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Voice ‘texting’ – the killer GPRS app from the -erk- USA?

Still, it'll no doubt work much better on 'proper' networks

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Mobile phone technologies that have been pioneered in the US are about to be deployed in Europe? Surely some mistake... But from what Sonim Technologies CEO John Burns had to say to The Register earlier today, it looks both possible and plausible. Sonim is pushing a system called Push to Talk, which in essence allows your phone handset to operate as a push button radio (like the ones you get in Tandy/Radio Shack that always turn out to be less useful than you thought), a voice equivalent of text messaging, and a component of what you might call a buddies list.

So you could set your whole family up on a list and with one voice message tell them what time to meet you at the restaurant. Or you could send a single voicemail to a dozen people in your company in three different continents, and it'd just show up in their inbox for when they were next awake. Technologically it is not rocket science, and it's something that more or less any major handset company and/or network could do with 2.5 or 3G, but Sonim has done it already, Burns says he has a slew of interested partners, and there will be "several" ODM handsets out later this year with "several" branded ones in the CeBIT timeframe. These will in include Stinger and Symbian/Series 60 platform phones.

And Sonim has done it before with...? Nextel, using the iDEN network, which is why arrogant European mobile phone snobs (we admit it, and actually we're proud of it) have never heard of it. 'iDEN?' Scratches head, dimly recollects. Weird Motorola stuff, not a standard, bound to die sooner or later just like the pagers. Ignore it and it will.

Which is true, still, but it's twitched sufficiently with the help of push to talk features for Nextel to have both boosted revenues ahead of the industry averages and to have reduced churn below them.

The Sonim model goes approximately like this. Sonim licences the client software royalty-free to the chip manufacturers, in order to make it ubiquitous. And he claims he has plenty signed up already, but in all cases he's not yet naming names. The handset manufacturers get signed up to integrate it with their software, and he clearly has some of these people signed up too, otherwise we would not be expecting an 02 (NB that's a ZERO 2, not a name) rollout, would we? Then the operators, and several of the larger ones in Europe are already trialing it. And then, of course, the equipment manufacturers.

Sonim gets its money from the servers that are plugged into the operators' infrastructure, which is why other stuff being free works. Or so it hopes. By giving "5p" (in his brief time in London Burns has apparently gone native already) to Sonim, the intention will be to "drag along 95p worth of infrastructure."

Cost of service will depend on the way the operators wish to play it, but Burns observes that US carriers tend to want to bundle things together and charge more, whereas European ones like to charge for the use of the service.

Push to Talk, incidentally, is rather richer than the brief outline we started out with here would imply. The basic intent is to provide a similar service to SMS, but one that is applicable both in situations where you can't use SMS (e.g. you're driving, flying a 747, don't worry it's perfectly safe...) or for the large numbers of people who never/seldom use SMS because they regard it as too much hassle. You could do this bare minimum as an actual voice service with existing handsets, but Sonim has opted for GPRS instead, arguing that this gives it much more flexibility. And of course, offering a cut down version as a voice service is something any carrier could do themselves, while having something that sels GPRS handsets is what the entire business currently thirsts for. So good tactical move too.

At the server end, there's clever stuff that allows you to "see the availability" of individuals or groups of individuals. Which translated means you can find out if their phone is switched on, if they're in, if they're in to you, if they're on divert, whatever. Which could be pretty useful for workgroups.

At the handset end your voicemail comes in instantly, presented just like email or SMS headers, so instead of having to check through one by one you can scan for the important ones and listen to them immediately. The radio bit, meanwhile, can be used with a phone with a special radio button (which sounds classic dumb Moto to us - we wouldn't put it past them to have big red flashing ones), but it'll work with a soft button as well, so there's no need for manufacturers to change their hardware designs (they hate cheeky people telling them to do this, anyway).

Burns reckons it's the first streaming GPRS application, and could be the fourth app people use multiple times a day (the others being SMS, voice and message retrieval). It is something that could be knocked together fairly simply via 3G without Sonim being involved (we checked with a guy from Nokia earlier, who said yes, and now you mention it he did also vaguely remember iDEN) but Burns argues that it's defensible because to work it has to be mult-vendor, that this is what the networks themselves want, and that no single manufacturer could pull it off. Which does sound plausible, and it does sound like we might have a killer app here. And it came out of America. Bizarre. ®

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