As I was de-cluttering my life to start the new year a few weeks ago, I consigned a large file of newspaper clippings to the recycle bin. That started me thinking about the many things that had been rendered obsolete by the Web.
I was about to toss an October 12, 1991 article, when my eye caught the reverse side of the clipping, “Device Can Block Unwanted Phone Use.” The story was about a $70 box to control your phone bill by blocking calls to 900 numbers and international calls and limiting call length.
Just as the Web obsoleted the journalist’s clippings file, so VoIP has made the special purpose call blocking box seem as quaint as the rotary phone and the party line.
Pretty soon the notion that creating voice applications is the purview of telecom experts will become equally quaint, if Orlando, FL-based Voxeo has its way.
The eight year-old company is driving down the cost and complexity of creating voice applications with a platform that lets practically anybody who knows how to use a Web browser “roll their own.”
Initially started as a hosted IVR company in 1999, Voxeo was at the right place at the right time to take advantage of a joint effort by Lucent, IBM and AT&T to make websites accessible to blind people.
“There was a standard proposed in 1999 — VoiceXML — that allows you to create voice applications in a Web-like way, separating the application from the execution,” says Voxeo VP of Marketing, John Hibel, who was formerly Product Manager for Lucent’s speech recognition group. “It took a couple of months to realize that this was of interest to everyone, not just blind people.
“Because of the way they chose to implement the standard, it opened telephony to the Web,” Hibel continues. “This architecture allows the Web model of innovation to be used in telephony to give developers the same flexibility as the Web. When it was first developed it was called ’browsing the Web by phone.’”
Voxeo’s strategy is building a market by encouraging developers to experiment with the platform. “We have a strong focus on enabling developers to try our software by giving them the support to create great applications,” explains Hibel.
To promote that objective, Voxeo makes its hosted and on-premises VoIP platforms available to registered users for free for development and test; the company starts charging when the application becomes a commercial product.
Backing up the software, Voxeo also offers 24/7 support, a set of tools and building blocks that can be assembled rapidly to build voice applications, tutorials, and an online documentation library for developers. The Voxeo VoiceWorks program offers complete industry- and function-specific applications from Voxeo partners.
This 360° support is designed to create a climate of innovation and exploration. It’s the same way venture capitalists invest in promising ideas, although only a small number will deliver significant ROI.
”Our CEO loves to tell a story about how he once ran across a website called fleamarkets.com and thought, ’that’s a stupid application,’” Hibel tells. “He says, ’every time I try to predict what applications will succeed I think of that.’”
In addition, Voxeo is generating interest from corporate IT departments. “We see quite a large number of developers who are intra-preneurs, developers in Fortune 500 companies doing this in their IT department,” Hibel reports. Often, it’s these intra-preneurs that give Voxeo entrée into these organizations.
The company’s customers include companies like the outbound calling service Vontoo, a large public supermarket chain in the southeast U.S., government agencies, and a medical services company that “started out as three guys in a garage a few years ago and now is a multi-million dollar customer,” reports Hibel.
As good as this is for developers, Voxeo’s democratic design lets even non-developers build voice applications with its click-and-point graphical tool, Evolution Designer. Designed for a non-technical person, Evolution Designer provides wizards for building call-handling applications step-by-step by selecting choices from menus.
How intuitive is Evolution Designer? This simple: I created a simple application to send a recorded message (the time of the next school play rehearsal, for example) in about 15 minutes without consulting any directions other than those on the Web page. And that included creating my account. To test your applications, Voxeo gives you a test phone number to call (you can also use Free World Dialup for free test calls). (You can take a tour of Evolution Designer here).
Understandably, legacy voice applications providers aren’t lining up enthusiastically behind Voxeo’s approach.
“People in the major legacy companies say there isn’t enough ’power,’” says Hibel. “That it’s limiting like building a website in static HTML. Then their customers started asking for this [VoiceXML] and the companies started doing a lightweight version. Now the long and the short of it is that all the major proprietary vendors now have support for the standard. But they’re handcuffed by support for the legacy environment.”
Today about 25,000 developers working with Voxeo’s platform, leading Hibel to predict an explosion of voice applications similar to the way Web applications grew in the late 1990s. “What I’ve seen in the last year and a half, it’s expanded way beyond the usual suspects.”