Moving way beyond small talk

Source: The Boston Globe

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff | August 29, 2007

The cellphone world, dominated by giant telecommunications corporations, is colliding head-on with the Internet, where hackers abound and a good idea can grow into a Google — spawning a full-fledged mobile media industry.

The intersection of the wireless world with the Internet’s openness has long been anticipated, but it’s edging closer to reality as new technologies, devices, and consumer behavior finally chip away at the telephone’s long legacy as a device used for talking.

Apple’s high-profile iPhone launch cast a media spotlight on a device that is more handheld computer than phone. Internet giant Google sparred last month with wireless carriers over the rules governing the upcoming auction of radio spectrum, used to carry calls and data. Sprint plans to build its highly anticipated wireless broadband service, called WiMax, in Boston in 2008. And the first Mobile Internet World, an industry conference on the mobile Internet, comes to town this fall.

The activity has created opportunities for a slew of new local wireless start-ups. Mobile media companies in New England attracted $33.5 million in investments in 2005, a number that tripled to $104.2 million last year, according to Dow Jones VentureOne. In the first half of 2007, mobile media companies have attracted $49.5 million in investments in Massachusetts.

“People say that it’s just a novelty now. But when the PC connected to the Internet, it transformed a word processor to a communication platform, to a media platform,” said John Puterbaugh, founder and chief strategist at Nellymoser in Arlington, which takes content from places like Comedy Central and VH1 and mashes it up into cellphone-sized bits of video, audio, and visuals. Phones are now at a place much like the PC was in the mid-1990s, Puterbaugh said, and the Boston scene is rich with a new generation of consumer mobile companies trying to make a business in a largely undefined space.

Established local industry leaders are key to the burst of new activity. Two companies that went public this year build the backbone infrastructure that enables carriers to send network data — Starent Networks in Tewksbury and Airvana in Chelmsford. M-Qube Inc., a Watertown company that built technology to deliver content to phones, was bought by VeriSign for $250 million late last year. Third Screen Media, a Boston company that created a mobile advertising network, was acquired by AOL for an undisclosed amount in June.

But on top of those more established players are start-ups that are so plentiful that the mobile scene is beginning to seem crowded — even as only about 10 percent of cellphone users subscribed to a data plan in the first quarter of 2007, according to Julien Blin of the industry analyst firm IDC.

Many companies offer new ways to get content on a phone — whether it’s mainstream music videos or niche content, like a foodie’s favorite video podcast, and their approaches include everything from working with carriers to trying to reach consumers directly.

Buzzwire, a Bedford company that received $4 million in venture funding, lets people stream podcasts, live radio, video clips, or other content on their phones. Groove Mobile in Bedford is a mobile music company that powers Sprint’s music store and also provides downloads and sharing services to users. Cambridge’s Oxy Systems earlier this year unveiled Phling, a service to allow a user to stream a music collection from a home computer onto a phone. Mobicious, in Needham, raised $4 million in venture backing this year and aims to become the ultimate go-to spot for mobile content — allowing people to search for mobile content and ship it directly to their phones instead of going through carriers’ stores.

“It’s sort of a cross between Google and Yahoo in the early days when they were indexing the Internet; we’re indexing the mobile content,” said George Grey, chief executive of Mobicious.

Already, the cellphone industry has spawned new business — the ringtone industry in the United States was valued at $600 million in 2006, according to Broadcast Music Inc. The content industry is also projected to grow more than 60 percent, from $2.3 billion in the United States last year to $3.8 billion this year, according to IDC. But many believe mobile content will have room to expand further as consumers begin to use phones more like they do the Internet.

Razzberry Sync, a Boston company, creates premium text message content — ranging from beauty and fashion tips for teens to “blitz fiction,” fiction fed to the phone in SMS chapters. And 80108 Media sends insider thumbcasts, including music reviews, event alerts, and news to phones.

Many new companies are also bringing new categories of Web content to phones. Mobile social networking sites, which allow people to tap into their online network of friends when they are walking among people in the flesh, may seem a bizarre concept, but a US study by M:Metrics found that already 7.5 million people, or 3.5 percent of mobile subscribers, use such mobile networking websites.

MocoSpace in Boston has created a social network primarily geared for phones. It says nearly a million people have signed up. RPM Communications is working toward a mobile social network that incorporates voice and sound. This year, the company launched Foonz , a service to quickly set up group conference calls. RPM says Foonz is a stepping stone toward its larger vision of a voice-enabled mobile social network.

