Voice 2017 - Best of Times, Worst of Times

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Voice is in a unique position these days, judging from the conversations I've had over the past six weeks during CES and ITEXPO.   Available quality is at an all-time high on mobile and is only going to get better in the near future.  Amazon's Alexa had a breakthrough season over the holidays, judging from all the buzz I've heard. But it's not all happiness and sweetness, since voice is a commodity and telephony “calling” is now just another feature in a large scheme. 

EVS, the next generation of mobile HD voice quality, is expected to grow significantly, according to advocate and EVS patent pool participant Fraunhofer.  It's already included in a number of Qualcomm mobile chipsets, with other vendors expected to add formal support early in 2017.  Phone support today includes the Samsung Note 5, Galaxy S6 and S7 families, Google Pixel, and phones from LG, Sony, HTC, Xiaomi, and HP, among others.

Network support for superwideband EVS includes T-Mobile in the U.S., NTT DoCoMo in Japan, Vodafone Germany, and all of the largest South Korean LTE operators. Other mobile operators worldwide are testing EVS and are expected to launch services soon; I suspect we'll have a couple of announcements out around Mobile World Congress (MWC).

Voice interfaces and voice assistants have been kicking around for a while on Apple and Google phones, with Cortana coming to the forefront with Windows 10 gains.  But most of the buzz and momentum is with Amazon's Alexa. It doesn't have the deep knowledge and flexibility of Google, but the speakers in the device are great and voice recognition is spot on for both close (near-field) and far away (far-field).  

CES was filled with Alexa (and a number of Google Home, to be fair) compatibility announcements, with third-parties able to splice services and devices into Alexa via APIs.  In the near future, you may see “Alexa clones,” hardware built by third-parties but designed specifically to tap into Amazon's Alexa voice recognition/voice assistant functionality.  Amazon gains by having more data flowing into its analytics engines, giving it better information and ways to improve the baseline service.  Every “I don't know the answer to that question” from Alexa is also another “Gee, maybe we should add this feature” for its architects.

Perhaps the killer app for Alexa and its Google Home counterpart will be the addition of calling and telephony services. There's been some shade tossed that Amazon needs to “master” things like porting phone numbers and 911 services, but given the mastery of VoIP technology by numerous start-ups (and failed, due to business plan, not tech), it shouldn't be hard.  Companies have been running baseline VoIP services over Amazon Web Services (AWS) for some time.

And the talk of adding phone services to Alexa and Google Home should stir the hearts of Ooma and Vonage.  The fastest way to add knowledge, relationships, and VoIP technology (and patents, if you think you need them) is to acquire a company.  Ooma has been running VoIP connected to the legacy phone network for years, so you could check off the 911 support box immediately once you bought it.  However, Ooma also has been doing a lot of expansive things beyond stock phone calls, including home monitoring and... linking Alexa to Ooma.   Imagine buying an Alexa and getting Ooma phone calling built-in.  All the vital bits already exist between the Alexa voice front end and Ooma's telephony network, with Ooma as an Alexa still released back in 2016.

Yes, I think Amazon should buy Ooma.  It's a great fit, especially when you consider Ooma also has built its own bespoke hardware and added to its portfolio over the years.

The only downside to voice calling is that there's no money to squeeze out of it and little sizzle.  When I was at ITEXPO a couple weeks ago, long-time VoIP guru and start-up patron Andy Abramson shared a discussion he recently had with a VoIP cloud provider.   About a decade or so ago, Andy told the company that there was a list of dozens of go-to reporters dedicated to covering the VoIP space.  Today, publications are interested in the hot trinity of AI, The Internet of Things (IoT), and cybersecurity – not VoIP or voice.

Voice is just another building block, from my perspective.  It needs to work correctly when interwoven with other applications, but there's no “secret sauce” or revolutionary breakthroughs needed for high-quality voice and speech-to-text that feed into natural language processing and voice analytics engines. This isn't to say companies can't make a good living doing cloud PBX services, but voice telephony is a commodity world that runs on pennies to fractions of a penny for profit.  That's a harsh business, requiring economies of scale and the size of an Amazon or other cloud provider to truly make healthy profits.




Edited by Alicia Young

Contributing Editor

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