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RebelVox: really mission-critical voice & messaging

Ed. - To warm us up for the forthcoming Telco 2.0 Exec Brainstorms on new business models (this week in London and 9-10 Dec in Orlando, Florida), Telco 2.0 reports from last week’s eComm. We’ve said before that if you want to do better communications, you’ve got to understand the social conventions of telephony. Why is it that we treat telephone calls as sacred, interrupting any human activity whatsoever to answer the ringing phone, to any one of 4 billion or so possible callers? More to the point, telephony even takes precedence over face-to-face conversations, alone among all forms of communication. Nobody breaks off a conversation to read e-mail.
This social super-status has costs; few things are quite as annoying or as intrusive as the phone that never stops ringing, and there is something especially poignant about one that never rings. Probably these conventions were established in the era when telephony was much more expensive, per minute, than labour; but they are so well entrenched in our culture and even in our neurology (try ignoring a ringing telephone - it’s harder than you think because you were conditioned that way early in life) that they last. Another maddeningly annoying experience is conversing on a poor-quality link; during the Falklands War, the difficult relationship between senior British commanders was considerably strained by the effects of the secure satellite voice system’s encryption and latency on their voices. Specifically, Admiral Woodward’s voice was made to sound remarkably like Donald Duck; he wasn’t a personality known for tolerating mockery and the regular teleconferences tended to aggravate disagreement rather than settle it. This is, if you like, an example of telephony becoming the opposite of communication. RebelVox, a US Voice 2.0 startup, was partly inspired by military experience; one of its founders recalls carrying no fewer than four radios and their associated, back-aching batteries during his last U.S. Special Forces (Airborne) tour of Afghanistan. None offered an acceptable user experience. The core technology proposition essentially lies in an algorithm for synchronising audio buffers on multiple devices over the air; this results in the first interesting feature of RebelVox. If the network quality worsens, the sound is buffered until it improves; if it gets worse still, it is saved and delivered as a recorded message. If the called party is unavailable, the same process is used. If they become available, though, they can interrupt the recording and catch up to the live stream. Multiple conversations and group conversations are supported from a single in-box; speech-to-text transcripts are a possibility, and if the network gets really awful, the system eventually degrades down to store-and-forward text messaging. So, it essentially bridges the domains of voice and messaging, and provides user control over the mode they receive information in, instead of the traditional sovereignty of the caller. The planned business model is to licence the technology. We think this is an interesting and innovative product, but as usual, we think they should forget the supposedly sexy consumer/YouTube/twitbook market, where so many things are free and so many bits contain so little value, and concentrate on enterprises and perhaps also their original market, the military, law enforcement, and safety-critical applications.
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