Monday, October 30, 2006

TalkPlus - What Voice 2.0 is all About

Today was the day for Jeff Black and his company's official coming out of stealth mode. TalkPlus is a great story, and before I get to them, I want to shine some light on Andy Abramson, their PR/marketing guru, who has done a great job of keeping them on the radar of analysts and bloggers to this point. Andy's agency - Communicano - is almost an incubator of sorts - he's got a great knack for taking on clients who are very much at the leading edge of all things IP.

I had my briefing with Jeff Black this morning, but today I was overcome by a perfect storm of home office tech problems that have kept me offline until now. So, I'm late to the party, and if you haven't read all the news by now, I'll save you some time by steering you to blogging colleague Ken Camp. His post went live earlier tonight, and if you want an extended analysis, especially from an end-user's perspective, that's what you gotta read. Additionally, Ken's post saves you time, as he's cited many of the other blog posts from earlier today, and that will fill you in on all the details of what TalkPlus is, how it works, what makes the company so special, who's backing them, etc.

It's late, and I'm just going to add my take, which so far, I haven't seen anywhere else. While Ken has focused on the subscriber angle, what really spoke to me about TalkPlus is the carrier angle, and why I think they have a far better chance of long term success than the growing army of mobile VoIP plays, some of which Andy refers to as "minutes stealers".

So, speaking with Jeff about this, the big takeaway for me is simply this - as a startup, you can choose to go with the carriers or go against them. Geez, for my money, I'd say your chances of success are a lot better when you're serving their interests along with your own. Of course, you can say, well, that may work for a while, but then the carriers will figure it out and do it themselves, leaving you with nothing. Maybe so, but as some other bloggers have echoed Jeff's comments, TalkPlus has a strong clutch of pending patents that will at minimum give them first mover advantage.

Secondly, TalkPlus does something that no single mobile carrier can do, and that is terminate calls anywhere in the world with their own numbers. In the U.S., regulations make sure that domestic mobile carriers can only serve the U.S. market. They cannot issue you mobile numbers for other markets. TalkPlus can. I think that matters.

Enough high level stuff. Let's look at the business model. TalkPlus is not a play to reduce your roaming or LD costs. It really isn't even VoIP. Carriers love it because it's NOT diverting calls off their networks to the public Internet. TalkPlus may use VoIP on the back end, but it's not about VoIP.

I'll back up just bit in case you don't know what TalkPlus does. Basically, the subscriber gets to add more cellular numbers that ring on his/her mobile phone. There are a host of cool/practical scenarios where having these extra numbers makes a lot of sense, with dating, professionals and eBay users being no brainer examples. There's a lot more to it, of course, and this has been covered to death in the earlier posts.

In short, there are 3 really good reasons why mobile operators would want to do business with TalkPlus.

1. As mentioned, TalkPlus keeps the voice minutes on their networks, and not taking them elsewhere.

2. It's new money for them. They get a share of the monthly subscriber fee from TalkPlus, which will be in the $10 range.

3. TalkPlus drives usage of their data plans. The revenues won't be substantial since the data files needed to enable TalkPlus are very small. However, subscribers will need to add a data plan to use TalkPlus, so that's also new business. Much like Blackberry, with tiered pricing plans, most subscribers will take the cheapest data plan, which runs about $7/month. Otherwise, they can just be billed as they go, but on this basis they pay a much higher rate per bit, so if they use it regularly, they're much better off using a low end fixed price plan.

I think on this basis alone, TalkPlus is a winner. They are under NDA with 18 mobile operators globally, so it looks like the interest is there. But there's more to the story that I think makes the case even stronger, esp when you look at how all the other mobile VoIP apps work.

- Because the calls are basically cellular - and not VoIP - there's no voice compression. So, there are no voice quality/degradation issues that are common with VoIP-based mobile calls. Of course, we're still talking about cell phones here, so it's not exactly the PSTN. Jeff, in fact noted, that there are cases when TalkPlus voice quality can be better than everyday cellular.

- TalkPlus is very carrier friendly. Jeff describes it as the world's first "narrowband VoIP" application. The apps are very Voice 2.0 - that is, new services you can't do with existing applications. But there's not a lot of VoIP going on here. So, carriers get the best of both worlds - new services, but pretty much within their existing networks.

What does Jeff mean by "narrowband VoIP"? As he explains, the call set up is done over the data channel (that's the VoIP part), but the call itself takes place on the voice channel. This is a crucial difference between TalkPlus and the mobile VoIP apps for a few reasons.

First, by routing the call over the voice channel, quality stays high.

Second, the calls are CALEA and E911 compliant. Carriers really like that. As Jeff noted, this is why Skype is not being allowed in countries like India. When encrypted voice runs in the data channel, it can't be monitored, which makes Skype a no-go in markets that want tighter control over voice communications.

Third, TalkPlus can be used by most existing handsets, so long as they are WAP or Java-enabled. I'm a big advocate of ease of use, and applications that require little or no behavior change have a pretty good chance of survival.


All told, I think TalkPlus has got the right approach. Jeff says it best - "we work the way carriers want to work". Call it the path of least resistance, but I call it the path to success.

Jeff and I also talked about the risks of making it too attractive for the carriers to duplicate it for themselves. It could happen, but he's confident their technology lead will keep them well ahead of whatever the carriers try to do. Also, they really do have higher priorities, and have very little expertise in the marketing that will be needed to reach the target subscriber for this service.

That's where a lot of the $5.5 million TalkPlus has raised will be going. They'll be doing a mix of direct marketing as well as affiliate programs, no doubt with all the major dating websites, etc. And best of all, we're only at the very beginning of where this can go.

Think about all those people who have given up their landlines and live 24/7 on their mobiles. You don't think these people will find all kinds of neat ways to use TalkPlus? And we're just starting with basic voice apps. There's more in the pipeline coming, so this is definitely a story to watch. Look for the service to launch in January.



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3 comments:

ipcom said...

Posted by: Aswath

I am a bit confused about a couple of points:
1. You repeatedly say that they issue cellular numbers. Do they really? (In US there is nothing as cellular numbers; but that is not the case in other countries.) I would think that for their applications normal landline numbers will do. If you are right, then they are doing this to maintain "caller pays" model, I suppose.
2. If you are correct in your claim that US carriers can not procure numbers in other countries, I would have thought that they can get them from the same partners that are supplying them to TalkPlus. Or, has TalkPlus received license to operate as a mobile carrier around the globe?
3. Can you confirm that Skype is not allowed in India? I would appreciate it if you will point out a reference. This is news for me.

ipcom said...

Posted by: Ash

Jon,

I know if I could use TalkPlus today, I would immediately use the service to:

First, use the Virtual Number function (which I guess behaves similarily to Vonage's featureset here or the IP-One Telus service) to jump past the unbearable delay in Canada's Mobile Number Portability. Make the VN# my main contact regardless of carrier. Lets see if March'07 mutes this --- bet another MNP delay hits.

Second, use the routing function or dual-ring option (again I expect that it will work like IP-One's dashboard) to get past the dead zones around the house or ever have to pick up both the cordless phone and cell phone while moving around the house.

Ash

ipcom said...

Posted by: Keila

I used TalkPlus services...