Voice will be free and will converge with data (which will not be free)

AOL is the king of instant messaging (IM) and a cross-platform solution (but proprietary OSCAR protocol) but is doing little with true Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Apple has iChatAV with voice, video and IM (on Mac’s only but interoperates over OSCAR with others). Yahoo buys Dialpad to add voice to their IM capability (on the PC only). Google Talk debuts with voice (IM cross platform but voice on the PC only) and now our pals in Redmond pull-the-trigger and buy Teleos to add voice to *their* IM client (and I’ll bet it’s PC only).

Then you’ve got new VoIP vendors like Packet8 and Vonage…as well as VoIP offerings from the cable companies and traditional telephony providers…all scrambling to get in the VoIP game with their own products. Oh yeah…then you have the open Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) which purports to be a rapidly accelerating VoIP standard protocol. The intent of SIP is to enable providers to write their software to a common protocol so that all VoIP telephony products can interoperate vs. going off and building proprietary protocols with the primary intent to capture customers (a good example of a computer-based SIP offering is the Gizmo project).

So what’s up with these moves in to voice? Who is going to end up at the top of the pyramid?

If you think about what’s happening with mobile phone telephony merging with data offerings you can see through some of these moves. Voice is becoming quite cheap with mobile providers. People will pay a premium for mobile data services…the faster the better.  We’re seeing rapid rollouts of third generation (3G) networks like Verizon & Sprint’s EVDO and Cingular & TMobile’s HSDPA that is positioned as wireless broadband. We’re also seeing trials of citywide wireless internet services like WiMax. These moves make it pretty clear that the race is on to build and deliver ubiquitous internet always on access and grab as many customers as quickly as possible — and that it’s more about data than voice.

It’s clear to me that Microsoft’s move (after Google’s move after Yahoo’s move after Apple’s move after Vonage and Packet8’s moves which was way after AOL’s move with IM years ago….phew!) is all about ensuring that they’re not left behind the others who’ve already left the starting gate (voice without data is not interesting).

But it goes beyond that. All of these companies understand the explosive value of knowing when someone is online, what they’re doing online, and even where they’re located when they’re online.


Instant messaging has always provided “presence awareness”. You look at your IM client and you can see if your buddy Joe is connected. Sometimes Joe is at his PC and some times not and IM clients usually state the user is away when the PC is idle for a period of time. If you’re a Yahoo, Google or Microsoft, the more people that use your IM client running over your protocol, the better able you are to deliver ads, content and perform analysis on what people are doing (How long have they been online? How active are they? What are they typing?).

The next big wave is location awareness. Imagine that location awareness takes off since there is ubiquitous mobile 3rd generation (3G) data connections along with citywide WiMax for those times you use your laptop at a coffee shop, in a park, at a client’s office or wherever you happen to be located. This will accelerate and facilitate the ability to deliver content easily and within the context of the person and where they are at that moment in an actual physical location. Delivery of ads and social networking web services will explode.

I think the potential of this could be huge (as well as coming with profound privacy implications). I would love for Starbucks, Target, the Apple Store, MicroCenter, Home Depot, Office Depot, Best Buy, et al, to “know me” when I walk in (my mobile device displaying my authorized ‘public’ data) so they can see what a great customer I am (or not…so they can entice me to become one), and provide me with personalized offers, frequent purchase points, or whatever marketing scheme someone could invent.

This is happening quickly. There are rumors of Google buying up dark fiber and conjecture over them offering free WiMax city-wide wireless internet connections so as to allegedly offer just such services. If Microsoft *hadn’t* made this move and Google then leverages Google Maps, an IP address geo locator service like Quova’s, context analytics (like in GMail and Google search), coupled with both presence and location awareness inherent in Google Talk, you can pretty easily see how important it is for Microsoft and others to be in the VoIP race and converge voice with other personal communications and data services like IM.

My prediction? Voice will be free. Voice will be the “loss leader” for all providers (and both the wired and wireless telephony providers will be forced in to compliance). Data and analytics surrounding the data being consumed and the context (both the information itself as well as the location of that data consumption) will be key. The big opportunities will lie with matching this knowledge about a user and delivering access to them opportunistically that will entice companies willing to pay handsomely for superior reach to these connected people.

The winner of the voice-n-data convergence race (and the company at the top of the pyramid) will be:

  • The provider that figures out how to deliver a web services platform that others can build applications upon and deploy great killer applications to always-on, mobile, connected users
  • The one that figures out how to deliver innovative web services and applications cross-platform and across device types (all the tools are already in place to separate data from its presentation making this quite feasible)
  • Maintain presence and location privacy while being fully user-centric. A End User License Agreement for the use of Voice/Data/IM services will need to be expressly articulated so users will understand the level of observation they’re exchanging for the use of the service
  • Determine how to provide user-controlled identity management and directory services. This would allow users to “own” their public and private data disclosable to presence or location analytical capture and take care of the preceding point
  • Build to open protocols and standards and enable others to do the same
  • Rapidly deliver innovation after innovation on top of voice.

If any of the companies on the list above act evil (surreptiously using location data in a non-private way or presence data by doing something like “listening in to IM conversations” by parsing the text and analyzing it, etc.) will be found out pretty quickly and they’ll be crushed in the marketplace.

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  1. Allen Tsai on September 1, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    I’m sure there will be backlash from the privacy implications. However, fascinating projections.

  2. Allen Tsai - Technology in Motion on September 2, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    Google Theories – How GoogleNet, VoIP, Cost-Per-Call, and Localized Search May Tie Together

    Speculation about Google’s future plans.

  3. Russell Buckley on September 4, 2005 at 2:36 pm


    I came to much the same conclusions on MobHappy, albeit with some minor differences.


    This is really annoying as you wrote your post about two days earlier! Damn, and I thought I was being completely original

    Anyway, a nice piece of thinking and analysis.


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About Steve Borsch

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.