Thursday, June 28, 2007

Vaguely Disturbing, Yet Compelling : Liarcard

For those of you with significant others, I don't recommend that you share this information. Not that I have anything to worry about.

I was lucky enough to catch the end of Teltech's presentation at the Cluecon 2007 show in Chicago, and I heard about their new service called LiarCard. Essentially, Liarcard listens in on phone conversations, and detects if one of the parties is lying. Honestly. (Oh God, could this get bad, quick.) You arrange a call through Liarcard, and it records the conversation and then uses voice analysis to determine the probability of dishonesty during the call. You can even go back afterwards and tell which parts of the conversation were more dishonest than others.

Is it accurate? Well, according to them it is :

Essentially, if the quality of the voice is reasonably good and the operation and preparation is proper, the emotional analysis component will be almost 100% accurate. In this case, the technology will properly present how the tested subject is feeling in terms of emotional charge, cognitive conflicts and general stress ("Fight or Flight" syndrome). If the intention to deceive is genuine and this poses jeopardy on the tested subject, (assuming the tested party falls within the standard range of "sanity" or "normality"), then the Inaccuracy and Lie determination will also be accurate more than 90% of the time. (In the latest field research study conducted on 500 passengers in an airport, LVA -the security version of the technology- was able to render an overall accurate analysis in all 500 cases.)
Ok - I'm not sure if this is the most amazing service I've seen, or the most disturbing, but I'm sure that Liarcard could read my emotional response. Hmmmm... I see they also have a site called LoveDetect... I wonder what THAT's about.

Anyways, I normally give out report cards for places like Liarcard, but I think I'll choose my words carefully this time. I'm sure you understand.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Walter Mossberg on the Breakthrough iPhone

Walter Mossberg has spoken - the iPhone is a break through. As I was telling my Judo club last night, you had to somebody like Walter to get your hands on one. Check out his completely thorough review.

At the end, he mentions that the iPhone isn't a good choice for somebody who needs a simple phone, but for those that need high end features, it's a beautiful device. I think there's another user who would benefit : the corporate worker who doesn't need a ruggedized platform. The large iPhone screen and the simple integration with Web 2.0 applications make it the perfect mobile computing platform for many low-impact, yet mobile, jobs.

Cluecon 2007

Well, off I go to the ClueCon 2007 Conference. If you will be there, I will be speaking with John Hibel, VP of Marketing for Voxeo, at 1:30, and we'll be describing the demonstration voice mashup I wrote using Voxeo's Evolution Designer, Amazon EC2 and Ruby on Rails. If you can't make it to the show, and still want to hear the demo, why don't you give it a ring at (407) 982-5896? It's not perfect, but I think it gets the point across.

If you want to see how I did the first part of the demonstration, I did up a quick screencast here. I'll make it more formal after the show, and add in some Ruby and EC2 stuff. See you there!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

June 26th - The Sound of Silence

No, William, it was very different when I was a kid.

You only had two choices when you wanted to listen to music. You could turn on your radio, or you could play your records. Radio was sort of fun, really, but where I lived, we only had three or four stations worth listening to. The people who ran the stations picked the songs they played, and they would run these commercials between the songs to pay for the station. Sometimes, on special days or nights, you could actually call into the station and request that they play a song, like "Don't Fear the Reaper" or "Funkytown". Of course, they wouldn't play just any song, because maybe no one else would like it, and they would lose listeners, and they couldn't charge so much for the commercials.

If you really liked a song, you could go to the store and buy it. I remember when I bought my first album - I played it all day for a month. AC-DC. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I didn't have anything else to play, actually, but that was OK. Most record stores were pretty small, and I bet they couldn't hold a thousand records in them. No really, a thousand. That's it. You see, the store keepers only carried albums that they could sell a lot of, and they didn't have the space to keep the ones that wouldn't sell quick. No, you couldn't just go in and purchase any song you wanted. Well, they could order it for you, but that was a pain, and you had to know it existed before you could. I remember trying to sing the song for the guy behind the counter, and ... Yes. I know. I can't sing.