Meanwhile, other wireless companies are trying to break the most formidable barrier to cellphone usage — the keypad. Digit Wireless in Burlington integrates letters and punctuation keys onto the keys found on a standard cellphone keypad, and has launched on several handsets used in other countries. Vlingo Inc., a Cambridge company, introduced a beta version of its voice-based cellphone interface this month. Nextcode Corp. in Concord is working on turning a mobile phone camera into a barcode scanner, so users can click a picture of a bar code from a poster or in the pages of a magazine and be directed to a related Web page or get content on their phone.

“People know there’s stuff out there they could be doing with their mobile phones — they just don’t know how to find it,” said Jim Levinger, chief executive of Nextcode. “They’re building out a Wal-Mart-sized amount of content for these stores, but a cellphone has a newsstand-sized interface, and you just aren’t going to buy it.”

Using voice as the next Internet on-ramp via cellphones

By Victoria Shannon
Source: International Herald Tribune

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

PARIS: One of the biggest divides among mobile phone users is between those who can manipulate their handset’s tiny number keys to tap out text messages, e-mail or Web addresses and those who can’t, won’t or just don’t.
But there is one universal input device that is far easier to use than any miniature keypad or even a touchscreen keyboard, and it works with every cellphone: your voice.
SpinVox, a British company led by Christina Domecq, a native of Spain, is among a handful of aggressive technology companies that are trying to use voice as the next on-ramp to the Internet via the mobile phone.
SpinVox’s main product is voice-recognition technology that translates phone voicemail messages into text and then sends them as SMSes or as e-mail. It says four million users have already sent 50 million messages this way, in English, Spanish, German or French. (Italian is coming later this year.)
Say you call someone who happens to be a SpinVox customer and her mobile phone is off. You leave a voicemail message as you would ordinarily. When she gets back to her phone, it displays an SMS with your message typed out in full. Because it is text, it is searchable, savable, forwardable – basically, actionable.
The company also markets a service that lets you publish a text entry to your blog on the Internet just by making a phone call – handy when you want to post right from a conference, trade show, concert or other event.
A third niche service allows you to send yourself an e-mail with a reminder or “note to self” with a call.
You can imagine other ways that voice input could make interacting with the Internet by phone much simpler. So can Google and Microsoft, which are also dipping a toe into the “voice” waters.
Google is testing a speech-activated search service ( that you use by calling 1-800-GOOG-411 for free. It is available only in English and only in the United States.
Microsoft, meanwhile, bought a company this spring called Tellme that provides phone-directory service (free but with ads). Tellme is testing a mobile application that will automatically bring up a map of your destination on your phone screen (, but only for customers of certain U.S. carriers.
Their presumed goal is to be the leader in “mobile search,” whether by text or voice, while SpinVox is emphasizing speech-to-text “conversions.”
Domecq co-founded SpinVox with Daniel Doulton, who left the pioneering British technology company Psion several years ago with some ideas for using speech in new ways.
Although SpinVox started out by selling to individuals through CarphoneWarehouse in Britain in 2005, and British consumers can still sign up at for a package of 10 conversions for £3, or $6, it now is focusing on mobile carriers.
This week, it signed up Alltel, an Atlanta-based network with 12 million subscribers. Alltel said it would offer its customers the voice-to-text service late this year, though it didn’t say whether or what it would charge.
Domecq, 30, said SpinVox expected to announce nine more deals with carriers and Internet service providers by the end of the year, five of them in North America and at least one a “tier one” name. Her goal is six million customers by December. Now she is focusing the company, which employs almost 300 people, on the States.
“Europeans understand the texting side really well,” Domecq said in an interview. “But I’m not sure they get the voice business as well as in the United States.”
To persuade carriers, SpinVox is citing company statistics that people using the services make 7 percent more voice calls and send 14 percent more text messages as a result.
The success of these services assumes that voice-recognition technology is adequate to the task. So far, investors and analysts have not made this into a show-stopping issue, but subscribers still could if they see “phone” translated as “foam” too many times.

A Boon to Second Life Language Schools

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

New technology will allow high-quality audio in a virtual world.
By Michael Erard
Immersive language learning in a realistic environment with native-speaking teachers will soon be available online, in the popular virtual world Second Life. Starting in September, a language school called will offer English and Spanish classes. The cost of the classes will be comparable to those in the real world, which can cost several hundred U.S. dollars for a semester-long course. “You won’t be taking classes in LanguageLab because it’s a lot cheaper,” says LanguageLab founder David Kaskel, an entrepreneur and PhD candidate at the Center for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College, London. “We think it’s a lot better than in a physical space because there’s more you can offer than in a classroom.”

