While you're marveling over the simple prospect that more
cable systems will soon carry telephone calls -- some via voice-over-Internet protocol
(VoIP) -- others are already making plans for integrated voice and Web convergence.
This doesn't just mean integrated carriage, but actually
new kinds of multiple-media phone-plus-data services -- and video, too, if it's necessary.
Whether it's Web-enhanced telephony, or voice-enhanced
Web-watching, the combination opens up new prospects for e-commerce, collaborative
entertainment, distance learning, tele-work conferencing and dozens of other applications
-- many of which could be revenue-producing.
These kinds of applications must have been on Intel's mind
when it paid $780 million early this month for Dialogic, which makes software and add-on
cards for "unified" messaging services. It was Intel's second-largest
Obviously Intel has its eyes (and ears) on supplying the
servers and desktop (set-top) technology for the hybrid packages heading our way.
Integrated voice-data ventures offer all kinds of
talk-along -- or talk-back -- opportunities for interactive media. Aside from the obvious
online games -- where kibitzers can actually speak, and not just type their remarks -- the
integration will encourage creative, useful collaborations.
Let's say you and several other couples are planning a
Saturday-night outing. Through an Internet conference call, you all log onto a mutual Web
experience from your homes. Everyone is looking at the same Web pages, which are navigated
by one of the participants, who steers through sites that everyone sees simultaneously.
You're also linked together via a voice connection.
Collectively, you browse through Zagat's online restaurant guide (or Sidewalk, or
CitySearch, depending on your preference) and check out Moviefone for show times and
reviews, all the while discussing (by voice) what you have a taste for and who has already
seen which movie.
Phone in your reservations to complete the experience, and
buy tickets online while you're at it. It beats rounds and rounds of phone calls to set up
a casual get-together.
Similar voice-plus-Web collaborations are even more
productive in telecommuting and distance-learning situations -- which will especially
benefit from cable (or DSL) "broadbandwidth" capabilities.
You can imagine the possibilities when teen-agers get into
socializing surf -- comparing personal Web pages (and Web-cam images) amid the group
gossip: System busy!
AT&T actually explored such integrated voice-plus-Web
options several years ago. It sought a differentiating element for its WorldNet
Internet-access service, while also creating a new revenue stream for its telephone
conference-calling business. (Actually, AT&T hoped to integrate all of this with its
"Universal Credit Card," which it subsequently sold off to Citigroup.)
The hybrid package never reached the market, although if
someone at A&T Broadband wanted to reinvent the service, it might have a better chance
in the new Internet-savvy environment.
Voice-plus-Web integration is catching the eye of computer
and telecommunications giants, as well as Silicon Valley start-ups.
OneBox.com popped out of its start-up shell last week,
sketchily unveiling plans for a "free" service that lets users send voice mail
through its existing e-mail system. Although the system does not have text-to-voice or
voice/text conversion (yet), the company promises plenty of other functionality to attract
In addition to enhanced-usage services (private lines, ICQ
integration, voice-mail-storage services), OneBox.com envisions ad-support and
Another even more secretive Bay Area developer, Lipstream,
is looking at customer-service applications to enhance Web shopping. The basic idea is
that a human sales clerk can be available online to answer questions and offer personal
advice or tips during an e-commerce session.
Again, by coordinating with a Web-browsing episode, the
shopper and the salesperson can see the same product and talk simultaneously. Although
labor-intensive, the process could prove especially valuable for customer service
(explanations and online demonstrations) and other situations where on-screen write-ups
are not enough.
Also among the slew of start-ups is TalkStar.com, which
plans to launch its unified voice and Internet-messaging package this fall.
TalkStar (based in Menlo Park, Calif., of all places, at
the edge of SiliValley) is also looking at ad support for its free private-voice-mail
system. It claims to have a media alliance with Chancellor Media (the radio giant) and
technology pacts with Dialogic and RealNetworks.
TalkStar.com recently received funding and marketing
infusions from Nokia Ventures Fund, Oak Investment Partners and Worldview Technology
Meanwhile, the traditional giants of telecommunications
technology are accelerating their efforts to integrate voice and Web services.
Lucent Technologies and Ascend Communications have
committed to ensuring interoperability between Lucent's "PacketStar"
Internet-telephony system and Ascend's "MultiVoice" VoIP solution. The pact will
eventually move the relationship into more hybrid services.
Separately, early this month, Lucent unveiled plans for a
wireless VoIP test that will allow customers to use "converged voice and data
applications on wireless IP networks without sacrificing voice quality."
The onslaught of deals and hybrid visions are reminders
that telephony in the broadband era is not just about talking anymore. Multitaskers will
be surfing and gabbing at the same time.
Joan Rivers will be so happy.
I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen encourages the multimedia
version of "Can we talk?"