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Feature Article
May 2001


VoIP: Delivering Voice Chat To The Masses


Everyone knows that people would rather talk than type. After all, talking is the most expressive and fundamental form of human communication. One can easily understand why voice chat capabilities have been integrated into most instant messaging services and online destinations. So why hasn't voice chat experienced the same phenomenal growth as text-based instant messaging? What are the optimal ways to deploy VoIP for a voice chat offering? Understanding the obstacles to the integration of voice and instant messaging today reveals the great opportunities for the future.

The Demand For Voice Chat
Will instant messaging users and online forum members really start putting down the keyboard and picking up the headset or telephone? Probably not. Text-based instant messaging and chat are here to stay. All regular IM and text chat users experience its many benefits. The services are fast and convenient; text chat allows people to communicate at their own speed, threading text-based conversations through their other online and offline activities; text chat allows for free global communication; and for consumers, text chat supports anonymous communication with net-friends.

The goal of voice integration is not to replace text chat, but to complement it. Text messaging does have its limits, and often people want to take the next step to voice. Currently, ten percent of IM conversations result in a telephone call (results of a survey performed by Edge Research; July 2000). Additionally, IM users indicate that they would like to convert as much as 28 percent of their IM sessions to the telephone. The goal of integrated IM/telephony applications should be to make this conversion as natural as possible, leveraging the benefits of text chat while adding the benefits of voice.

The largest percentage of text chat, IM, and PC-to-PC voice chat users are teenagers. However, business use of IM is growing rapidly. At my company, for example, people IM each other before calling or setting up a conference call. Clearly, the needs of consumers and businesses, the two constituencies integrating IM and voice communication, are very different. Both PC-to-PC voice chat and integrated IM/telephony services need to be offered in order to meet the needs of all users.

Young people and hobbyists tend to use voice chat because it is a novel -- and usually free -- way to connect by voice. IM and chat users are extremely sensitive about preserving their anonymity on the Internet. It would be pretty simple for two people engaged in a text chat session to exchange phone numbers and call one another. In reality, most people are reluctant to reveal their phone numbers to strangers whom they have met online. The big advantage of voice chat for consumers is that users can spontaneously connect by voice without having to reveal any personal information. Consumers also commonly use voice chat as a way of avoiding international long-distance charges. While PC-to-PC voice chat will continue to be adopted and used by consumers, there is significant demand for a high-quality telephony service by those who want to connect anonymously and spontaneously.

While consumers value anonymity and cost savings, the strongest driver in the business market is convenience. Integrated IM/telephony services reduce incomplete calls and the resulting phone tag; they allow conference calls to be set up as easily and quickly as one-to-one calls; and they allow employees to dial phone numbers with the click of one button. For example, tight integration with Microsoft Outlook and other office suites will allow people to place calls by clicking a "phone" button in their online address books, with no need for looking up phone numbers and dialing. With the addition of Instant Messaging services, a "presence indicator" in the address book will let you know whether the person you're trying to call is available, before you even click the button. Aren't we all busy enough to prefer that?

Meeting Market Demands
As the readers of this publication know, VoIP is not just a transport method for PC-to-PC communication. However, it remains a common misconception in the wider public that VoIP always requires a set of headphones and a microphone. In truth, the benefits of lowered cost provided by VoIP transport, switching, and mixing allow affordable voice services to be delivered via standard PSTN telephones. This approach is a slightly more expensive proposition than PC-to-PC voice chat over the public Internet, but the increased cost is justified by a greatly increased quality of service. There is significant market demand for the higher quality integrated IM/voice services obtained with VoIP that integrates the PSTN over a managed network.

The IP media server is the ideal engine to power these integrated IM/telephony applications. Designed for VoIP networks, IP media servers are able to deploy a range of voice services and often offer an open architecture for application development and customization. This is particularly important when considering the future of presence and IM. Integrated office suite applications like those described above can be rapidly developed and deployed on an IP media server. In addition, IP media servers provide the media-intensive processing power required for conferencing functionality to be integrated with IM and telephony. IP media servers are easily integrated with a media gateway in order to provide interconnectivity with the PSTN.

Monetizing Integrated IM/Voice Services
Businesses and consumers are used to paying for communication services such as long-distance, wireless, and Internet access. They will be prepared to pay for integrated IM/voice services because of the benefits they bring with them. Consumers will pay for an integrated telephone/chat service that affords privacy and anonymity, is convenient, and has the quality that one expects from a phone call. Business users will pay for a service that helps them get their work done more easily, efficiently, and conveniently.

For integrated voice services to be successful, they cannot seek to replace text messaging. Instead, they should be recognized as complementing text messaging. For these services to generate revenue, they must deliver quality of service and be provided over standard telephones. Because of its flexibility and cost advantages, VoIP should be used as the foundation for these solutions. The IP media server provides the ideal development and deployment environment for current and future applications. When this is done, the full potential of integrated voice/Web communication will be realized. 

David Friend is CEO of eYak, Inc. The company provides IP media server software that runs on commodity hardware. SoftTelephony, eYak's software platform, powers services such as audio and Web conferencing, distance learning, and integrated IM/telephony. The company licenses its solutions to carriers and service providers. 

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