Building the Phone Platform

Earlier this year at the Web 2.0 conference, I had a chance to host a panel discussion on telephone as the new platform. In a short amount of time I had to cover a lot of ground, and perhaps could not really explore the idea of building applications that turn telephone into a platform. The emergence of VoIP, and open standards like Voice XML have a big role to play in helping phone become a platform. Angus Davis, who is one of the cofounders of Tell Me Networks has pretty good idea about how to turn phone into a platform. He has been kind enough to send in this post about how VoIP & VoiceXML can play nice to create “Internet sized” opportunities.
Guest Column by Angus Davis
Internet technologies have changed how we communicate beyond email and text messaging. Devices and services such as iPod, iTunes, TiVo and Movielink change how we listen to music, watch television and enjoy films. The next pervasive communications channel ripe for IP-fueled change is the telephone, with a greater installed base than every stereo, television and movie screen put together. The resulting opportunities will be tremendous.
Much of the attention on these opportunities has focused on “VoIP” services delivering the same commodity service of local, long distance and international calling at lower cost. It’s true that VoIP will reduce costs just as Internet email reduced the cost of sending correspondence compared to fax. But the real explosion of the Internet occurred thanks to a range of entirely new applications beyond email like the Web, streaming media and interactive gaming – applications that had no old-fashioned predecessor.
As VoIP takes hold, what should we expect to see beyond cheap unlimited calling plans? Does VoIP hold the key to providing more value through differentiated voice services and applications, or is it simply a fax-to-email sort of improvement? Will there be voice equivalents to MTV and HBO – applications that drove adoption of cable television as key differentiators from traditional commodity over-the-air network TV – or will VoIP just be a different way to get the same boring phone service you’ve already had for decades?

Old voice application standbys that consumers and businesses have been willing to pay for like voicemail and conference calling have seen no major improvements in nearly two decades, because these applications are proprietary to each carrier’s network and not integrated with related services. It’s ironic that voicemail, the most broadly adopted enhanced feature among all wireless users at better than 70% penetration, is among the least differentiated of services carriers offer. Instead of differentiating on the basis of broadly adopted core voice services, carriers have ceded commoditization, turning their focus instead to features like camera phones or video messaging that will never achieve even remotely comparable penetration rates.
I believe IP-powered telecommunications will usher in a new range of enhanced voice services, changing the way people and businesses use the telephone. While standards like SIP enable innovation at the network transport layer, VoiceXML opens new possibilities at the application layer. Calls will get a range of new voice features; two-party voice calling will shift towards multimodal and multi-party communication as isolated applications give way to integrated services. Smart carriers will use these new voice services to differentiate and provide more value just as cable providers used ESPN and HBO to sustain growth in adoption and revenue per subscriber in the television business.
Drawing on the same technologies as the Web applications before them, next-generation phone applications created with VoiceXML can include ringback tones or call soundtracks from a record label, or sports scores and entertainment information from a content provider. Basic calls will be easier thanks to a smart networked address book, fast voice-activated dialing, and a simpler, better voice mail service designed for everyday people. One-on-one voice calls to friends and colleagues (“Call Mom”) will grow to include new forms of ad-hoc multiparty calls (“Call my whole family” or “Add my brother to this call”). The phone will be more fun and more valuable thanks to integration of premium content like music, entertainment and sports that make it possible for teenagers to share favorite music with friends on every call or for sports fans to discuss the plays from premium voice chat rooms. These applications, designed for broad adoption, allow carriers to differentiate and drive value on the basis of core voice services instead of niche gimmicks.
These new services are finally making their way to consumers. As carriers deliver VoIP networks, developers looking to innovate with VoiceXML applications see opportunities. For the first time, Internet standards are opening up the telecom network, enabling developers with new ideas for phone applications to actually build them and sell them. It is possible the next or eBay will be built on the open standards of VoiceXML and VoIP. With all the creativity we have seem on the Web, it’s amazing to think of the phenomenon we’re about to see on the phone.