Using voice to push data services

The CEO of UnWired Nation Inc. thinks he’s found a way to get around the challenges involved in offering a data service to mobile phone customers: use voice instead.

Content providers often complain about the complexity and hurdles to delivering data products to mobile users. They have to work with all the operators if they want to offer it to any user, and they must tweak their service for each of the hundreds of models of phones on the market.

Even then, the addressable customer base is small relative to the number of phone users. Telephia Inc., a mobile phone research company, estimates that about 30 million phone users actively access the mobile Internet. There are about 200 million phone users in the U.S.

“We decided, ‘How about turn this a little bit on its head and use voice as the channel to connect to these mobile users?” said Indraj Grill, CEO of UnWired Nation, formerly called UnWired Buyer Inc. “Not that we have anything against data, but wouldn’t it be easier to connect to these people, but use voice as a connection mechanism?” he said.

UnWired Nation started out by letting eBay Inc. users sign up to get an automated phone call near the end of an auction. After their phone rings, they sign in with a security number that they’ve previously chosen and can follow voice prompts to do anything they could do on, such as find out the highest bid, make a new bid and exit the auction.

UnWired Nation has made more than 5 million calls to eBay customers in the past year, Grill said.

On Wednesday, UnWired Nation is opening up its service to other companies that may want to offer a capability similar to eBay’s. It is also taking the wraps off its advertising platform.

For six months, UnWired Nation has been trialing the advertising component with a set of eBay customers. After customers receive the call and input their security code, they hear an advertisement. They may have the option to choose to have a coupon sent to them via e-mail or SMS (Short Message Service). Listeners may also have the option to be connected via a voice call directly with the advertiser.

UnWired Nation has signed up a handful of new customers, including Pheedo Inc., an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) marketing company. It will use UnWired Nation’s technology to turn RSS feeds into audio content that users can sign up to receive on their phones. Users of such a service could hear a list of headlines and use voice commands to navigate through the list.

Grill envisions other future enhancements similar to Web 2.0 applications. For example, any media outlet could let users get audio versions of stories and then allow them to record voice comments at the end of stories as well as listen to comments from others. Users could also be allowed to forward a story with a comment to a friend.

Verisign Inc. also plans to offer UnWired Nation’s service to banking customers. A bank could allow customers to sign up online to get phone calls about specific types of account activity, such as a balance dropping under a specified level or a credit card being used outside the country.

Companies that use UnWired Nation to deliver services can share in advertising revenue. For mobile phone users, the calls are priced like any other voice call.

Grill thinks the idea can take off, in part because it doesn’t require consumer education. “I ^can guarantee you everyone who has a cell phone has made a voice call on it,” he said.

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