Kaskel is a veteran user of Second Life, a virtual world where users can own private property, build realistic places and communities, operate businesses, and navigate the world with physical figures called avatars. He had the idea for a Second Life school a year and a half ago while in a traffic jam in Naples, during which he was forced to speak Italian to his driver and made progress with his language skills. LanguageLab, which is based in London, acquired financing a year ago and now has six full-time employees.

Students of LanguageLab will send their avatars to the school’s 120-acre island, where a full city has been created. Student avatars might meet their teachers for role-playing activities in one of the lavish, realistically detailed hotels, bars, nightclubs, office parks, or stores. Scheduled classes meet for 50 minutes several times a week. Students might meet classmates to play a game, such as the football-field-sized Scrabble game, or socialize out on the virtual town. They can also sign up for special events, such as a murder mystery staged in the hotel or a class on the language of wine at the wine bar.

Students and teachers will talk to and hear each other using VoIP capabilities that are currently in beta and are scheduled to debut in Second Life in June. Until now, Second Life users who wanted to talk to each other have relied on Skype, TeamSpeak, or other VoIP providers. Now, voice capabilities will be bundled with the Second Life software that users download to their PCs. The system picks up a wider range of acoustic frequencies (50 to 14,000 hertz) than normal telephony, and this will benefit language learning because salient acoustic information in some consonants occurs at frequencies higher than what telephony usually picks up.

Voice in Second Life will also be 3-D, meaning that the voices from avatars who are near will sound louder than avatars who are farther away. The system does this by modifying a particular user’s sound stream according to his or her avatar’s position in the world. As a result, each of the thousands of Second Life users in the world at any moment using voice will have a unique audio stream.

Land owners in Second Life can enable voice on their property, where they can talk either in a group chat or in one-to-one mode. There is also a one-to-many mode that will be useful for lectures, conferences, and classes.

Seventy-four colleges currently have Second Life operations. “They’re dying to get their hands on voice,” says Joe Miller, vice president of Platform and Technology Development for Linden Lab, the manufacturer of Second Life. In addition to serious uses, new forms of entertainment, such as karaoke bars and comedy clubs, have already cropped up.

When voice capabilities were announced in February, many Second Life users expressed dismay in blogs. They complained that listening to voices and having to talk would break the hermetic virtuality of the world, bringing with it unwanted aspects of the real world, such as users’ real genders, identities, and nationalities. “Being forced to use a voice in a virtual world, something not of my choice, against my will–because people in business will all be forced to do this–feels like the ultimate blow,” wrote Prokofy Neva, a Second Life user, in the Second Life Herald.

LanguageLab is not the first such school in Second Life: a variety of educators have offered English, Japanese, and Esperanto, among other languages, and in May the British Council is scheduled to open three English learning islands in the teen version of Second Life. But LanguageLab is the largest private language school venture and the first to be built around the integrated voice capabilities. It also worked with Second Life’s VoIP provider, Massachusetts-based Vivox, before Second Life tapped Vivox to provide voice for the entire virtual world.

LanguageLab founder Kaskel says he hopes to offer classes in other languages, for which he will duplicate his basic island. Most of the current students in the beta have grasped Second Life quickly (students must pass a basic orientation before class begins), although only about 20 percent of them have operating systems and video cards that meet Second Life requirements.

Constructing virtual environments for language learning that either augment or replace classroom work has been a holy grail of foreign-language educators since the first digital “microworld” was developed 15 years ago. “The basic idea of getting individuals to interact in a microworld or simulation is extremely interesting, but it’s hard to do,” says Robert Fischer, a professor of French and linguistics at Texas State University and the executive director of the Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium. These digital environments are complex and expensive to build, particularly if the pedagogical model pairs students with a chatterbot or some other artificial conversation partner. Another barrier to student acceptance has been the fidelity of the virtual world. “Students are so used to playing, their expectations are extremely high, and when they don’t see good graphics in the language learning environment, that could be a problem,” Fischer says.

The world of Second Life is rendered with such detail that this won’t likely be a problem. Teaching language in Second Life has an advantage over the other Internet-based methods, from blogs to podcasts to text chat, that have overwhelmed foreign-language teachers with teaching opportunities. It has what Graham Stanley, the project manager for the British Council’s island in Second Life, calls “a sense of place.” “This sense of place makes learning, and indeed socializing in a virtual world, a more ‘human’ experience than many other online environments,” he says.

Copyright Technology Review 2007.

Japanese eager to get hands on iPhones

USA Today:

By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY

TOKYO — Japan already has the funkiest cellphones in the world: More than their U.S. counterparts, Japanese consumers use mobile phones to watch TV, pay bills, order concert tickets, read manga (comics) and summon help from global-positioning satellites to figure out where they are.

