(Editor’s note: We asked Konstantin Othmer to provide his views on the voice messaging area, which has seen a growth in interest. His company, Core Mobility is a player, as are Comverse, Glenayre, Pinger, Voice Genesys and Fast Mobile. Some, like Hey Anita, have exited the business.)

Phones have been around for over 100 years. The first phone calls were made by operators who manually connected wires and has evolved to audio highly compressed into packets automatically routed through switches on wires or over the air. The phone has changed from a speaker and microphone with wires to a device with a full color screen capable of receiving (and displaying in color!) satellite and terrestrial video and audio broadcasts.

After all of that innovation, the primary driver of carrier revenue remains phone calls and the number one usage of the devices remains the same: phone calls. Calling has become more convenient and cheaper, but interestingly the overall quality of service has gone down dramatically: wire line phones didn’t have advertising campaigns featuring the slogan “can you hear me now?” But that is a topic for another time.

The question I’ll discuss here is the next killer app of telephony. By killer app I am referring specifically to a usage paradigm for the mobile device: what is the next application of mobile technology that will generate the most usage? I’m using this definition to separate from things like ring-tones or wallpapers which are personalization features and generate a lot of revenue, but aren’t a usage paradigm per say.

First, let’s agree what the number one application is. OK • it’s the phone call. That was easy. And number 2 is pretty easy as well: Without a doubt, it’s text messaging. But what is number 3?

As it turns out, there is a close race for #3 which includes mobile email, mobile instant messaging, and push-to-talk. Each of these applications is used, and often heavily used, by over 10% of users. Interestingly, these are all communications applications as compared to something like stocks, weather, maps, etc. Clearly, the number one use for the phone is communications. Are we having fun yet?

Let’s put these applications in a matrix to see if we can better understand them. Picking the axis is critical, and it’s hard to argue with making voice vs. text one of the axis. For the other axis there are a number of candidates cost, convenience, speed, dialog-based, real-time vs. async. While there are certainly some interesting things to learn from looking at the cost, speed, and convenience axis, the most interesting is probably the communications modality: real-time, dialog based communications vs. asynchronous, messaging based communications. That gives us the following matrix:


These communications paradigms fit nicely into a four quadrant grid, with three of the quadrants populated. Two of the quadrants share services: for intrusive, dialog based voice communications you can use either Push-To-Talk (PTT) or a phone call. And on the text side you can use either SMS (of telephony origin) or IM (of PC origin).

The most interesting quadrant is the one that is blank: non-intrusive, asynchronous, voice communications. You might say that that quadrant is occupied by voicemail. Isn’t voicemail asynchronous voice communication? Yes, and many people are sophisticated users of PBX systems and know how to leave a message for someone else on that system. But normal voicemail “lives” behind a failed phone call, so you actually “risked” interrupting the person (intrusive communication) and having a conversation, rather than just sending them a quick message.

How big could this empty quadrant be? As it turns out, in the US, we make approximately 650 million phone calls a day and send about 1.1 billion emails per day. That data is old and might be off by a bit, but it seems reasonable. At least it passes my gut check – I certainly send many more emails than make phone calls, and if you believe the numbers and take a slight leap of faith, it says the desire for asynchronous voice communications could be twice as large as the market for a phone call. And certainly the number of text messages sent further indicates a desire for asynchronous communication.

Wow! The voice communications capability of a phone has a functionality gap possibly larger than the phone call itself!

Before I had email, I didn’t miss email. Today, email is nearly my fulltime job. Before I had IM, I didn’t miss IM. In fact, when I first heard about IM I couldn’t quite figure out what it gave me until I started using it. Today, I spend a great deal of time using IM and keep the application running almost all the time.
My company, Core Mobility, calls the asynchronous voice product that fills the missing quadrant “Vnotes”. Sprint launched a version of our product in a test in late 2003, and as of early 2005 has included the functionality on almost all new Sprint data phones (smart phone version coming soon). The Sprint version of the product is called “Voice SMS” and meets the key asynchronous voice messaging requirements:

• universal reach • you can send a message to any email address or mobile phone number
• rapid fire interface • one click listen and one-click reply to messages

Although there has been no marketing of this feature to date, the usage of Voice SMS-like products has been ramping up. It’s more convenient than tapping out a message on a keypad, and it allows complex communication between individuals or groups without interrupting them as you would have to do with a phone call. Personally, I find the application particularly useful in situations where I don’t have easy access to a keyboard or couldn’t use one even if I did such as when I’m in the car or traveling.

If you have a Sprint phone that was purchased in the last year, you can try Voice SMS simply by selecting a contact from your contact list, selecting “Send Message”, and selecting Voice SMS. In addition to sending messages to mobile phone numbers, if you have entered email addresses in your phone, you can send messages to email.

If you don’t have anyone to send a Voice SMS to, try sending one to yourself and you will see what it is like to receive a Voice SMS. I use this frequently to send myself reminders. Or, if you send a Voice SMS message to joke@telco51.com, I will respond with a Voice SMS with my favorite joke. Seriously. You must send a VoiceSMS, an email will not work. If you don’t have a Sprint phone, find a friend who has one!

Please leave comments here and let me know how you like the joke!!! 