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April 20, 2009

The proliferation of visual voicemail

At the beginning of April, network-based messaging and content provider Comverse announced the results of a sponsored survey that underscored the popularity of visual voicemail among North American consumers. However, the uptake of this service will face a number of hurdles, including the fact that only a limited number of devices and carrier networks can fully process visual voicemail.

By CBR Staff Writer

The proliferation of ubiquitous computing and graphical user interfaces (GUI) as a means to interact with mobile devices will continue to change the way in which consumers use voice messaging.

With standard mobile voicemail, users dial into a network and access messages chronologically, based on when those messages were received. Visual voicemail provides a GUI that lists voice messages in the inbox, as well as relevant information such as when each message was received and the caller’s identity. The solution offers one-click access to each message and allows the user to review each message in the order of his or her choosing.

The uptake of visual voicemail has been a few years in the making. In 2005, Comverse announced that visual voicemail would integrate with RIM’s Blackberry. However, when Apple’s iPhone consumerized the smartphone in 2007 and implemented visual voicemail as a key feature, the adaptation of a GUI to access voicemail reached an expanded consumer base. The way in which recipients access their voicemail inboxes is changing rapidly. Although traditional voicemail will continue to dominate among cheaper handsets with less processing power and smaller screens, visual voicemail will likely become standard in higher-end phones with ‘desktop-style’ operating systems (OS).

Currently there are two methods of accessing visual voicemail. First, service plans associated with higher-end phones like the iPhone or certain Blackberries include visual voicemail. Second, free services like YouMail or Google Voice (Google Voice currently has limited availability and is not connected to the user’s mobile phone number, but to a separate Google-provided number that can route to up to five phones) offer visual voicemail, accessible through an internet browser. Additionally, providers of browser-based visual voicemail services are actively looking for ways to push their interface onto handsets with internet access. YouMail recently released an application for the Blackberry OS and, given its role in the Android mobile OS and its development of a Gmail interface for handsets, it seems likely that Google will optimize Google Voice for mobile consumers.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of visual voicemail. Comverse’s deals with RIM and Apple allow its technology to be more tightly coupled with the mobile device on which it resides. Its interface and performance can be designed in accordance with the device’s strength. However, consumers will have to pay for this service, if not directly, then amortized through pricier service plans. Additionally, only certain devices, depending on the companies with which the visual voicemail provider has contracts, will be able to host the feature.

Services like those provided by YouMail or Google Voice, besides being completely free, add additional value with voicemail transcription. Voicemail transcription, or voicemail-to-text, sends transcribed voice messages to user inboxes either as SMS or as emails. Some vendors, such as Nuance and SpinVox, offer voicemail transcription as an independent service altogether (Nuance sells only to carriers, whereas SpinVox sells to carriers and direct-to-consumer), and couple the advanced speech recognition (ASR) component with human transcriptionists to bolster accuracy.

The biggest disadvantage with browser-based visual voicemail is that access is contingent upon a mobile device that can access the internet. Indeed, the carrier decides whether a mobile handset has WIFI capabilities and thus whether it can access any wireless network available. Additionally, the usability of the interface, which is crucial for this type of service, will vary depending on the make and model of the user’s phone, leading to an inconsistent user experience.

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From a financial standpoint it is unclear how free visual voicemail providers will be able to monetize their services. Google is rumored to be looking into attaching targeted ads to Google Voice, as it does with Gmail. Google, because of the company’s size, can afford to be patient. On the other hand, YouMail subsists largely off of venture capitalist funds. While YouMail has a partnership with carrier Immix Wireless as well as ad placement deals associated with its voicemail transcription service, its current business model seems slightly schizophrenic and it is unclear how long the company can sustain itself.

Vendors providing an internet-based service might find themselves locked out of the higher-end handset market, where large companies with extensive connections like Comverse dominate, and where carriers have already implemented a server that can host visual voicemail. But visual voicemail in more basic handsets with less functionality is an untapped market. Vendors should provide a simple, web-based interface – like the one that most phones have for call logs – designed to be accessed by simpler handsets. There are, however, other hurdles beyond their control. The speed and ability of a lower-end handset to access the internet will greatly affect the use of visual voicemail. Additionally, the excessive number of clicks required to access visual voicemail will undermine its value to the user.


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