Is Voice Really Dead?

Rethinking Communications

Is Voice Really Dead?

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  April 02, 2014

ITEXPO (News - Alert) continues to evolve, and the latest iteration recently took place in Miami Beach. A welcome addition was the SmartVoice track, where the current state of voice communications was closely examined.

Before IP came along, voice only meant one thing – telephony. Of course, if you take technology entirely out of the picture, voice means face-to-face communication. For all kinds of reasons, this is the mode of choice, unless you’re hearing impaired or don’t speak the language.

We prefer voice not just because it’s real-time, but also because it creates intimacy. There is much more to voice than the words being spoken, and that simply doesn’t apply to other modes. While this may be our preferred state for communicating, it is becoming less common given how atomized the workplace is now. Telephony is effectively the next best thing for most of us, but with IP, this is not the only way to do voice.

In one way, VoIP adds value by making voice more accessible beyond landline telephony, namely via Wi-Fi on mobile devices, via the PC with services like Skype (News - Alert), as well as via a softphone on those same PCs. While more is better in this case, VoIP also reduces telephony to a commodity by making it so easy to do. VoIP providers don’t need to run their own network, and you don’t even need a phone to use the service.

Countering this, however, is the fact that VoIP is data, and packets flow over data networks at virtually no cost. Since the cost of providing VoIP is lower than legacy telephony in every regard, the prices charged for the service are lower as well. While this is great news for subscribers, it renders the conventional business model unsustainable.

This poses major challenges for service providers, and to survive, they must find new ways to add value.

Martin Geddes was the keynote speaker during the SmartVoice event, and his focus on what he calls hypervoice is one approach to consider. The theme for SmartVoice was voice is dead, with the implication being that carriers have to move beyond telephony to make money. In my view this proclamation is a bit misplaced, as it only applies to voice in its current form.

Semantics aside, the main message is to stop thinking of voice as an audio mode of communicating. Instead, carriers need to view voice as being raw information that does more than convey speech in real time. This isn’t such a big leap when you consider that VoIP is just a series of packets consisting of digitized strings of binary code. In this regard, voice carries a great deal of information about callers, their device, their location, etc. When that information is integrated with other forms of digital content in the network or even with the party being called, that voice call has value beyond the real-time conversation those parties are about to have.

Carriers have traditionally viewed voice as telephony, and in that context, it’s fair to say that voice is dead. Despite the advances in technology, however, the primacy of voice doesn’t change. We still need to speak to each other as often as before, but the monetary value of that experience continues to fall. In other words, carriers don’t have to convince subscribers that they should still keep talking.

While there may be less money for the carriers here, there is an unrealized potential in the information that goes alongside these voice conversations. This potential will remain unrealized unless carriers find ways to utilize the information in those voice packets, either to enhance the value of phone calls, or create new forms of value elsewhere. Prime examples noted during SmartVoice would be call recording or voice-activated applications, especially those that can trigger transactions. Another would be person-to-machine, where the endpoint has enough intelligence to process voice-based messages into actionable responses.

Building on this, we have the emerging field of predictive analytics, along with the broader umbrella of big data. When voice is reduced to data, it can be readily integrated with other forms of data, meaning that a simple voice conversation can tell us a lot about a caller’s previous behaviors and preferences, along with how this might predict his or her future behavior with the other party on the call.

This is getting a bit ahead of where we are today, but provides an indication of what Martin is getting at with hypervoice. In short, with VoIP, a conversation is more than just a conversation, meaning that a voice call can have more value beyond what can be charged for a phone call. Taking this a step further, Martin frames this in terms of the virtual experience being better than the real experience. As noted earlier, a face-to-face conversation only imparts information in the moment.

The virtual experience of a VoIP call over an IP network can add to that conversation by triggering other activities or processes without asking any more from the parties on the call. This is something that the carriers will eventually monetize, and when that happens, they may echo the chorus for voice being dead, but they’ll also be glad that people are still talking.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy.

Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi