Telephony meets the Internet: What it means to you

The Emerging Telephony (eTel) conference brings together the open source and web telephony community. It doesn’t get much attention in the mainstream tech press, but it’s an interesting place for scouting out telephony trends that might affect the tech industry as a whole. We went to this year’s conference. Three themes stood out that deserve your attention:
Two-way voice is becoming a Web feature. Some of the most immediately practical discussion at the conference was about integrating voice over IP capabilities with company websites. The idea is to let a customer move instantly from browsing your site to talking with a customer representative. Trevor Baca of Jaduka described an e-commerce website in which a customer who had questions about a product they wanted to purchase could make an instant voice connection to ask questions. Because the voice connection is integrated with the website, the support center at the other end of the call would be able to see where the user is on the website and what’s in the shopping cart, and respond appropriately. Baka argues that this has the potential for closing a lot of online sales that might be lost otherwise.
Mexuar showed off a similar product.
Whether this would help your company depends on how much you’re selling online, and how many customers you’re losing in the online sales process. So make sure you have good visitor tracking software installed, and check your your conversion rate from browsing to purchase.
Beyond just answering questions at purchase time, if you have an 800 number this is a chance to cut your costs because you bypass the telephony network.
You may be worried about the expense of having live representatives standing by online, but think of the Web as a channel. How many points do you give away to your resellers and VARs? If a customer buys direct from you, you save that money. Even if you give back some of the savings in order to fund a call center, it may be a worthwhile tradeoff to get a much tighter relationship with your customers.
The main barrier to rolling out this sort of service is ensuring that the user has either a headset attached or a microphone built into their PC. That’s already coming because of VOIP and video IM. In the long term, we could picture headsets and webcams becoming much more ubiquitous computer accessories, as users and vendors learn that they can connect live through the web.
The looming vulnerability of mashups. Every web-related conference we attend these days impresses us with the number and creativity of the “mashups” that are combining various online tools and services to produce new functionality. eTel was no exception. Many of the services shown at the conference depended in various ways on Amazon Web Services, hosted infrastructure products that Amazon makes available online. That’s great news for Amazon, because it’s diversifying the company’s business. And it’s great news for the online developers, because it lets them move faster and start up companies with even less investment.
But it’s also a vulnerability, because if the Amazon web services went down or were attacked successfully by a hacker, they could take out a lot of other services.
As the web apps world grows, these interdependencies will become exponentially more common and complex. Mashups are wonderfully efficient economically, but no one can track all the connections and inter-relationships that are being created on the web. The mashup world is like a giant quilt sewn by thousands of tailors all working independently. If you cut one thread, there’s no way to tell what will unravel.
Inevitably, there are going to be unexpected breakdowns and security crises in the future.
The moral of this is not to avoid using mashups; that’s where the software innovation is, and it’s amazing how much you can get done with them. But make sure you have a local backup of your data. And think about whether there’s an opportunity for your company to provide reliability and security services for the Web 2 world. At some point they will be needed desperately, and the company that’s ready to jump in and fix the crisis will get a huge leg up on the market.
Here comes integrated identity (maybe). The people who use websites the most are getting overwhelmed by the number of identities they have to manage — a blizzard of messaging addresses, login IDs, and passwords. This has created a big push for unified identity services which would let you sign in once and then be validated to access all your accounts and web services. Initiatives in this area include Yadis, iNames, LID, the Higgins Trust Framework Project, and OpenID.
Building on these concepts, Web communication initiatives like Freenum, Fonav, and Grand Central, are working on single phone numbers or other identifiers that would give you one “address” you can give to everyone. Incoming messages of any sort are sent to this address and would be intelligently routed to your phone, IM queue, e-mail, etc. The services allow you to automatically filter incoming messages as well. For example, you could have different voicemail greetings for people you like and dislike.
This sounds cool to the companies working on it, and in fact the integrated inbox has been a goal of people working in computing since at least the 1990s. But we’re not sure if the personal identity movement is solving a compelling problem for the average Internet user, who doesn’t have all that many accounts to manage and who may prefer not to be easily reached (for defense from spam and other distractions).
This is an issue that’s worth tracking. If your company has a website that allows users to log in, you’re sure to get requests that you support the emerging OpenID standards. That’s okay, but keep in mind our concern above about mashups, and don’t jump on anything until you’re confident that its security is bulletproof. And don’t get taken in by the hype for a revolution in user ID. It’ll probably happen over time, but we think it’s going to come more from vendor push than user pull.
If you want to talk some more about these issues, or the strategies to deal with them, please drop us a note.

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