The Internet really helped. People started sharing their songs everywhere. They used to have this site called Napster that people would use to tell other people what songs they had on their computers, so that others could listen to it too. Really easy, sort of what iTunes is like. You searched for the music you liked, and you downloaded it. What happened? Well, there was this group of people called the RIAA that thought that they owned music - all music. You see, they made Napster shut down because a lot of the music that was shared was under copyright, and RIAA were the people who represented all the record companies. They asked the court to make Napster stop, and the court did. No, not all the music was copyrighted. Yes, people made the point that the RIAA had no business in telling people they couldn't share music that they owned themselves. Yeah - it was stupid. The judge must have been low on his medication or something. You know that the ends don't justify the means, right?

What happened? Well, soon after the whole Napster thing, a bunch of new companies came on the scene and started doing some really good stuff. iTunes started, and there were others, but people could purchase music on the Internet whenever they wanted - just like today. Radio stations started putting their music on the Internet too, so that you could choose between thousands of stations. It was an excellent time to love music. Except for one day.

The big corporations were still afraid of the Internet. They were afraid of all these Internet radio stations - I'm not quite sure why. So, they came up with this plan to charge the Internet radio stations so much money to use their music, that they couldn't stay in business. Yeah - pretty short sighted. So, on June 26th, 2007, all the radio stations shut down for an hour in protest. Yup, all of them. They wanted to get people to pay attention to what was happening to them. Sort of worked, too.

Well, you know the rest. Like everything else, people like their freedom, and a thousand record company executives simply can't defeat hundreds of millions of music fans. It sort of sucked for a while, but it's all good now. Hey, have you ever heard Howlin' Wolf? Search for "Built for Comfort". It's a riot.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Drug Trials and Voice Mashups

According to BCC Research, spending on clinical trials in the United States was almost $24 billion dollars in 2005. According to Microsoft:

Pharmaceutical companies can spend 12 to 15 years and up to $900 million to bring a drug to market. About 45 percent of this cost is accrued during the clinical trial phase. Additionally, studies indicate that 75 percent of all trials conducted in the United States are behind schedule by one to six months. Because improving time-to-market for new drugs is critical for pharmaceutical companies, managing the clinical trial process is one of the most significant areas of opportunity for improvement.

Critical to the success of any trial is the consistent, streamlined and reliable collection of patient data. Exacerbating the problem are logistics, for most trials involve hundreds and thousands of medical personnel and patients. Pharmaceutical companies must leverage technology to help teams communicate and to collect patient data not only for cost reasons, but quality as well.

I believe that this problem begs for a solution based on programmable web technologies. Using the phone as a input device, patients involved in the trial can give consistent feedback that is instantly available to researchers. Using the web as a platform allows for simple and reliable integration with existing equipment in the phamaceutical vendor's systems, especially when issues such as geography or inter-company communication are involved. Using technologies such as Voice XML and Ruby on Rails, reliable and scalable systems may be custom designed to collect data from patients in very rich ways, decreasing the time to analyze results from trials, speeding time to market, while lowering costs.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A real life example of Vonage's Voice Mail to Text

One of my most favorite. Boy match ups and I've seen lately is the new bondage text feature that automatically converts my voice mails in to taxed and then important to me as an email I think this is really kinda cool. Because then I can save them in my email inbox and search for them. And I'm always trying to search for things which I her emails I'm sorry I'm sorry we're smells so anyways this is an example of what it looks like when it comes into my in the in box that also include the way if out here she could see how accurate it was. so anyways. See

p.s. Evidence of how poorly I speak? You tell me.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Alec Saunders from Enterprise 2.0

Alec just got back from the Enterprise 2.0 show, and has an excellent post about social networks in the Enterprise space. What I found fascinating is how employees are bringing their services, in particular their communcations services, with them in the business. I think it has some pretty major implications for Enterprise IT managers, if not the larger organization. You should read it, if you have a minute. Oh, and know you know what I was doing while I was watching Will play little league.

iPhoney Simulator

Chopi, the Thomas Howe Company designer, caught this link today of an iPhone UI simulator. Steve Jobs has announced that the API for the iPhone will be Safari (after bashing the browser as an interface just a few weeks earlier). As I wrote about earlier in the Jaduka post this morning, you can do some pretty neat things with phone/web integration, but my suspicion will be that the choice of Safari will be initially limiting.

How limiting? Well, now you can know. The iPhone UI simulator will show you exactly what you can do with the iPhone, on your OS X laptop. Funtionality includes :
  • Test your iPhone-enabled Web 2.0 applications and compatible web sites.
  • Open any website that works with Safari.
  • Rotate to see websites in either portrait or landscape orientation
  • Show or hide the location bar for a full-screen iPhone experience.
  • Simulate the iPhone user agent, to test browser redirection scripts.
So, how does it look? I checked out some Telephony 2.0 sites to see how they fared....

Telephony API of the Week : Jaduka

Jaduka is a web services company aimed at allowing Mashup developers to trigger phone calls from web applications. Essentially, if you want to deploy a button on a web site, so that customers can click and call you or your business, Jaduka has a great offering. I put mine together in about five minutes; you can too. I picked the button I liked the best from their copious gallery, and off it goes. It's working, and I've pointed it at my Grand Central account, if you want to try it. I picked the button below, as I bet Jon Arnold will call me and I don't want to have him dive for his headset again :

Click to Place a Web Call

Jaduka also provides an API, which has two basic parts. The first manages calls, either calls to the account holder's phone number, or calls between two arbitrary numbers. The second part of the API manages voice mails, so that you can manage them as wave files. As an example of the call management solution, you easily bridge calls between two numbers whenever it makes sense. Let's say you have a scheduled call with a partner. You could make an application that calls you when the appointment starts, then calls your partner. You can also make that functionality point to different places, so that you can implement a find-me, follow-me system, or a skills based routing engine. As an example of the voice mail management solution, you could take your Jaduka account and aggregate reports from remote salesmen by having them call into your number, then taking those voice mails as WAV files and attaching them to your CRM system.

Finally, let me say that whoever is doing product management at Jaduka is doing a great job, because the Jaduka API is small, easy to learn, and provides real value. I didn't have to spend more than fifteen minutes to read the documentation before I felt like I grokked it. Definitely part of my toolbox going forward.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Gaboogie is a pretty cool idea. How often, in your professional life, do you find yourself trying to setup a conference call? Gaboogie aims to make that easier for you, in classic 37 Signals fashion. Gaboogie's service makes it easy to setup a conference call between a small number of participants, and then when the time comes for the conference, dials everyone on the list. It keeps dialing until it gets you, and if you miss the call, you simply call back the number that you missed. Add a dash of modern design, a few nice features like call recording, and presto - you've got gaboogie. Gaboogie has a simple, volume based pricing structure, going from around 12 cents a minute down to 2.

I know that I rail about horizontal services all the time, and frankly, I think that gaboogie will have the same issues as well. It will suffer from the twin challenges of customer education (most people won't know it exists) and customer habituation (people have to change their habits to use it). In my book, the saving grace is the Internet's long tail effect, which would be since the cost of incremental delivery is nearly zero, there may be enough scattered demand to make a decent business for them. I hope so, as I think this is a real problem that begs for a simple solution.

How does it stack up?
  • Technically, my first impressions are a B+. I love the simple design, and I caught wind from a job posting that they are using Freeswitch in their network. (Rock on with that one). The mapping of functionality is sparse, and I hope it stays that way, as it eases customer education. As a rapidly aging telecom geek, I have the suspicion that ease of use will be dashed upon the corporate IVRs that will inevitably be in the call flow. The fact they give you a dial in number will really help here, but I gotta think that it will be a jarring experience for those involved. No API yet, or I would be mashing it up with 30 boxes this morning.
  • From a business perspective, a solid B. Getting conference calls started on time is a real problem, and they have the basic right solution for it. In time, I'm sure it will be an excellent solution. I have a marketing issue though, as I believe that they have a consumer company name for what is essentially a business offering. (I'm not the only one with the opinion.) It won't be that difficult to reproduce the service today, but there's opportunities to create community and hard to replicate data with time - I hope they exploit that.
  • Buzz, another B. They have today's look and feel, a sense for the problem, and a decent approach to solving it. They certainly aren't leading the charge, but they are solidly in the pack.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Web Ware 100 Announced - Grand Central Winner

Congratulations to Grand Central, one of this year's Web Ware 100 award. Grand Central is one of the products I personally use daily, and it's good to see them get some larger recognition in the market. Another one of my favorites, Meebo, takes an honor as well.

The Web Ware 100 is decided by user votes, so I my initial reaction to seeing Microsoft Messenger as a winner needs to be checked (I muttered something unflattering about PR departments. Now I am wondering how many people voted from Mississippi.) Rafe has a good summary of the results, with an interesting element. Apparently, nearly 91% of the votes went towards the winners. As I am wondering about the broadband adoption rate in Mississippi, I am also wondering about the long tail phenomenon. I would expect to see a large group at the beginning, but more spread-out near the tail. From his post :

Overall, 91 percent of all votes cast were for winning products.

In many categories, there was a very steep drop-off between the top vote-getter and the No. 2 (and lesser) winners. In Browsing, for example, Firefox received 50 percent of all votes in the category, and the second-most-popular product, Opera, got only 13 percent.

The greatest disparity was in the Community category. Gaia Online won a staggering 91,293 votes--60 percent of the votes in its category and 19 percent of all votes cast in the awards.

Monday, June 18, 2007

How much is an hour worth?

I had to share this with you from Paul Kedrosky:

Apple closed up 3.8% today, gaining $4-billion largely on word that its battery life will be about two hours longer than expected. Apparently an hour of battery life is worth $2-billion these days. That's good to know.

More than IVRs, Part II : A Real World Example

Just because you could, doesn't mean you should. If it is much easier to blend in speech recognition, IVRs and SMS messages into your software, should you? My theory is that there are three positives from blending real time communications with the business process : it makes businesses faster, it makes businesses more efficient, and it makes customers happier. Let's look at an example that shows each.

Many delays in business are human delays. Finding the right person to answer a question, sign a form or move a phone line can take as long as doing the task itself. Integrating real time communications into the business process makes the job of finding the right person a matter of software, not people-ware. My example for making businesses faster is the review cycle for reports, designs or other plans. If the review cycle were handled by a piece of software, it could coordinate all the comments, aggregate them and post them for the team to see. It would be faster if, as the deadline neared, the software would actually call your cell phone and ask "Your attention is required on a review due tomorrow. If you have any comments, just speak them now, and I'll add them as text to the review document. If you don't have the time to review this, say 'I don't have time'. If you need 30 minutes to review the document, say 'Call me back in 30 minutes' ". Reviews would happen quickly and predictably.

Keeping with the example, I think it's easy to see how this makes business more efficient. How many times have you been to a review meeting, which for most people for most of the meeting, a complete waste of time? Yeah, me too. How about the time to coordinate the meeting? The time to aggregate comments and post them to a site, if you ever did? Answer this honestly: can you go back and get the comments for any work you had reviewed two years ago? Integrating real time communications into the business process makes the business more efficient by coordinating feedback, by making it easy to forward comments back and by (frankly) nagging appropriately.

Happier customers? Yes, I'd say this qualifies as well. As a manager, and the customer of this process, I would be happier to see a predictable schedule, with a well formatted and organized output. Our studies show that one way to make customers happier is to increase visibility into the process itself. If you can see what's going on, you can make judgments about progress and success, and that will help you relieve your anxiety. Same deal here, as you can see how the review cycle is moving, who has responded, and who has not.

I think a fair question to ask would be at this point, "Well sure, Tom, but I could have done this with Lotus Notes and a workflow." Yes, but I think the addition of voice and real time communications has made it even better, and valuably so. By giving the option of offering a review over the phone means that I don't have to wait for the boss to get back to get feedback, even if it's "I don't have any." By giving the option to nag your teammates for their feedback means that I don't have to hope they read their email. For those outside your company, I don't have to fear the SPAM filter. Never mind the nuance of emotion that can be communicated easily with voice, and gets lost with text. Blending in voice to does this for you.

This is a horizontal application, but nearly everywhere I look I see the same effect. Disease management has similar issues, credit calls, transportation, inventory and purchasing as well. You may claim that these are small issues, but I would disagree. But even if they were, costs of deployment for these technologies have fallen so far that to deploy these solutions won't break any company's budget.

Friday, June 15, 2007

TruPhone Gets Blocked

You'd think that T-Mobile would have better things to do than to mess with Truphone. According to Andy and Om, T-Mobile UK is refusing to connect calls from it's subscribers to Truphone's inbound numbers, and according to Om, T-Mobile is refusing to connect to low cost carriers like Truphone. Instead, they have offered a financial plan to Truphone which guarantee's that Truphone will lose money.

For the record, Truphone's core business is enabling their customers to use VoIP enabled cell phones to provide very low cost service. Apparently, T-Mobile has a different business model, and apparently has to do with their inability to compete on value and a ruthless treatment of a competitor at the expense of their customers. Or something like that.

