What is Voice 2.0?

Updated: December 27, 2006

You may have heard a lot in the past year about something called "Voice 2.0" and wondered whether this was a bona fide tech trend, or a lot of hot air being hyped like those penny stocks spammers keep telling you to buy. Some of Voice 2.0 is hype—but some of it may actually be disrupting the telecom world. Here's what Voice 2.0 is and what's at stake.

"Voice 2.0" is an umbrella term for a loosely defined set of technologies and ideas that let people transmit voice, data, video and instant messages via IP, anytime, from anywhere. It also implies a world where users, rather than a central authority, will have much greater control over who they communicate with, how and when.

Successful Voice 2.0 applications could lead to large cost savings in telecom, and greater efficiencies in other areas. Here are some key Voice 2.0 technologies and ideas:

Voice/data/video convergence. Voice, data, video and IM can all travel the same paths via IP. The convergence promise is that businesses will only need one line for all these types of traffic, dramatically reducing or eliminating costs and simplifying set-up. In addition, businesses could eventually eliminate dependence on cable-TV service and most of their current phone expenses as well.

The trick is to create a common set of standards and devices that carry these different data types seamlessly. Also, voice traffic and video are bandwidth-intensive, and the increasing use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) already strains and even crashes some companies' data networks. The race is on to develop technologies that reduce voice-traffic bulk, but more importantly the bulk from the expected boom in video-traffic, to keep networks from being overwhelmed.

Fixed/mobile convergence (FMC) is a related idea. Just as all types of data are moving toward being carried via IP, developers are trying to create do-it-all devices and/or software that will send and receive calls, e-mail, video and IM over the most logical (and cheap) route. For example, PhoneGnome is a software/device combination that turns a traditional landline phone into a VoIP phone when appropriate, while keeping traditional access to emergency services, non-Internet overseas calls, etc. It also lets business and consumer users create voice mail, call forwarding and other systems themselves, rather than paying a phone company to do it for them.

As an intermediate step, Voice 2.0 technologies promise to smooth transitions from gadget to gadget—say, moving the same call from landline to cell phone to laptop—based on a standard called SIP that routes calls and messages to the most appropriate device at any given moment.

Presence management. The quality of a person being online or not, and available or not, is called "presence." Voice 2.0 companies like GrandCentral are working on presence-management products that create a single phone number through which the world would reach a user's cell, PDA, landline and laptop. Eventually, those products will manage calls based on which device a user is accessing, their upcoming appointments, and how available they are.

Presence-management products become secretaries, automatically arranging meetings for times when all members of a work team are most available. This is a potentially huge efficiency for businesses, and knowing whether someone is available and receptive is also valuable to call centers, which would save money on both calls and unproductive voice mails.

(At the opposite end of the presence-management spectrum, some companies are developing disposable phone numbers that let users communicate without revealing any of their usual contact data.)

Also, products like TalkPlus eliminate the need for companies to purchase cell phones, since it layers one or several new phone numbers and voice services on a user's own cell phone without additional cost. Users will also be able to dial out from any of their phones using their cell, office or home number, depending on which they want to display; doctors, for instance, could dial a patient from their personal cell but appear to be calling from their office phone.

Faxes. Fax traffic is currently carried over phone lines via a standard that is incompatible with IP. Several companies have developed work-around solutions to this problem, typically by sending the fax as an e-mail attachment. Also, a new international standard called T.38 should soon smooth the way toward true fax-over-IP.

Open-source vs. proprietary. As with other areas of IT, there is constant tension between proprietary VoIP technologies (such as Skype, the best-known consumer VoIP service) and open-source technologies (such as Asterisk, a software version of a corporate PBX phone-switching system).

Customer-service contacts. So-called "click to call" products let consumers chat with a company's sales or customer-service rep instantly, at no cost to either party, without even dialing a phone number or installing new software. This is a potentially powerful tool for creating connections, and Sitòfono is the current darling in this market.

In all, Voice 2.0 concepts and technologies may change the structure of the telecom market, particularly who pays for what and whether control over the flow of voice, data, video and IM traffic decentralize. Although some Voice 2.0 technologies are not yet ready for corporate prime time, they bear watching as hype starts to give way to business reality.

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