The problem with voice is that, as a communications medium, it is limited to those who hear it. For centuries that meant the most efficient way to share information was with paper and pen. But thanks to the invention of the telephone and television, voice has been rapidly catching up. During the next few months it may finally become mightier than the pen in terms of both richness and reach as a communications medium.
The first and most immediate event on the horizon is the finalisation of the VoiceXML 2.0 standard. Most of the technical work is done, and what remains is some discussion as to how some of the people who contributed to the standard should be compensated. The reason it matters is because it creates a relatively stable environment for creating applications that marry voice to XML.
If you reduce internet commerce down to its core components, one of the most attractive things about this medium is that it gets customers to fill out forms, rather than forcing companies to hire extra customer service representatives to fill them out. Of course, customers have gotten wise to this fact and, in general, are less enamoured of the tedious way most sites collect the information needed to make a purchase. Enter VoiceXML.
In the not-too-distant future, as broadband continues to proliferate, people will be able to speak directly to their PCs and watch their data populate an online form. For a lot of people, this capability will truly fulfill the ease-of-use promise associated with internet commerce. And for retailers, it's likely to lead to fewer order mistakes and fewer frustrated customers abandoning shopping carts online.
Another key component of this effort will be support for speech recognition in the OS. Legal issues about bundling technologies into OSes notwithstanding, most people will probably agree that having speech recognition as part of an OS is probably a good thing.
Once we have a stable, voice-enabled client, demand for VoIP (voice over IP) should escalate as people become more comfortable with voice technologies. Activities such as conference calls where people can talk and share applications will be the norm rather than the province of a specialised ISP.
In fact, the people at Marriott Hotels are working with AT&T and Internet World Systems to deploy 690 kiosks with VoIP capability, according to Douglas Bell, chief executive of Internet World Systems. But Marriott is not alone in exploring voice-related technologies. According to market research firm Infonetics, more than $US2 billion will be spent on these technologies in 2002.
Given the current state of the economy, you have to wonder what makes investing in voice-related technologies so interesting. But the beauty of voice is that VoIP allows ISPs to simultaneously reduce their long-term infrastructure costs to support voice alongside data and bring on a variety of new services to increase revenue. It's a win-win situation for just about everybody.