But that's not the whole story, because the investment arm of T-Mobile's parent company just invested serious money into Jah-Jah. Makes you sort of wonder if these guys talk. Or, maybe the VC guys use Truphone, so that the T-Mobile UK guys can't talk to VC guys, because they blocked the lines to the phones.

So, for all my Truphone using friends, why don't you have some fun at T-Mobile's expense:
  1. Encourage all your Doctor friends to get Truphones, to maximize the chances of medical malpractice suits that can be tagged to T-Mobile.
  2. Ask anyone you see if they have a T-Mobile account, and wonder aloud who they are going to block next.
  3. Take a picture of Stalin (or whatever censor-happy dictator you happen to like), write something on it like "I like T-Mobile because they share my opinion on freedom of speech", mail it in. Mail in two.
  4. Try to call a Truphone number, then call customer service to complain. Repeat.

More than IVRs

"OK, so let me understand this... you guys do IVRs, right? I don't really understand what's new here. We've had IVRs forever."

To live in the real world means to live with constraints. I am unable to jump over a tree. I will live less than 100 years. I am unable to add numbers as fast as my computer. I cannot fit three cars in my bedroom. As we move through our lives, we make decisions based on these constraints so often, we no longer understand that we do it. Good thing too, because if we did have to run through the list of what we couldn't do all the time, we would be paralyzed. (I have to be in the Cape Cod office in 90 minutes, so there is no time to swing by Paris for breakfast.) Our minds are honed to consider the possible by a clever method: we tend to construct our understanding primarily based on our current knowledge, giving rise to an endless series of deltas. I remember an English class where we were working on a dictionary entry formula : you define a noun based on two parts, the first being what the noun is like, the second is how it's different. A tiger is a 1) CAT that 2) has stripes, a big body and large fangs. You define a tiger using what you know (a cat) and then describing why that first thing is insufficient (which can eat you for lunch.)

Of course, engineers are no different, except that when we design, constraints are quite at the top of our attention. I would even posit that we understand and describe our designs through constraints. Like a sculptor, removing the stone to reveal the statue, we draw boxes on whiteboards to explicitly limit the functionality of what we design. We understand that, unless we limit our tasks aggressively, we will be unable to see our design come to life. It why we cringe when the marketing man comes in the room, as his motivations are quite different than ours. They make us draw more and bigger boxes, removing our constraints and adding to our worries.

What might not be apparent from the outside is that an amazing has happened recently in the world of technology. The combination of web services, lightweight programming models and Internet architectures based on open source tools radically reduces the constraints on hosted application development. The advent of Web Services means that you can publish your functionality to the Internet in a controlled, standard way. Since the cost of publishing is so low, the amount of customer traction you need to break even is low, making the amount of web services that are available to you as a designer to be much larger. An example would be a web service that verifies that a person's name matches an address, and will be valuable to any company looking to avoid fraud. Lightweight programming models radically reduce the cost to create web applications by reducing the skills required to write them, and the number of people required to author and maintain them. Internet architectures are naturally resilient and scalable, removing many of the stability constraints that dog other forms of software development. As a concrete example, I would have you consider that both Yahoo! and Google run their infrastructures on off the shelf hardware and open source software, versus Verizon who runs their infrastructure on gold plated, multi-million dollar telecommunication switches. The difference is in architecture, which removes the constraint of having each element be bullet-proof and stable. In the Internet architecture, servers can go down because there are multiple paths to your web page. In telecom architecture, the phone on your wall is connected to exactly one central office.

The combination of these forces makes the development and delivery of hosted services much, much less expensive, for services of all kinds. My career interest is in telecommunications, thus, I am looking at how the constraints of typical voice services are lowered. IVR is a good example, of course there are many others. Using an online service from a place like Voxeo, I can draw a box on my white board called IVR that I can implement quickly and inexpensively. How might I use it? In any way I wish, blended into any sort of application I wish. I am no longer constrained by having to purchase equipment, or by having to learn an esoteric language to run it, or to be locked into a particular vendor, or to have troubles interfacing it to my software. It is no exaggeration to say that I am now able to make function calls that retrieve data from an IVR script as easily as I can that retrieve information from a database. In fact, given that it takes me a couple of hours to setup a database, the IVR might be easier. I can tell you the same thing about a whole host of telephony services, like SMS. I could also make the same argument about any other web service used from my IVR, like I could call a phone number and make my google maps on my screen do things if I wanted. I could - any up-to-date software engineer could.

