Voice was the first ever application to operate on a mobile phone, and has proven to be its most compelling. So ubiquitous, it’s invisible. So familiar that, ever since, consumers have fascinated themselves with all the other stuff mobile devices can do.

The subsequent explosion in mobile broadband and advanced applications will witness 2.5 billion mobile internet subscribers by 2014. The mobile internet is growing at a rate significantly faster than the ‘original’ internet ever did, and it’s transforming the role of voice before our eyes. The mainstream media likes to get excited about mobile because it’s the kind of accessible technology that everyone understands.

Yet while those same mainstream publications saw the inevitable and inexorable prominence of futuristic WiMax, 4G, LTE and other network acronyms to come, and chose to foretell ‘how the internet killed the phone business’ and ‘the death of the phone call’, the industry remained fascinated on sticking ‘Voice over’ (Vo) in front of them all. Like the whisky, not the ice, in a scotch on the rocks, voice still matters the most.

As the future has become the present, it seems the fortune-telling harbingers of doom didn’t hang around at the bar long enough to see how the story unfolded. The battle for voice is a three-way contest between wireline, wireless and Over The Top (OTT) service providers. However, over the next ten years the competition will not be which of these access-specific transport mediums will win.

It is a race to be the voice provider of choice, regardless of the access type. Technology that everyone can understand, remember? Wireline carriers are resisting revenue and service attrition from their wireless competition, by developing and deploying rich applications that provide many deeper layers of capability and utility to the traditional voice service.

They are taking their services deeper and more mobile, deploying UC solutions incorporating smartphones, tablets, TVs and Web apps. Wireless operators watch their subscriber counts increase, but the competition they face on the voice application battle-ground is intense. Disruptive OTT players like Google Voice and Skype are squeezing the others too, delivering vast or unlimited numbers of minutes and text messages for free, all delivered through Web 2.0 applications, and desktop/mobile clients. Customers will shop around, and in this application-based world, the challenge is: who can deliver the best mobile UC offering, accessible across any device and any network, giving the best user experience and most valued productivity gains?

The measure of success therefore, for any service provider type or application developer, will be in how the subscriber values the application on the phone. Which service provider can get the user to put its application front and center on their iPhone, Android or Windows Phone 7? Who’ll get their brand onto the subscriber’s digital real estate, and keep it there? This future is not dependant on the roll-out of technology that may or may not be deployed.

It’s not a competition that will affect some service providers and not others. In many ways, this future is already upon us. With over 550 million users, Skype could be construed as the world’s largest service provider, and it’s gotten that big by delivering a unified voice offering over any device; any network.

Whether you are a wireless provider, a wireline provider, MSO or another voice service provider, the market for voice is shifting. Everyone really does need voice. The trick will be in making those customers need you in order to get it. Would we all raise a glass to that? Thought so… Good call…says Steve Gleave, Metaswitch Networks VP


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