private Treaty deal (Confirmed: see update).

Competition
On the services front: quite clearly, the biggest competition that exists in the market is JustDial. Apart from this, there are other yellow page/directory services like IndiaMart and Getit Yellow Pages. Google is also piloting its voice based directory services in Hyderabad – 1800-41999999.

On the technology front: Google also has automated voice based search operational in the US, though they’ve chosen a call center model in India (so far). But they have the technology…OnMobile also launched their voice based MSearch recently, and though it is currently focused on music, diversification into directory services wouldn’t be too far fetched.

One final point
Ubona was able to handle the query when I asked for a specific restaurants, but it will be interesting to see how they’ll handle queries like “5 Star Hotels In Central Delhi With Banquet Halls” or “Afghani Restaurant In Lajpat Nagar”…or what if someone searches for “Singh is Kinng”? Will Ubona offer movie tickets, CDs, Mobile content?

Disclosure: I own an inconsequential number of shares of Network18