Why finding an app that allows you send and receive e-mails while driving, complies with Ontario distracted driving laws and actually helps you get your work done isn

Good luck finding a driving app for that

The OntarioMinistry of Transportation’s distracted driving law is simple enough, butfinding an app that converts e-mail and text functions into voice prompts andcommands in a way that makes it suitable for business use isn’t so easy.

VlingoCorp.’s Vlingo app for iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Nokia and Windows Mobiledevices allows you to perform smart phone functions using voice commands.Certain features, such as dialing phone numbers, are available to use for free. On the iPhone, the ability send e-mails and texts will cost you either $6.99 a piece or $9.99for both.

Vlingo is apopular app, but physical interaction with your phone after the app launches is necessary to activate certain features. To compose an e-mail, for example, youneed to tap and select the e-mail feature from the menu. If you want to send atext, again, you have to return to the apps menu and tap the selection onscreen.

But features and pricing varies depending on the device you are using. SafeReader, a Vlingo feature available on Blackberry and Android phones, reads incoming texts and e-mails out loud and doesn’t require you to touch the device. 

Othervoice-based apps may comply with driving laws by not requiring you to touch your phoneto send or receive messages, but they may not be reliable for business use. Theapp may, for example, fail to consistently pick up e-mails or get blocked bycorporate mail servers. 

Some appsmay also fall short on full business functionality, such as allowing you tohear your e-mails but not reply, or reply to e-mails but not compose newmessages.

Text’nDrive,a hands-free app for the iPhone and Blackberry that launched in July fromMontreal-based Hands Free Software Inc., is one example of an app with goodintentions but a few kinks that need to be addressed.

On theiPhone, the app supports e-mail only, while the Blackberry version supports e-mailand text messages. A free and pro version are available, with the pro costing$19.95 and currently on sale for $9.95.

Afterlaunching, the app automatically checks for e-mail messages once every twominutes and reads incoming messages out loud. Further physical interaction withthe phone is not required, so it complies well with driving laws.

If usingthe pro version, users get a one-time option to reply to the message byrecording an audio file that is sent back as an e-mail attachment. The app doesnot convert audio replies to text, nor does it allow users to compose newe-mail messages.

But gettingthe app to receive e-mails in the first place is a bit of a struggle. The appsupports Gmail, Hotmail, AOL and Yahoo accounts and works with MicrosoftExchange if the IMPA protocol is enabled.

In our reviewof the app on an iPhone with a Yahoo e-mail account, the app didn’t detect allthe new e-mail messages that were sitting on the server. User reviews on TheApp Store also cite problems with receiving e-mails and reading messages incertain formats.

DarrenRoyea, marketing director for Text’nDrive, said the app “was built to garnerand address user feedback” and the company has already released “a bunch ofdifferent patches” responding to the complaints.

“We spent alot of time getting the app ready and we knew we were going to, as anybodydoes, run into certain bugs and certain things they need to fix, so we areaddressing them as they come up,” he said.

Text’nDrivewas intentionally designed to reply to messages rather than compose them, saidRoyea. The company wanted to create an app that would prevent people fromtaking their eyes off the road when they hear a beep from their smart phonewhile driving, he said.

“When thee-mail does come in, they are able to receive it and able to reply, so it givesthem the sense they are connected – but it’s much more safe in terms of adriving perspective,” said Royea.

Drivesafe.lyis another app, available for Blackberry and Android phones, designed to readyour text and e-mail messages out loud in real time and automatically respondwithout touching the device. An iPhone version is in beta and available fordownload on jailbroken phones. Branded as “the app to stop distracted driving,”Drivesafe.ly is powered by iSpeech.org.

But even ifa smart phone app provides business functionality and complies with drive safelaws, you may find yourself spending more time talking out loud to correct grammarmistakes than you do getting any work done.

“Apps intheir current state are ill-equipped to offer a truly hands-free solution formost users,” said Adam Smith, CEO of Toronto-based LiquidReality.

A couplemajor challenges come into play for developers, according to Smith. First isthe capability of the microphones on smart phone devices combined with thecomplex nature of natural speech recognition, he said.

“There area lot of issues with ambient noise interference as well as users beinggenerally distracted by the task they require their hands for when dictating amessage, creating a situation with extremely poor audio quality and continuityfor the speech recognition software to process,” he said.

Performing “real-timeaudio processing in non-optimal situations like a vehicle” is also veryintensive on a smart phone’s processor and battery, he said.

“Thesoftware would have to be able to intelligently predict what the user intendedto say when a word or group of words was not well detected because the userturned away from the mic to check their blind spot or paused their speech inorder to pay closer attention to a vehicle that cut them off,” he said.

And “thislevel of intelligence for the app would require pretty advanced algorithmswhich are difficult to design and implement within the constraints of the smartphone hardware and software,” said Smith.

A second challengeis that there are “too many breaks in voice control, if present at all, formost smart phones to be able to allow developers the end-to-end voice commanduser experience required by a truly hands-free solution,” he said.

For now, itmight be best to stop fiddling around with smart phone apps to send e-mails andtexts and stick to business activities using hands-free phone calls and aBluetooth headset or car kit.

Melbourne,Australia-based BlueAnt Wireless Pty, Ltd. specializes in Bluetooth devices andhas seven headsets on the market, including rugged and motorcycle models. BlueAntalso has car speakerphones and an Android app that reads text messages out loudthrough their products.

The companyhas some great products with excellent call quality, battery length,ease of operation and sleek designs. But the BlueAnt S4, a $119.99 carspeakerphone released in Canadain June, might be the best of the bunch.

Avoice-controlled speakerphone, the S4 is activated when you speak to thedevice. You accept and make calls using voice commands and if you forget what thecommands are, all you need to do is ask the device, “What can I say?”

The S4integrates with Vlingo Safereader for Blackberry and Android phones, Microsoft Corp.’s BING-411 and includes A2DPfor streaming audio from a music player or GPS app in your phone.

And if ithelps, download an app designed to help you resist the urge to check your e-mailor glance over at that text while you’re behind the wheel.

DrivePromise,an iPhone app developed by Andrew Arrow, doesn’t do anything other than ask youto make the following three promises before you start driving:

1. Phonewill remain in pocket/purse/glove box and will not be accessible during drive.

2. If phonerings or makes a new message sound, I will ignore it for the ENTIRE drive.

3. At redlights and other stops, I will NOT just check/send a few messages whilewaiting.

Follow meon Twitter @jenniferkavur.

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