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.