So, given that these constraints have fallen through the floor, what does my company do? We are figuring out exactly which hosted solutions, especially those that use real time communications, work inside businesses to make the business faster, more efficient and makes their customers happier. Then, we work with businesses to implement these new services into their business process. IVRs are a part. So is SMS. So is Google Maps. So is.... you get the point. What is different is not the functionality, but the constraints. The implications are endless.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Telephony API of the Week : Vodafone's Betavine

About a week ago, Vodafone announced their new mashup API called betavine. Using it, you can send SMS messages and push WAP pages out to cell phones. I love to see big companies that seem to get that our market is quickly moving to a web services architecture, but my worries about developing mass-market horizontal services still hold. Big companies like developing large, horizontal services, not small nichy ones. I DO think there's a market for companies like Vodafone to be amazingly good at providing development platforms, and I hope that's where they are going. So far, as an API, the Betavine API is pretty ho-hum. SMS is a simple service to provide, as evidenced by the dozens (and dozens) of SMS providers in the market already. I happen to like StrikeIron, but I'm sure you have your favorites. That said, when you sign up for their service, and poke around their site, they tease you with gold.

The gold, and it's 24k gold to the service provider that does it, is location. The Betavine site alludes to supporting location based services in the future, and when they do... watch out. You'll see incredible applications spring up. I'm not sure if they will support location based services for Vodafone handsets only (my bet is that will be restriction), or for all handsets, but I predict it to be such a compelling addition to the toolkit that developers will flock to the API. I know I will.

The first, and easy one is.... Where am I? I send a text message, and it pushes down a map of where I am. Where is the nearest gas? The nearest, cheapest, gas? Where did my daughter drive to? I am travelling, and I call for directory assitance. If it knows I speak English, it will connect me with an English speaking operator, even though I am in Mexico. Concierge services. Avoiding traffic. Knowing the client's location is super, super critical, and it just might be that Vodafone gets there first.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

iPhone Mashups

Just picked this up on the 37signals blog... the iPhone SDK is called Safari. Essentially, the strong rumors are that if you want to write an application for the iPhone, write it for Safari. Steve has been speaking about this for a bit, as he said he wanted a "safe environment for deployment of applications." Well, I suppose Safari would fit the bill for that.

However, it doesn't meet all the needs for communications mashups. For instance, it doesn't directly address how applications would work without a network signal. Also, how would you be able to find your location for GPS enabled services? Browser based systems are fine, but they aren't optimal for services that rely on local data or stuff you can't stick in a session. I'm in line to get my phone, but I'm skeptical about Apple's third party developer's strategy so far. We'll see.

The 37signals folks also picked this up from the Apple site, and as I am putting together my Ruby on Rails VoIP mashup for the Cluecon show, made me smile, too :

Mac OS X is now the ideal platform for all kinds of script-based development. Ruby 1.8.6 and Python 2.5 are both first-class languages for Mac development, thanks to Cocoa bridges, Xcode and Interface Builder support, DTrace monitoring, and Framework builds — plus AppleEvent bindings via the new Scripting Bridge. Leopard is also the premier platform for Ruby on Rails development, thanks to Rails, Mongrel, and Capistrano bundling.

Tom's Tools : Voxeo

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard for software engineers is "Use the tools". Like words for an author, tools help define how you think, and how you develop and ultimately, what you can develop. One of my best tools, and one that I find myself relying on time, and time again, is Voxeo. Voxeo is hosted provider of IVR solutions in Orlando, run by a really decent and talented group of people led by CEO Jonathan Taylor and CTO (a geek's geek) RJ Auburn. Using Voxeo, it's really easy to throw together IVR scripts and deploy them for demos, betas and production. And, I can integrate the results from, or use it drive data to, database driven web sites. Voxeo handles inbound and outbound calling, and integrates easily with standard and VoIP phones.

I'm actually doing a mashup right now using Voxeo that (I hope) is ready for Cluecon in a few weeks. I'll post the details when I'm done, but here's the idea. The Cluecon audience is pretty dense with geeks, so for fun, I was wondering if I could find the geekiest one. I'm writing a Voxeo script that will call each attendee (or they can call into it, if they want), and give them a survey. For instance, I might ask them if she-bang was a Unix script thingy or something that Gomer Pyle says. I'll take all the answers, profile them, and find the person who's answers were closest to the norm. Maybe we'll even find the person who's answers are furthest from the norm, and give him the Prom King award or something. Anyways, using Voxeo, this demo is pretty easy to put together, including the database site, and won't take me more than a few days to put together, host and test.

