When Alexander Graham Bell said, "Watson, come here; I need you," instead of, "Watson, what time is it?" he unwittingly signaled the need for a powerful new communication medium. Over the next century, and beyond, the promise of offering telephone access to simple information services like time-or more advanced services like stock trading or account management-was always there. But that potential was never fully tapped.
There were several reasons. For one, the telephone keypad can give users only a limited number of choices. Also, a phone provides no easy way to navigate from one question or information source to another except to go back to a beginning menu. In wireless communications, this problem is being addressed by a standard, lightweight browser and application protocol for phones using technologies like wireless application protocol (WAP). However, this interface can still be cumbersome for a caller who is driving.
Also, there were no Internet business advertising models for content delivery. Most telephone-based information providers charge users a fee for sports scores or even weather. But there are limits to what consumers will pay for information.
Why is now the right time to give users telephone access to widespread information resources? Because much has changed in the last several years—the structure of the communications industry, the technology, and user expectations.
First, deregulation of the telecommunications industry has given rise to a new class of service providers who need to set themselves apart in a fiercely competitive market. Voice portal services are a way to do this. Relatively straightforward to deploy, they offer many opportunities to carve out a singular niche in the market. Every service provider wants to be the next Yahoo* or AOL*. Voice portals offer service providers an incredible opportunity to expand their user base.
At the same time, existing portal and Web site operators have huge databases. Also, they can support telephone applications with minimal investment. And the business models driving the success of the Web—advertising based instead of fee based—can be easily adapted to Internet access using the telephone.
Technology has also evolved. Speech-recognition technology in particular has made dramatic advances, powered by huge increases in processing power. TTS technology has also improved. The adoption of a standard voice scripting language, like VoiceXML, can be expected to fuel voice portal services the same way hypertext markup language (HTML) fueled development of the Internet. The cost of creating a speech-based portal platform also continues to decline. Increasing densities and decreasing costs for voice processing and network-interface hardware allow service providers to serve more users at less cost.
Finally, the Internet has raised public expectations. Internet users have grown accustomed to having information at their fingertips. Once people learn to expect immediate Internet information—for example, e-commerce, stock quotes and trades, paying bills, transferring funds—the transition to getting that information over the phone is the next logical step.
For those without computers, the telephone is a natural way to cross the digital divide into the new world of information access. In fact, the number of persons with access to telephones is expected to be 4.9 billion worldwide by 2004, while the number of persons with access to the Internet is estimated to be 800 million. (Source: Telsurf Networks*) And as more people use cell phones, they will expect instant access to information even when they are away from their homes or offices.
It all adds up to a new kind of convergence. The Internet, designed as an information medium, is quickly becoming a communications medium. The telephone was designed as a communications medium, but it is transforming into an information medium with the emergence of voice portals. And in a digital world, communications and information are converging into a stream of digits that can be readily accessed by many devices—whenever and wherever people want.
* Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.