VoIP in Unusual Places

Updated: April 30, 2009

VoIP was originally conceived of as an inexpensive way for individuals to call one another, but IP-based voice applications are increasingly turning up in business settings as well.

For example, rare is the VoIP service that doesn't offer code for putting a click-to-call button on a Web site or a customized calling URL in an email: RingCentral Inc ., Jajah , Jangl Inc . and jaxtr Inc . all allow you to keep your personal phone number(s) private while still allowing the outside world to reach you.

That's useful for individuals, but realistically, how many people who don't know your phone number or your user ID are going to call out of the blue (unless you're a popular tech blogger or subscribe to a dating service)?

But click-to-call technology is invaluable for businesses because it enables impulse purchasing. Ever notice how a rack of candy bars is always positioned next to supermarket checkout lines? Click-to-call buttons are the online equivalent. No one's making you buy the M&M's — but putting instant gratification within arm's reach definitely increases the odds of an impulse buy.

In the same vein, highly competitive VoIP services are eager to increase business adoption, so they don't charge banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms and other high-touch businesses to have as many click-to-call buttons on their sites as they want. Here are a couple of business fields in which voice has recently made inroads.

Back-Office Automation

Voice is also increasingly showing up as an important part of background business processes. In fact, pity the humble human secretary, whose traditional duties are steadily being stolen by voice-enabled automation.

This trend is evident in Russell Shaw's recent coverage of the O'Reilly Media and StrikeIron Telephony Mashup Contest, which asked contestants to create voice mashups that don't require a team of high-salaried telecom engineers.

The contest's winner, Thomas Howe of Thomas Howe Consulting, wanted to reduce costly, unnecessary emergency-room visits. Howe's After Hours Doctor's Office mashup transcribes callers' after-hours messages for doctors into text messages, then sends a text acknowledgment to the caller while quickly relaying the transcribed message to triage nurses, who assess whether the caller has an urgent problem. If so, the patient's contact information is sent to a doctor's mobile phone, enabling that doctor to return the patient's call with one click. In nonurgent cases, the caller gets a (presumably reassuring) text message telling him or her that someone will be in touch the following morning.

Although intake is probably not be the point at which to remove human mediation from health care — phone triage usually requires give-and-take to pin down the patient's condition — this is a great demonstration of voice's potential.

After Hours Doctor's Office and the mashup contest's runners-up (FishLign and RoboCal ) also prove the contest's point: The number of people who can create voice-enabled applications is growing rapidly. Howe, for example, used Tell Me VoiceXML, StrikeIron Global SMS and Amazon Web Services to create After Hours Doctor's Office, even while confessing that he was no Tell Me expert.

Voice is also showing up in real estate, where mobile phones can be the gateway to an increasingly wide palette of services . Iperia recently demonstrated an application at the VON Expo conference that would be triggered by a prospective buyer dialing the "for-sale" number at a house. Depending on the caller's intentions, the mobile could then display a virtual tour of the house; a spec sheet including cost, size and features; or a direct connection with the real-estate agent who represents the property.

Security

Voice is also coming to security , although not quite in the way that devotees of action movies and spy novels might imagine. The days of routine voice-print authentication exist, as ever, in the future, but developers are still finding interesting ways to incorporate voice into aspects of security. In fact, Thomas Howe's name comes up again in this context. His consultancy is developing a mashup for a Texas IT company that will eliminate help-desk jobs by allowing employees to call in and use their IDs to get their passwords reset without human interaction. Howe says this mashup uses both Web services and voice.

In addition, social-networking service Ccube Inc. is using VoIP for security purposes through voiceKey, which involves speaking a code word to authenticate yourself to the Ccube system. This is not a"Mission: Impossible "-type voice-recognition technology, but it seems to rely on the caller being the only person knowing his or her code word. Ccube can recognize this word being spoken as easily as an airline's phone-reservation system can, without having to voice-print the caller. Just take the usual password precaution of choosing an unusual or unexpected combination, and avoid the temptation to default to "Open, sesame."

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