RJ - I'm afraid you're not eligible for this contest. I'll send you an O'Reilly book as a consolation prize.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Insanely Great: Grand Central

As regular readers may have figured out by now, I'm not a big fan of most carrier applications, as I am unconvinced of their long term value due to commoditization, and customer eduction and habituation issues. For me, it's got to be really (really) good before I'll fall in love with it. Iotum gets my nod, and now GrandCentral joins that illustrious crowd.

Grand Central is a one-number service done (nearly) perfectly. You can take your GrandCentral number and point it to all your numbers. It does automatic call screening, forwarding and voice spam handling. During a call, you can simply press 4, and the call is now recorded. Like any good iPBX or VoIP carrier play, you can see all your calls, contacts and messages online. I especially like the Web 2.0 look and feel of the site, although I wish they would go all the way with a Web 2.0 approach (more about that in a bit). It's even adroit enough to put the call on hold for you as you switch from one phone to another. As a personal call solution, I have never seen better. Insanely great.

How does GrandCentral stack up?
  • Technically, a definite A minus. I love how they have solved the problem of call handling, and takes a hard problem and makes it easy. Almost on the order of the iPhone UI design, from where I sit. I give them a minus because I think they should go whole hog and publish an API so I can mash it up. I can't begin to tell you the good ideas I have for that one. Otherwise, perfect, perfect.
  • Businesswise, a strong B+. Real value here, and well worth my investment of time to learn how to use (and it's really easy to use.) I'm going to knock them for two points : they should start charging for this service... I would pay $20.00 a month for this. Come'on guys - make some money. Secondly, it is still a horizontal service, and replication of it isn't rocket science, so sustainable competitive advantage from the features looks difficult. However, it's easy for me to see how it might become entrenched in people's work flows, and there's many Web 2.0 data mining / social networking opportunities there too. They'll do alright.
  • Buzz, A+. Call me jaded, but this level of excitement over a telephone service doesn't happen too often to me. Anyone who isn't jazzed about this service isn't paying attention.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Telephony API of the Week: Voxbone

Wednesday is NOT Prince Sphagetti Day... it's API day. APIs connect service providers to applications in Web services architectures. Application designers use the functionality provided by the API to build their mashups or to build their business process applications. Service providers make money with their APIs in a number of ways, including directly paying for their use, by expanding their business base, or by providing the API for free, and deriving value from the data that they gather. Today, most Web APIs are free, but are expected to have licencsing costs for commercial deployments. Most communication APIs have some pay-per-use associated with them, since they expose transactions, such as SMS, which cost money.

Today's API is Voxbone, a provider of DID numbers to the VoIP community. DID stands for Direct Inward Dial, and essentially, it's how you get a phone number. With the Voxbone API, you can find phone numbers and purchase them for your VoIP service. Once you purchase your phone number, you can set it to point to any SIP (a common VoIP protocol) address you wish. This has some direct business implications, because it allows providers to offer phone numbers world wide, without keeping an inventory of them, increasing functionality for the users, and saving money for the providers.

Why would you, the application designer, wish to do this? I'll give you one, and I'm sure you can fill in the rest: temporary numbers. Wouldn't you like to have an anonymous phone number? Classified ads are a fantastic place to use a temporary number. With the Voxbone API, you can get a phone number, assign it to your cell phone using a SIP URI that maps into a direct line into a PSTN number, and off you go. Return it when you're done. I'm going to take my number and point it to a Voxeo script.

So, in your toolbox, you can now get a phone number, whenever you want, and put it back when you're done.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I might be misquoting here, but I believe I once read in Playboy Interview with John Kenneth Galbraith that his biggest disappointment with people was that they sought out data that supported their currently held postions and opinions, and rejected all other data. With that firmly in mind, I nonetheless want to share Guy's post entitled : By the Numbers: How I built a Web 2.0, User-Generated Content, Citizen Journalism, Long-Tail, Social Media Site for $12,107.09. In it, he details what he spent, in time and in money, to launch his often reviled, and often visited, new site called Truemors. Of course, his initial success has a lot to do with the fact that it's Guy Kawasaki that launching it, but let's face it : $12,107.09. As I recall, that was probably the monthly fedex bill for the smallest of the 2000 class of VC funded startups.

