Why contextual voice could be the future of voice communications #MWC14

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

Voice communication is gaining a reputation as being an outdated technology. Whether that’s right or wrong is open to debate, but when you’ve got Facebook purchasing WhatsApp for $19bn, it’s always going to raise a few eyebrows.

But voice has been on a hugely transformative journey in the last 10 years alone. The growth and popularity of VoIP, with increasing numbers of consumers opting for free VoIP offerings, has forced operators to muck their hands and start over trying to recapture lost revenue.

In an engaging panel session at Mobile World Congress representatives from Ericsson, SK Telecom, Audience and SAP discussed the future of voice from the operator’s perspective – and the response was optimistic, yet cautious.

One technology which quickly reared its head was VoLTE. Despite a relatively slow deployment, perfect voice quality isn’t the be all and end all, according to SAP mobile services VP Russell Green.

“I think the emphasis on VoLTE focusing on quality…for the large majority of the population, now you don’t need that high level of quality. Sometimes pretty good is good enough,” he said, adding: “There are however a lot of apps, from an enterprise perspective, where [this] is absolutely critical.”

Peter Santos, CEO and president of voice and audio processing firm Audience, had a different view. “Endpoints generally, whether it’s a phone, or PC…they’ve been generally designed for the last 100 years of telephony,” he explained. “If we’re thinking about designing a richer experience, the system needs to be designed with that in mind.

“I think we’re going to see an emphasis place on system sound design to deliver these kinds of experiences,” he added.

But with voice over LTE, are customers being led down a legacy path by the carriers?

Arun Bhikshesvaran, Ericsson CMO, argued: “If you go to an all-IP environment, Lync and Skype don’t work properly. It needs to work properly because that’s what people pay for.”

Something need s to give – and each panellist pushed the value of ‘contextual voice’. But what does that mean in a real world context?

Bhikshesvaran noted the value of voice communication in different contexts. He said: “You have a telephone number, you can hand it to people here, they can call you whenever – it’s the power of single identity. Taking that identity and making it available in all different types of contexts – the browser, a television, a phone – makes that very powerful.”

The Ericsson CMO used the example of conducting a transaction over the phone where a small amount of added context would give a vital boost.

“I get dragged down to the most fundamental form of communication, a voice call,” he said. “The ability to transfer context on one side eases the pain on the other side and provides a fantastic experience for me.”

This, Bhikshesvaran argues, is where VoLTE could be advantageous. “One immediate opportunity is VoLTE. Truly to have an end-to-end ecosystem in place that’s built on IP, build for multiple endpoints… [you] combine it with WebRTC, and through different APIs transfer it into different contexts.”

Santos added: “Task context is something I think is important. The voice communication can be the transmission of the voice plus the simultaneous translation of what is being said – the system can monitor what is being said.”

Conversation turned to the humble telephone number, and whether that was outdated or not.

Bhikshesvaran described it as “the single most unanimous, ubiquitous identity available in the world today,” while Green noted: “A phone number is a pretty archaic thing, but in emerging markets, where people don’t have a credit card, the only way you can get through to reach people is through a phone number.”

Santos added: “There are opportunities for the unbanked to become banked through mobile phones.

“What we’ve seen in our work is voice authentication can provide high security. [It needs] lots of technology to make it secure, but we think that’s going to be important if you want to use your mobile for banking.”

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