But market analysis suggests there’s still a niche in Japan for Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone. Japanese gadget geeks — and cellphone service providers — are intrigued by the iPhone’s sleek design and touch-screen display. “This is the first phone that thrilled me,” freelance journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa says. “People regard it as cool and advanced. And the interface is easy to use.”

Apple won’t introduce the iPhone in Japan until next year.

Ishikawa couldn’t wait. He flew to Hawaii on June 29 to buy one the first day they went on sale in the USA — even though he can’t make calls on it in Japan.

Similarly, researchers at Nomura Research Institute think tank here picked up an iPhone from an American colleague. “I have been very proud of Japanese mobile phones,” says Nomura consultant Shunichi Kita, fiddling with an iPhone on which he has downloaded the animated movie Finding Nemo. “But this time, I have an uneasy feeling. I am very sorry Japanese manufacturers didn’t produce a phone like this.”

Kita estimates that Apple can sell 2 million to 3 million iPhones annually in Japan — about 5% of the market. The research firm Yahoo Value Insight found that 13% of the 400 Japanese Internet users it surveyed in July want an iPhone, and 15% of those would switch service providers to get one.

Conquering Japan won’t be easy for Apple. Obstacles include:

•Technology. The iPhone isn’t yet available with the third-generation, or 3G, mobile cellular networks widely used in Japan — although Apple-related websites are filled with speculation that iPhone will go 3G next year. The iPhone doesn’t work with 3G networks in the USA, either.

•Price. The Yahoo Value Insight survey found that Japanese consumers want to pay around $190 for an iPhone. In the USA, they cost $499 or $599, plus the cost of two years of service with AT&T. In Japan, much like in the USA, phone companies often offer discounts on mobile handsets to get consumers to spend their money on services instead.

•Culture. “The iPhone’s broad and easily accessible screen could actually be a liability in Japan,” says Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. Japanese are “accustomed to doing more in smaller spaces — and keeping things to themselves. The (pornographic comics) you download on the subway may be all too visible to your neighboring commuter” if you’re using an iPhone.

•Cutting a deal. Japan’s three top service providers — SoftBank, KDDI and DoCoMo — are accustomed to calling the shots. They direct customers to specific websites and services, and bar them from others.

Apple, which keeps tight control of its image, might have trouble negotiating a deal in Japan similar to its exclusive arrangement in the USA with AT&T, says journalist Ishikawa, who covers Japan’s telecommunications industry. He says SoftBank may have an advantage: The firm’s founder, billionaire Masayoshi Son, turned up at the Macworld conference in January, where Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the iPhone.

SoftBank spokesman Naoki Nakayama says Son has a “personal friendship” with Jobs but won’t comment on whether the two companies are negotiating a deal. Nor will Apple.

KDDI spokeswoman Kana Hisaoka says, “We don’t deny that we’re interested in such a popular product.”

But she won’t confirm whether the firm is in talks with Apple.

“We are interested” in the iPhone, says DoCoMo spokesman Roland Arafat. “But nothing has been decided.”

Apple has already made a splash in Tokyo. IPods are popular despite considerable competition from domestic MP3 players, author Kelts says. The five-story Apple store in the heart of the city’s upscale Ginza shopping district is packed on a weekday lunch hour with consumers browsing everything from iMac computers to iPod-compatible karaoke machines.

Just outside, Tokyo college student Akinori Machino, 22, says he’s got 5,000 songs loaded on his iPod and would gladly buy an iPhone if one were available.

“We figure the screen will be very beautiful,” says Ryo Kikuchi, 30, manager at a food company. “You can see movies better.”

“I would like to buy one,” adds photographer Hiroyuki Kuwata, 35, a Mac enthusiast. “I’d like to use the touch screen.”

Japanese phonemakers aren’t waiting around for Apple to gobble market share. “Domestic producers are hustling to leapfrog iPhone’s offerings,” Kelts says.

Manufacturer Sophia Mobile has just come out with a touch-screen phone — the Sophia Nani — which has been labeled an “iPhone killer” by tech websites such as Softpedia. But it is being marketed by a second-tier Japanese service provider, Willcom.

Mitsubishi Electric actually beat Apple to the Japan market with a touch-screen phone, the FOMA D800iDS.

But it hasn’t had much impact, Nomura’s Kita says: Service provider DoCoMo marketed the Mitsubishi phone to elderly customers, not as a cutting-edge gadget for trendy teens.

Contributing: Naoko Nishiwaki