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Virgin USA launches new audio services

Fun, but not world changing

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Virgin USA has launched its Cyclops phone, so called thanks to a lens mounted on the front of the clamshell.

The phone is pretty enough, but its support for two new Virgin services is what's really interesting.

TXT Tones enable the user to change the alert which goes off when they get a text message, while VAM (Virgin Audio Messaging) is a form of push to talk with a store-and-forward capability.

With TXT Tones, for $1.50 a Virgin customer with a Cyclops handset can download an audio clip, licensed through an agreement with Warner Group. This clip can then be played when they receive a text message, and even assigned to particular contacts in the address book so the tone indicates from whom the message originates. This type of functionality is de rigueur for received voice calls, being a standard feature on many Nokia handsets. However, being able to assign tones to text messages is a rare feature.

VAM is a basic push to talk capability, with the user recording an audio clip and sending it to a contact with a compatible handset. In what way this differs from sending an audio message as an MMS isn't clear, but a simplified interface is often all that's needed to encourage use of a service, and it's just a shame Virgin hasn't used the MMS protocol to carry the messages.

Support for both services is promised in future Virgin handsets and, while TXT Tones might be fun, the value of voice messaging is more open to question.

Push to talk has resolutely failed to set the world on fire, despite predictions that it would. European users, and many in the US, were aghast at the idea that their phone would squawk at them without warning. Outside a few vertical markets - ones where the users have little control over their environment - PTT (or PoC as it was forced to become) has seen little market penetration.

Voice messaging should be easier and quicker than SMS, but seems to fail every time. But the US is a strange market, so we'll watch with interest to see if US youth decide that words speak louder than txt. ®

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