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The most obvious change this kind of interaction would make for users is a simplifying of the complex menu structures that have evolved as cell phones handle more tasks. By using a natural-language navigation system, users can perform functions without digging through layers of menus or sifting through dozens of Google hits on a tiny screen. The mobile version of Start can also glean information from a phone’s GPS device and the Web, or interact with and send commands to applications on the phone, such as an address book and calendar.

For instance, if the user is lost, he or she might simply ask the phone, “Where am I?” – and a map of his or her current location would appear on the screen. Or they could even ask, “How do I get to Brad’s house from here?” and the phone would locate that address in a contacts list, determine your current location using GPS, go to Mapquest, and pull up online directions.

The language commands will also enable people to have their various technologies communicate with other’s devices, removing entirely the need to send a dizzying array of text messages, e-mails, and voice mails to others. For instance, an individual would have the ability to tell the phone, “Remind my mother to take her medicine at three tomorrow,” and Nokia’s application would set up an alarm in the mother’s phone calendar, if she has a MobileStart phone.

Of course, with more complex actions – such as interacting with other devices – Start and other natural-language navigation software systems begin to bog down. In order to perform some kinds of applications that cell-phone users will want, MobileStart will have to learn “the way the user sees the world,” says Katz. For example, if someone tells the phone to “call Joe,” but there is more than one Joe in the address book, Katz says MobileStart will need to use past behavior to infer which Joe is meant, a task that takes more complex algorithms that are still being developed. “We want to make sure the phone understands what the user is saying without burdening them with clarification questions.”

MobileStart should also be able to deal with more complicated preference issues. For instance, if a user tells the phone, “Remind my mother to take her medicine at three tomorrow,” it needs to determine how to best deliver that message. If the phone knows – through past experience or a set command – that both people prefer to communicate by text messages, it could send a text message.

What’s more, Katz said there may also be a larger challenge on the horizon – one that’s distinct to digital, mobile culture: text-messaging shorthand. The Web-based version of Start can currently detect and prompt the user to correct spelling errors – but if someone types “how do I get 2 Boston from Cambridge,” – a common shorthand with mobile devices – the phone will send this misreading: “Unfortunately, I don’t know how you get Boston from Cambridge.”

Currently, the Start system knows only English (although it can access Google’s language tools to translate phrases). Its parsing system – what it uses to divide a query into object, property, and value – could be used with any human language, but Katz will need to teach it a new vocabulary and syntax for each new language.

Nokia is trying to make its mobile devices more user-friendly and reduce the interface problems that keep devices from being as practical as they can be. With this attempt to make natural languages and technology compatible, Nokia is entering the Web 2.0 movement – just as Google recently did with its calendar application [see “Google’s Time Keeper”].

Ideally, says Katz, MobileStart will be combined with voice-to-text software to make using cell phones even easier. Indeed, Nokia’s Iannucci points to an irony: “cell phones are inherently voice devices, but they don’t use voice as a modality.”

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