I call your attention to it to illustrate my currently held belief, that service providers are so easy and simple to deploy that the game for all businesses has fundamentally changed, not only for service providers. As the costs to deploy these sorts of services goes down, the required market share to support a busines is much smaller, allowing much more targeted businesses to be created. This drives my focus into the new Web services based architectures, which are ideal to support businesses exactly like this. I was not surprised to see an Amazon Web services URL flash by on Truemors...

As I look at the recent crop of Voice Over IP startups, I use this picture of the future to predict the success of my industry peers. It's why I like Twitter as a small, bootstrapped place, but have a hard time seeing valuations that would support massive investment into it. The technical implementation of Twitter, to telecom standards, is nearly trivial. The mob effect and it's value to the mob seems marginal to me, but the service and infrastructure are useful, and if they stay close to customers that will pay, they'll do quite well. Apparently, Twitter is out to raise some dough. For their sake, I hope they fail there, and succeed by sticking to their knitting.

I think I ought to get some sort of report card together to help me keep my thoughts. How would Twitter fare?
  • I'd give them a B for technology, as they did a good job with integrating existing technologies, but have not really made any new technology or architecture improvements. A decent job there, but not exactly Stanford or MIT.
  • I'd give them an A- for business if they don't take investment (and a definite C if they do). Twitter's service is still very horizontal, and as such, can be commoditized. However, the service itself is quite cool, and has many applications, and they have first mover advantage.
  • We need to give the Twits an A for buzz. Like a friend of mine in the Valley says, they love Twitter because they showed that using text messages was something that people might even like to do. I agree. I'm a fan.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Microsoft Adds Voice to Apps

In sales, what kills deals? Time. Microsoft just enabled more sales to see the light of day.

I read today on Andy's blog about the recent partnership announcement between Microsoft and Verizon. Sponsored search on Microsoft's Live Search will now include a link that enables Click To Dial between the business and the browser. Since this is only available for sponsored search, I wasn't able to check it out, firsthand. From the article, it seemed as though the partnership provided free calls from the business to the desktop, as opposed to free calls from the business to your handset. So, how does this stack up?

From a business perspective, I think it makes sense for all parties. I play this game with mashups all the time... take a new light-weight application, and ask yourself these questions:
  1. Does the service make the business faster?
  2. Does the service make the business more efficient?
  3. Does the service make customers happier?
In this case, I think they've got three for three. The customer gives his permission, and gets
instant satisfaction. Not bad. More so, they've just radically lowered the time it takes to make the sale. The business makes an outreach to a self-qualified customer that's waiting for the call, and it can't get too much more efficient than that. And the customer is in charge of the interaction, its schedule and the mode by which it happens. In charge customers are happy customers.

From technology view, though, I have some worries. I think the computer makes a crappy telephone. (Sorry, if I offend all of you Skype lovers out there, but I gotta call it as I see it.) Where's my headset? Click, click, ring ring... it's a very aggressive and unfamiliar interface, for many, it not most, people. I'm sure my mother would be quite confused if the computer started talking to her. What does she speak into? All I can imagine is Scotty in that Star Trek movie where he picks up the mouse like a microphone and starts talking into it. No guarantee that the person on the other side of the phone knows that you're calling from a browser... he'll have fun trying to explain that one. Yes, there's a certain percentage of users for whom the computer is a wonderful communications tool - and I suppose I'm one of them - but as a broad based endpoint? I'm unconvinced, and that's after my fourteen years of VoIP softclient development. If Microsoft only depends on a browser based approach, I'm thinking that the upside is limited.

What makes a good telephone interface? A telephone. With mashups, that's an easy fix. Click on the link, ask the user for their phone number, and ring it. Simple and easy. You could even have an option to use the browser for those 5% of our population that would actually prefer it.

What I want to know is how and when Microsoft will start mining all this call data. I suppose there's an off chance they won't, but only because they are still a few years behind Google. They will, at some point, to great advantage to themselves and their advertisers. Perhaps that's why they (apparently) are going for the browser play, so they don't have to deal with all of the call recording legal issues that vary per state.