Merging Voice and Web Applications

The Kelsey Group is predicting $41 billion in revenue by 2005 for the voice-Web market, including voice recognition, speech-enabled applications, and touch-tone applications. The voice-Web market is not only coming soon (like the nebulous, almost-there-but-not-quite wireless Web); it’s already here, with reliable, decades-old technology, completely reasonable costs, and easy implementation.

The key findings of The Kelsey Group’s report starts with this revelation: “Voice is already bigger than WAP.” Hmm… considering that voice applications predate the Web by about 20 years and that cell phones existed for years before they were Web-enabled, it’s no surprise that voice is still dominant. So why is this a revelation to the Web and wireless-Web planners? Because we are Webcentric by experience and by nature, so we haven’t yet learned how to optimize usage of other media.

The Voice Advantage

The Web is uniquely information- and text-based. It can provide bottomless amounts of information on demand, 24/7. But it’s also uniquely desk-dependent. Talk all you want about the wireless Web, but would you want to look up a 10-page support document on a Palm? At a 14.4 baud transfer rate?

Voice applications have at least three advantages over the Web:

  • They are as mobile as you can get. There is a phone or cell phone in just about every house, car, hotel, office, and park in the U.S.

  • They are as universal as you can get for the same reason. Phone penetration in the U.S. is roughly 99 percent, which far surpasses the most optimistic guess at wireless Web or Web usage.
  • Since people have phones and have used them their entire lives, phones are absolutely intuitive. Touch-tone applications are designed in a tidy, multiple-choice format with clear instructions: Press 1 for X, Press 2 for Y, Press * to go back. No browser conflicts, no new formats to accommodate, no usability confusion. And the voice-recognition-driven format is even simpler, with prompts for users to answer verbally.

Growing Voice Markets Overlap the Web

So, of course, voice is already bigger than wireless application protocol (WAP). Companies have been implementing voice applications for years now. The Kelsey Group references a few of the latest (Sears and Office Depot), but banks, insurance companies, governments, airlines, shipping companies, and catalog retailers have been doing this for more than 10 years.

Phone technologists adapted to the Web fairly quickly, implementing unified messaging, which became popular five years ago. Call-processing software companies started passing voice messages by email and by fax to email, allowing replies to voice messages to show up as emails and integrating all message formats into a single inbox. IP-based private branch exchanges took advantage of Internet-based networking to dramatically cut costs, implementation time, and maintenance hassles by turning the voice network into just another network. Telephony experts caught on to the Internet as quickly as anyone; so why is it taking Web experts so long to catch on to voice?

Wake-Up Call for Web Marketers

The wireless Web seems to be the wake-up call Webheads needed; WAP was just the bridge that got marketers thinking about mobile users and on-the-go access. As one industry leader said at a wireless-Web conference last year, “Look at your Web phone! It’s just a phone!” Most Webcentric marketers and developers would agree with the argument that phones are mobile, universal, and usable, but they don’t know where to start. Voice applications have been around so long that the technology is far more refined and, therefore, cheaper and easier to implement compared to strictly wireless-Web-based applications. Consider these voice-application advantages:

  • Customized applications for letting your customers access their order information start as low as $20,000. Compare this to the cost of similar wireless applications developed for Palm, Visor, phones, WinCE, etc.

  • Hosted services to allow phone access to customer information start as low as $2,000 per month.
  • A single application can be developed, and it’s instantly accessible to anyone with a telephone, even internationally; touch-tone is just about the most universal, standardized format there is.
  • Applications can be developed with multilingual prompts at little additional charge.
  • Implementing a phone-based service takes as little as 48 hours in a host service (standardized service) and as little as two to three weeks for a custom, in-house solution. The technology is so widely available and proven that time to launch far surpasses “figure it out as we go” wireless-Web development.
  • Voice applications can be developed as cross-media tools: Users can request a document to be faxed, emailed, or sent via a system-management server; they can listen to emails or any text; their responses can be sent via email, voice message, database, or any other format. The result is a flexible system that lets the user access information, reply, retrieve complex information, or listen to simple information in an instant, customizable medium.

Web marketers need to find new ways to serve their customers better, even when customers are away from their desks. Phone applications are the natural next step — they’re cheaper for the provider and simplest for the customer. Web applications crossing over to phone applications will bring positive market growth for both the Web and phone industries.

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