Carriers & VoiceXML: Skin the Legacy

The legacy telco voicemail market now approaches 500 million mailboxes on both wireline and wireless networks. Some incumbent vendors have not done very well in migrating from their legacy solutions to voice-enabled voicemail.

Recently, we have seen two designs, one from BeVocal, a Nuance partner, and one from Glenayre, working with Philips. Both are VoiceXML-compliant, and both deliver two value propositions that the massive installed legacy platforms do not: customization and interoperability with other voice applications.

‘Skinability’ has come to the central office’s most important enhanced service. It’s about time developers addressed the absurd situation telcos routinely put their customers into every time a call goes to voicemail. Ten-year-old user touchtone interfaces, a choice between the user’s own plain-sounding greeting and an even duller one-size-fits-all system greeting, and let’s not even think about how nice it would be to have integrated access to wireline and wireless mailboxes–that would be too useful.

If we sound disgusted, the current art of the U.S. voicemail infrastructure deserves much of the blame. Even on more recent wireless messaging platforms, the ability to return calls from within the platform and then return is about as good as it gets. We can do a whole lot better.

What is most interesting about the new wave of voice enhanced messaging services (VEMS) is the emergence of VoiceXML as a customization and interoperability utility for telecom services that has little or nothing to do with HTML-based assets. As evinced in the new breed of VEMs from BeVocal, Glenayre and others, VoiceXML is used as a resource for integrating voicemail with other applications. According to the BeVocal roadmap, address book integration will be available within the next month or so, along with carrier customizable skins. User configuration, including customized skins and distribution list administration, will be available over a Web interface as well.

BellSouth, a key win for BeVocal, turned on voice portal access-branded as Info By Phone-via its voicemail menu in early April. This is important because it provides a monetization strategy for voice services that rests on the firm foundation of voicemail, a product that the LECs have successfully (mis)managed for a decade. It is a strong testament to the inability of the incumbent voicemail vendors to get their act together that an upstart company can come in from Silicon Valley and clean their clock at a major account like BellSouth.

Speaking of incumbents, consider the case of Glenayre. Five years ago Glenayre was the insurgent, blowing through the wireless market, where it already had a foothold in the paging industry with a modular multi-application voice processing solution (MVP) that included voicemail. More recently, the company has struggled to deal with discontinuities in the paging business, and its quarterly revenues have been on a dizzying downhill slide, from a high of $67 million in 4Q ’00 to just $21 million a year later. Time to reinvent. Versera is Glenayre’s branding for a suite of voice-enabled communications applications including voice-controlled voicemail, voice access to e-mail and PIM, and VAD.

The roadmap adds voice-activated Instant Messaging and portal applications. More interestingly, from the ranks of the incumbents, the Versera solution is built entirely in J2EE (Java 2.0 Enterprise Edition) and runs on UNIX. Glenayre is doing what the other incumbents cannot: throwing away its legacy design, burning its boats, and moving to the new environment.

Regardless of what the market’s take is on Glenayre’s viability going forward, the importance of Versera starts with the fact that there are 200 service provider customers out there being pitched a complete voice-enabled carrier vision as a result. We perceive the delay in voice-enabling the most obvious candidate, voicemail, is due to some incumbent vendors striving to drag their legacy installed base into the 21st century, with words to the effect of, "We don’t think our customers are ready to throw away their systems just yet."

BeVocal and others (such as uReach) are preaching "cap and grow"–which translates into let the legacy clunk along, but don’t buy any more of that stuff, and add your new subscribers to the new systems. These new systems are born into a Java world where the application engines interoperate via VoiceXML, and anybody’s message store with the right APIs can be hooked into the application grid.

We see VoiceXML creeping into service provider infrastructure in the next few quarters in ways none of us might have imagined–it’s in the internals for the Cisco Internet Service Node, for example. It’s a third-party API in the Octave conferencing platforms, for another.
In our most recent census of carrier deployments, we counted over 100 installs of speech technology, much of it doing portals and messaging applications. In addition, Comverse is reporting excellent customer satisfaction with its VEMs customer, Italian wireless provider Blu. Voicemail as a special case exempt from open standards architecture is through. Today, I can use a VoiceGenie voice browser to access my AT&T Worldnet e-mail over the phone, and switch with a single command to read my Yahoo! inbox. That is where voicemail needs to go, and based on the designs getting the RFP wins, is going. It’s about time.

Mark Plakias is a senior vice president and managing director of communications and infrastructure for The Kelsey Group. He can be reached at (609) 921-7200.

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