When people think about the Internet, I doubt they're contemplating the
complex network it really is. Typically, what they're really thinking about
is how they actually look at the Internet -- and that's via a portal. And a
portal means different things to different people.
The day is coming -- soon -- when portal sites will offer voice services
as a value-added differentiator. Which means it may be time for the PC-to-Px
phone call to step up to the next level.
THE FIRST STOP
So what exactly is an Internet portal? A portal can be the first place a
user goes online -- for example, the default "home" setting in the
user's browser. It can be a search site, or maybe a Web page bursting with
advertising -- typically dynamic advertising that makes MTV's
"movement" style of TV look downright "last-millennium."
Maybe this Web page is the only tangible product of some multi-billion
dollar market cap.com company, or of a company that provides all kinds of
When we use this definition, the Netscape and Microsoft sites become huge
Internet portals, since so many people don't bother to change their default
browser setting. AOL is also a portal, since that's many consumers' first
stop when they get onto the Internet. Sites like AltaVista, Yahoo!, and
Excite are also prototypical and well-known portals, providing both the
search site and, increasingly, informational services.
THE ULTIMATE ACCESS POINT
For illustrative purposes, I've structured a way to look at the Internet via
the types of services and infrastructure they provide. The
Internet is really the ultimate layered network. Starting at the bottom, we
see that ISPs (Internet Service providers) provide the access point to the
Internet. (Accessing this point -- be it via DSL, cable, or something else --
is itself an interesting topic. In fact, we've written about it in this
column, and will continue to do so from time to time.) The IXCs
(Inter-exchange Carriers) provide the backbone. The ASPs (Application
Service Providers) are increasingly providing more of the core services.
The portal is where the content and applications reach the consumer. In
other words, the portal is the ultimate access point -- where the competition
for the consumer takes place. That's why most of the money raised by the
.com IPOs goes into marketing. Getting consumers to the portal sites is the
most important goal. For instance, we see clever advertisements on TV
offering "free money" for switching from your favorite portal to a
Is this kind of promotion justifiable in the long term? I can't say. But I
do expect we'll see the portal sites try to differentiate themselves by
offering better services. And since I'm writing in INTERNET TELEPHONY�
magazine, it's only prudent to say that voice services via Internet
telephony will likely be one of the new value-added services portal sites
offer in 2000.
I expect we'll see all kinds of different offerings. For instance, some
sites may offer free phone calls but charge for voice mail. Others may offer
free voice mail via a unified messaging application, but charge for live
phone calls. Still others may offer free local calls but charge for long
distance. The portal companies are creative. They'll come up with all kinds
of clever ways to entice consumers onto their sites.
If you're skeptical, consider this. Last June, Excite issued a press release
announcing consumers could receive their voice mail, e-mail, and faxes all
at a single location with the launch of Excite@Home. Excite isn't including
phone calls just yet, but it's certainly shown it sees the light by trying
to offer value-added unified messaging services. Net2Phone is also
aggressively talking about voice being integrated into almost all Web sites.
HOW WILL IT WORK?
Let's consider a typical scenario. Two people at their separate homes are
connected to the same portal site. We'll assume each user has a single phone
line into the house and has chosen to be online using a dial-up modem. Since
their only phone line is tied up, the users can't make or receive phone
calls. What kinds of interactions can these two people have with each other?
Since they're on the same portal site, they can send e-mail, play
interactive games together, chat, or look at their respective personal Web
pages. But they can't make voice calls or use voice mail.
If the portal site was to offer the ability to handle voice, the users
could speak to each other. It's not such a new idea. When I first got out of
school, I used a VAX with VMS. The system had a feature, which I guess would
now be called chat - if you were logged in, someone could "ping"
you. You could both could type in messages for an interactive
"talk." I wasn't really into this, so if it was that important, I
would invariably type in "what is the closest phone number" so I
could simply call the other user. This is a primitive version of what it
would be like to add voice to the chat feature -- instant messaging, if you
will. It would be a powerful value-added feature, and a solid
CONSIDER THE CALL CENTER
Much has been written about how "push-to-talk" button capability
would enhance service for a consumer browsing on a Web page. Today, most Web
pages are really set up for self-help. The company saves money, since they
can cut down on the number of agents they need. The company can also
accurately serve more customers in a given amount of time. Consumers in the
U.S. like helping themselves over the Web, since it usually saves them time.
However, a company's Web page can really be considered a
business-to-consumer portal. Just as in the consumer-to-consumer example
above, adding voice services to this portal is a way to differentiate the
portal site. Looking at this as a portal enhancement and differentiation
opportunity is simply a different way to look at the problem.
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
What this all means, of course, is a renaissance for the PC-to-PC phone
call. In the January 2000 issue of
INTERNET TELEPHONY�, Lior Haramaty, in
his VoIP Connections column, explains why PC-to-Px calling makes sense. The
entire Internet telephony industry started by making phone calls via PCs.
Today, the industry is driven by rate arbitrage. Internet telephony is
simply part of the infrastructure, with the end points still standard
telephones. But Internet telephony applications are coming. And when the
portal sites offer voice services as a value-added differentiator, it may
just be time for the PC-to-Px phone call to step up to the next level.
Jim Machi is director of product marketing, Internet Telephony, for
Dialogic Corporation (an Intel company). Dialogic is a leading manufacturer
of high-performance, standards-based computer telephony components. Dialogic
products are used in fax, data, voice recognition, speech synthesis, and
call center management CT applications. For more information, visit the
Dialogic Web site at www.dialogic.com.