Tweets get a new voice

Last Updated 29 November 2011, 15:52 IST

The Big B, as he is affectionately called, started blogging in 2008 and is an avid tweeter with 1.5 million followers. While some celebrities opt to let their managers write posts for them, fans can be sure that Bachchan’s posts on at least one media site are his – because it is voice-based.

In July 2010, Bachchan started using Bubbly, a voice-based Twitter-like service, and he now has just over a million followers in India, each willingly paying 30 rupees a month, or about 65 cents, to hear his sonorous voice.

Social voice messaging, or voice microblogging via mobile phones, is still in its infancy. Some companies see great potential, while many analysts remain sceptical.

Krishna Baidya, Frost & Sullivan’s industry manager for Asia-Pacific information and communication technologies practice, notes that so far the markets where such voice messaging services have gained traction are mobile-centric and big adopters of text messaging.

“Voice SMS technology is one-to-one communication and has existed for sometime,” Baidya said. “But voice-blogging, one-to-many, is newer.”

He said he thought this could be appealing for celebrities, politicians or high-profile spokespeople “because it’s a good way to connect to your target audience. And for the user, they feel like, 'They’re just talking at me.”'

Bubble Motion, based in Singapore, introduced Bubbly in India in May 2010. The service lets people send a text message to followers that contains link to a short audio message, played back as a voice call. This year, it expanded Bubbly to Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan and has been adding about 100,000 new users a week, Thomas Clayton, the Bubble Motion chief executive, said.

The company now has about 12 million users across the four countries, thanks in large part to the use by Asian celebrities like Bachchan, who help it reach potential customers.
But Baidya said he believed several obstacles remained for services like Bubbly’s to become as successful as Twitter, which will have 21 million users in the United States alone by the end of the year, eMarketer estimates.

“First, it’s not easy to find the person you want to follow,” Baidya said. “In Twitter or Facebook, you can search a person by name and once you find them, you can follow them; but here, to follow someone you need to know their phone number.”

The second shortcoming, he said, is that “you might not be able to follow someone you want if they’re on a different mobile operator network than you are.”

Finally, it is easy to filter out the things you do not want to look at on Facebook, even if you are following a lot of people. It is not as easy with voice messages.

“You could be getting a lot of junk, that is not possibly of your interest,” Baidya said.
Clayton agrees that to be successful, social voice messaging needs to be available to any mobile phone user, “as most people do not know what network their friends are on.” That would require Bubbly to strike deals with every telecom operator in each

In India, Bubble Motion is deployed across the seven major operators, which allows them to cover 85 percent of the mobile subscribers in the country. But with smartphone use growing rapidly, the company hopes to soon introduce applications that can be downloaded from the Internet for Apple’s iPhone and devices using Google’s Android system by the end of the year.

Pamela Clark-Dickson, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, a market research company, said that while services like Bubbly had proved successful in emerging markets, she was not convinced that there would be similar demand in developed markets.

“Voice-SMS platform providers have been trying to sell their platforms to mobile operators in developed markets, but they have not had as much success as they have in emerging markets,” she said. “This is primarily because the mobile operators in developed markets often don’t see a compelling business case for plain old voice-SMS in their markets – particularly as the penetration of smartphones, mobile broadband and the use of the mobile Internet and applications increases among mobile subscribers.”

“However, if voice-SMS/voice messaging vendors can develop applications that do provide significantly more utility than voice-SMS, like Yiip or QWiPS, then it’s possible that these applications could do better in developed markets,” she added. “But that’s what is untested at the moment.”

Yiip, a new app by the start-up Qwip (no relation to QWiPS), was introduced in San Francisco in September. Like Twitter, it limits the length of its messages to make them easily digestible – 10 seconds for public messages and 25 seconds for private messages – but it also lets users add photos and sound effects. You can record the message on an iPhone and share it with followers.

Private groups can be set up to keep messages between friends, and sound clips can be broadcast via Twitter and Facebook. The Qwip chief executive, Taylor Bollman, said the app had already been downloaded 60,000 times.

This month, the New York start-up QWiPS introduced a voice app that lets people tag existing social communications like photos, e-mail, SMS, tweets and Facebook posts with 30-second voice sound bites.

The app allows the user to “better express yourself,” and add “emotion, personality and authenticity to those communications,” said Jeffrey Stier, founder and president of QWiPS.
Clayton said Bubble Motion was planning to further expand their bells and whistles for Bubbly, but he also said he did not believe added features like photos or videos were a must for social voice messaging. He said he believed that simplicity in the user-experience was extremely important.

With many new entrants into the voice-messaging space, the competition is likely to intensify, with a race among vendors to lock in users and create a network effect.
“The more users you have the more people use it,” Clayton said. “People are going to migrate toward a winner-takes-all, whether it’s us or them. We’re just trying to run as fast as we can and get as many users as we can to attract more and more celebrities, and we’ve got a pretty good snowball going right now.”

(Published 29 November 2011, 15:52 IST)

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