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February 04, 2007

Voice 2.0 – Fuggetaboutit!

There isn’t gonna be a new killer voice application!  Old friends from my VoIP days aren’t gonna believe it’s me saying that but (with lots of hindsight) it’s the truth.  New phones? Yes!  Different pricing?  Yes! New features? Sure.  Major new capability?  Nope!

My friend Jeff Pulver has been right about almost everything to do with voice on the net and now video on the net.  But I think he’s wrong (as I was) when he looks for major functional innovation in the delivery of voice communications.  Jeff blogs:

“A long time ago I suggested that the RBOCs (when there were RBOCs) should consider empowering consumers to upload scripts that managed the call flow logic of residential phone calls. A concept that was difficult but possible back then, and much more doable today, but I don’t expect to ever see such a service become available to the mainstream consumer because most people don’t know and don’t care what this means and there isn’t anyone out there today promoting the benefits of why consumers should want to have control of their call flows. So, guess what? Nothing changes.”

Jeff just means this as one example of a new application but let’s pick on it anyway.  He actually stated the problem: there is no consumer demand for managing call flows.  Only us nerds want to do something as complex as that.  Real people don’t write scripts or macros.  Voice mail is good.  Some people use call forwarding (primitive call flow management) a little. A few others use the ability to make multiple phones ring at once.  Caller ID by name is helpful.  That’s it; that’s all there is even a narrow consumer market for.  More complexity?  No way.

Why would people need call flow in the first place?  Only because they have too many phones through which they might be reachable.  People who use only mobile phones don’t need to manage their call flow (assuming they have caller ID).  My children only use landline phone in places where mobile phones are either too expensive or plain don’t work.  The solutions they need are lower rates for mobile calls and better mobile coverage in remote areas and inside buildings.  These aren’t revolutionary apps but they make the call flow management problem go away without adding complexity.

Complex office phones have been around forever because phone company networks didn’t stand in the way of innovation on internal networks. Anybody know how to use the features of these phones?  Nah.  Can barely get call forwarding, hold, and speaker phone to work.  Why?  Because the added functionality wasn’t worth the complexity.

In some ways the Internet has removed the need for additional capability on the phone network.  We hardly need fax anymore; don’t dialup for Internet access; can send email and instant and text messages; use our computers to download voice and music to our iPods; send pictures using IP; and call hapless call centers on 800 numbers less frequently.  These were some of the applications some of us were trying to shoehorn on to the old voice network before the Internet was widely accessible.  The applications exist but they’re not Voice 2.0.

Innovation IS happening on devices which are mobile phones.  We do like to reduce the number of delicate battery-bearing devices clipped to our belt so cameras, email capability, degraded Internet browsing, email, music and video storage and replay, and, of course, text messaging have all appeared on “phone” devices.  But the basic voice application – you and me chatting – has stayed almost unchanged.  The truth is we really don’t want to complicate that.  We certainly don’t want to LOOK at each other while we do it.

We do like to accessorize so there is plenty of room for thinner phones, ring tones, and phones that jump up and down and say “you’ve got mail” in sixteen languages.

Phone numbers themselves are obsolete so there’s room for some innovation in directories.  Friend Aswath is right when he asks about an enhanced directory service: “Wouldn’t having a screen based phone and the ability to select from my address book be simpler and cheaper?”

MacWorld is right when they speculate that the iPhone may become the instrument of convergence of the future.  They’re also right to point out that all of this convergence in the US would be on at&t’s network given the current restrictions on the iPhone (which I think will stop the iPhone from becoming the instrument of convergence it might otherwise be). 

Regardless of who manufactures it, we need a mobile handset which completely eliminates the need for the traditional landline phone.  Such a phone would work on WiFi when in our home or in a hotspot; such a phone would use VoIP or some other technology (the consumer certainly doesn’t care what) to reduce the cost of calling or being called on a mobile phone below today’s costs for traditional LANDLINE calling.  Such a phone would eliminate most of the need for having multiple instruments and multiple numbers.  You might choose to have a personal and a business identity, but both could reach you on the same device when you want them to.

Such a phone would be a business and a technical innovation – but it’s not a new application.  It’s an old application made simpler.  You want to talk to me, you push a button.  I know you’re calling; if I’m available and want to talk to you, I push a button.  We talk.  When we’re done we push something and disconnect.

PhoneBoy is right when he posts: “I could go on and on here about how beyond a small percentage of early adopters who look for all the latest and greatest features and the rest of humanity is content to use their phone service as it is now. The exception to that rule is that people are willing to try making their calls through an alternate path if it is significantly cheaper and not substantially different from the normal telco experience.”  I’d add that they’ll also use an alternate path if it’s more mobile.

Years ago Jeff Pulver and I offered a prize for innovative VoIP apps. We awarded it, of course, but nothing earth-shattering in the way of new apps was forthcoming.  We offered the prize because we thought the future of VoIP was in the new apps which it would enable, apps which would have been impossible on the PSTN where innovation is difficult both for technical reasons and because of network ownership issues.  I now think the role of VoIP – one which it is now playing – is to use the reach and cost structure of the Internet to reduce the cost of calling by orders of magnitude (essentially creating a new application in and to and from the developing world) and to make it possible to use a single instrument to call and be called anywhere.

As Jeff Pulver is fond of saying, voice is just another application on the Internet.  It’s an added bonus that the devices we use to do voice can increasingly run other communication applications as well.  We don’t need a new VOICE application; we just need to be able to talk simply and cheaply with anyone anywhere who wants to talk to us.

David Isenberg and The Rise of The Stupid Network is about why it is easier to innovate on the Internet than on the PSTN.

Apple Fails to Reinvent Telecommunications Sector is about exactly that.

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