(Re)defining voice service

After more than a hundred years of trying, the phone world has come to a reasonable definition of what “voice service” should be. This definition has been tweaked a little bit of late and is about to undergo a fundamental redefinition. The result will take a long time to determine and is not possible to even reliably guess at from where we now sit.

The basic definition of what a customer should get when ordering voice service hasn’t changed that much since the introduction of touch-tone and direct dialing for long-distance. The definition was heavily constrained by the user interface available (a user interface that has only 12 buttons limits the types of interactions possible).

These days, voice service is basically the ability to place a call anywhere, plus some additional features. The normal package includes call waiting, callback, call forwarding, caller ID, call trace and voice mail. These features frequently come as a package on cell phones and from alternative telephone carriers, but are generally broken out with individual fees by the regional telephone companies.

But we are in a time of rapid technological change that will dramatically change the possibilities for a user interface and thus the possibilities for new basic services.

Speech recognition has been promised for quite a while, and there are some indications that generally useful speech-recognition technology is about to arrive. In the past few years, start-ups specializing in speech-recognition technology have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and are beginning to roll out services.

Most of these start-ups think that given a chance, users will abandon the 12-button keypad and switch over to talking to-as well as through-their phones. While I’m not as bullish on this idea as many in the venture capital community and worry about the safety aspects of using this type of thing while driving, it clearly changes the user interface tools that are available.

Will the basic voice service of the future include automatically calling your lawyer when your cell phone hears someone call you a bad name?

The other major change in interface tools will be the addition of Internet connectivity to phones. Moving from 12 buttons, even augmented by speech recognition, to a full-fledged, Java-enabled browser with a touch-sensitive screen will explode the possibilities. What will basic voice service for such a phone consist of? It could include all sorts of interactive directory, e-commerce and other Internet-enabled functions.

One thing that is clear is that it will take a while to redefine voice service, and this will give a lot of companies the opportunity to help in the definition process. If they get it right, they will be well rewarded for their efforts before a common definition of voice service moves us back to commoditization and low prices.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University

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