Reality Check for Voice?

In a recent interview with CNET News.com, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) makes some interesting observations about voice technologies:

“Personally, I’m very frustrated by voice. If you leave me a voice mail, it’s not likely I’ll get around to answering it. But there is a warmth to voice. It’s a media that has been difficult to integrate with the Web experience. I have a friend who holds his notebook up to his head to use Skype. We need new formats.”

I can’t say I find much to agree with in Joy’s statement, but I think it’s healthy for voice technology advocates to hear from people who do not share their inherent enthusiasm for the medium. Like any other web technology, voice runs the risk of giving users an adverse experience if it is not used in the appropriate fashion.

What are the appropriate uses of voice in application development? In a recent article for Speech Technology Magazine, Steve Chirokas makes a keen observation on this point:

“The challenge … is to ensure that callers are engaged in a dialog that allows them to complete a task and also encourages them to call back.”

Voice is not the right medium for every type of intereaction, nor is voice-enabling a web application the right thing simply because it can be done. To be truly successful in the future of the web, voice must fill a need that other types of intereactive technologies can not. It is up to voice developers to identify when voice fills that need, and to be honest about when it does not.

Voice over IM and Constituent Service

I do a lot of commenting on this blog about recent developments in the Voice over IM space. You may occasionally wonder why such blathering is relevent for governments and their use of voice technologies to serve citizens and taxpayers. It’s time I clarified my thinking in this regard.

A growing number of citizens are using the Internet, and internet-based applications to interact with governments. There are many reports and studies available that document this trend – one of the most useful in my opinion is the annual survey of federal and state government web sites conducted by Darrell West of Brown University. This report details the changes governments have instituted in their e-government programs over the years to better serve citizens. One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the increased use of instant messaging technologies by governments to provide real-time assistance to citizens through a primary web portal.

According to the latest e-government report from Brown, the number of states offering IM services through their primary web portal is up to eight – as recently as two years ago, there were no states offering this service. Although, the Brown report doesn’t clearly document it (at least by my reading), several other states also offering IM-like services for citizens to talk with a librarian or other customer service staff person.

It seems fairly clear that as IM clients become more robust, and are developed to support VoIP calls, that citizens will become inclined to expect this type of interaction with their government. There are a host of different services that can be enhanced by offering this type of functionality. While sensibly designed web portals and web-based services have made a profound improvement in the quality of service, governments that offer IM services for their citizens recognize that immediacy of response is something that not all web applications can provide. Sometimes citizens just want a quick answer to a quick question:

  • How do I file an extension on my taxes?
  • Who do I call to incorporate my business?
  • Where do I go to pick up my fishing license?
  • What is the proper address to send my water payment to?

IM services can often provide a more efficient response to inquires of this type because they take place in real time. These services can also be used to marshal staff in disparate locations to answer inquires through a single channel – citizens with questions about tax payments won’t care if the person providing the answer is sitting in the state capitol, or in a regional office in a far corner of the state. As long as the answer is helpful.

As more and more governments move to offer real-time assistance through IM services, its only a matter of time before Voice over IM is added to the equation. Governments that are starting to think about offering these services must pay attention to the latest developments in this area.

AOL Gets in on Voice over IM Action

Looks like AOL is the next to join the Voice over IM race in earnest, following Google’s recent announcement of the release of Google Talk (still technically in beta – but isn’t everything at Google). Yahoo! and Microsoft are also expected to make similar announcements in the near future.

AOL’s Total Talk service looks to provide some very nice features — PSTN termination (i.e., users will be able to call a traditional telephone in the real world, as opposed to only users of the same IM software), E 911 and three-way calling.

It will be interesting to see if the announcements from Yahoo! and Microsoft measure up, and if this helps chart the direction for where Google Talk will go (or where eBay will take Skype for that matter).

Opera is Free!

One of the few browser’s to support the developing XHTML+Voice standard is now free.

This is a great step forward for the advancement of the X+V standard, and a signal to governments everywhere that it is now time to incorporate this new standard into their web pages and applications to improve accessibility.

Download the Opera Browser now and get up to snuff on how to create X+V content. Your customers (i.e., the taxpayers) will thank you for it.

A Little BIT of Change

Congress recently took another step toward overhauling federal telecommunications law to include provisions that account for technologies like broadband Internet transmission services (BITS) and voice over Internet Protocol. The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee released a staff working draft and is now calling for comments from interested parties. Definately worth a read.

Clearly the reaction to this draft will be drawn out over a period of weeks and months, but the draft raises some initial questions (at least for me).

It seems fairly clear that the bill’s definition of VoIP services and VoIP providers is meant to capture instances where a service offering (like Vonage) will replace basic telephone service. The draft defines VoIP services as:

  1. “… a packet-switched voice communications service that:
    • is offered with or without a fee to the public, or to such classes of users as to be effectively available directly to the public, regardless of the facilities used; and
    • enables a subscriber to send or receive voice communications in TCP/IP protocol or a successor protocol over a broadband Internet transmission service to or from any subscriber with a telephone number under the North American Numbering Plan or such other identification method as designated by the Commission;
  2. may include integrated, enhanced features, functions, and capabilities; and
  3. does not include a cable service or a broadband video service…”

The question becomes, how does this definition affect VoIP over IM offerings like Google Talk or Skype? With Skype Out, you can use a VoIP soft phone to make a call to a traditional telephone, one that has a number under traditional classification systems. Would these providers need to comply with the 911 and Universal Service Fund requirements as other “telephone replacement” VoIP offerings? I don’t think anyone would confuse Google Talk (or even Skype under the majority of usage scenarios) as a replacement for traditional telephone services.

Since the notion of VoIP over IM is relatively new, I wonder if this draft (as timely as it is) isn’t already behind the technology curve a bit.