Thursday, July 10, 2008

Watch Fonolo

Lots of people think telcos are too "dinosaur-like" to keep up with the fast-paced world of IP communications. There's a logic there, to be sure. Large organizations with lots of regulatory and technological requirements act that way. Talk to any software developer working with really large systems and the danger of breaking something while fixing something else is obvious.

While nothing will change the need for some circumspection, it is a fallacy to think telcos are so hidebound they can't see where they must go. In fact, there's now widespread recognition that rapid software innovation is necessary, and cannot be done on an "in house" basis.

That means there is widespread recognition of the need for partnerships of all sorts. So consider Fonolo, an application intended for use by large communications providers. It is the sort of third party innovation carriers are looking for, and need, to create new value.

"Or mission is to help users deal with large companies over the phone, especially when interacting with interactive voice response systems," says Shai Berger, Fonolo cofounder and CEO.

"Our key innovation is a way for you to visually preview the IVR and take short cutswithout listening to all the prompts," he says. Essentially, the application works by sending out spiders, much as Google and other search engines send out spiders to find and index Internet content.

The Fonolo spiders crawl around, investigate IVRs and build maps. Based on that knowledge, Fonolo allows users to "click the spot you want to reach, then we ring your phone and "deep dial" you to where you want to go," says Berger. "It's just like deep linking in the Web world, where you can bookmark your spots so you can go right back," he says.

Another feature is intelligent call histories. "You can use any phone and all the call history is available to you as an end user. Fonolo also supports full call recording.

Say you have an interaction with a customer service agent about a billing, technical support or other issue. Those interactions can be recorded as a way of documenting the "trouble ticket."

Then, when a user interacts with the next agent for follow up, "you can play the recording back to the agent while you are on the phone, if you need to," he says.

And note: Fonolo was intentionally built as an application carriers can use. "The key for us is carrier partnerships," says Berger.

"Even non-tech-savvy users get it," Berger says. "IVR interactions are a major consumer pain point."

No downloads are required, by the way. As every provider likes to say, "it just works."

Fonolo now is in private beta and will move to public beta in a month.Berger expects to launch formally in the fourth quarter of 2008, with pilots beginning in the first quarter of 2009.

Asked where he thinks he'll get traction, Berger says that although Fonolo already has been contacted by carriers "all over the world," he thinks the intial deal or two will come from smaller providers that can move faster. He'll work up the food chain from there.

Fonolo is an excellent example of how application developers and carriers can work together to create and popularize new applications that enhance and change the communications experience. Granted, some developers will just want to build "over the top" apps. But what really will be interesting is the emergence of a class of developers that see what can be done working with carriers.

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