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2021: The Year Voice Innovation Expanded

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Many notable developments occurred in the cloud communications space during 2021. Some were driven by emerging technologies, while others are rooted in familiar areas that often get overlooked regarding innovation. Nothing is more familiar than voice. Just as text or video could render this mode obsolete, developments during 2021 have put voice back at the forefront, not just as a core communications channel but also for driving new forms of value for enterprises.
 
To better appreciate what voice has to offer in 2022, it’s important to recognize that cloud communications aren’t a zero-sum game. When video adoption exploded during the outset of the pandemic, voice traffic didn’t suddenly go off a cliff. In 2021, messaging channels like WhatsApp and Messenger found bona fide use-cases for collaboration and customer service, and with 5G coming, that trend will only continue. Wherever utility is, new applications become adopted, and in the case of voice, that utility extends far beyond telephony.
 
Heading into 2022, I view voice as being bigger and better. Growth in voice usage doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of messaging or video. This example is a critical distinction between premises-based and cloud-based technologies. During legacy times, voice had very high utility for being tied so closely to the PBX.
 
Aside from face-to-face meetings, PBX was the only workplace voice channel for a long time. That world was driven by the economics of scarcity—expensive proprietary hardware, costly dedicated voice networks, and metered service. Meanwhile, the cloud world continues to be driven by the economics of abundance, where voice transport has no cost, bandwidth is plentiful, and many free telephony alternatives to the PBX exist.
 
With VoIP transforming voice into a data application and the cloud opening new possibilities for using voice, the climate for innovation becomes energized. It can also chart a path completely independent for how video and messaging evolve. What’s old becomes new again, and to see those possibilities, you must think about voice in terms other than telephony.
 
To help make the vision clearer—I’ll summarize why voice is bigger than ever and why it makes collaboration better.
 
Voice: The Expansion of Innovation
  1. Regardless of how technology evolves, telephony remains core for workplace communication. The installed base of PBXs and desk phones remains massive, even if they are no longer the primary tools for voice. While these phones still provide the best telephony user experience, workers are just as likely to use softphones, web calling apps, click to call—as well as mobility—to make and take calls. In tandem with the economics of abundance, the high utility of telephony ensures that this use case for voice isn’t going away any time soon.
  2. Voice innovation is more expansive than ever due to the exciting range of new use cases beyond telephony. Thanks to advances in AI for speech recognition, the adoption of smart speakers has now reached critical mass in the home. Add to that the ever-expanding usage of voice-based mobile search assistants like Siri and Google, and it’s not hard to see how the stage has been set now for similar use cases in the workplace. Smart speakers are finding their way into meeting rooms now, and with UCaaS platforms now supporting conversational AI, every worker can have their own voice-driven digital personal assistant.
  3. Perhaps one of the most overlooked drivers of voice innovation is how the pandemic has changed the way we do just about everything. We’ve been going touchless for a while, and as new COVID variants come out of nowhere, this remains a big part of the new normal going into 2022. Again, the most visible examples are in the consumer world. But most of those use cases are based around tap-and-go smart cards. Similar use cases exist in the workplace, but we also have plenty of other use cases where voice replaces touch. AI-driven speech recognition keeps improving, and I’ll cite two examples that make the voice pie bigger. One would be person-to-machine (P2M) interaction, where voice commands start a meeting or turn down the lights. Another growing use case is biometrics—where your voiceprint can serve as a touchless form of authentication or authorize transactions.
 
Voice: Better for Collaboration
  1. Telephony is great—always has been. But with today’s technology, it’s just one use-case for voice. Aside from making voice bigger than ever, new technology – especially AI – is making voice better than ever. It’s made better, not just by doing old things in new ways but also with new capabilities that weren’t possible in the analog world of legacy voice. Great examples are everywhere, with more coming, especially for workplace collaboration and contact center.
  2. In terms of workplace collaboration, many recent voice-driven applications have been baked into the leading UCaaS offerings. One would be real-time transcription, where the dialog during a meeting or a call is transcribed much like with closed captioning on TV. This feature isn’t exactly new, but as with all forms of AI, transcription is iterative, meaning that it improves over time. In 2021, it’s certainly good enough for everyday workplace use, and as the accuracy improves, its utility will grow, so expect to see a lot more of this in 2022. The same holds true for real-time translation, which has a different utility, especially for globally distributed teams. English isn’t everyone’s first language, so this capability helps break down that barrier. As UCaaS vendors continue to add new languages, translation adds another layer that makes voice bigger and better.
  3. Voice innovation has been even greater in the contact center because it helps address an important—and measurable—problem most businesses struggle with—improving customer service. The hot button item you’ll hear most about in 2022 will be conversational AI, which is (basically) chatbots 2.0. First-generation chatbots were command-driven, built to execute simple, query-based tasks, similar to what legacy IVR attempts to do for self-service. These applications have limited utility and do little to address a big pain point for contact centers in terms of managing rising call volumes. Conversational AI makes greater use of machine learning and natural language understanding to enable chatbots to have interactive dialog with customers and even handle open-ended questions. Most of these chatbots are text-based, but voice-based offerings are gaining traction. In terms of business value, the key idea is that these are digital channels—meaning they can be measured and tracked with analytics to extract new forms of value. Examples include sentiment analysis to gauge the emotional state of customers, or script adherence, to make sure agents are engaging with customers properly.
 
Voice Will Continue to Shine
I’ve only listed a few high-level examples of how new forms of voice make the communications pie bigger. 2021 provided many proof points for how voice is back. Of course, it never went away—video and messaging had their moments in 2021—and will continue to shine in 2022, but so will voice. While the richness of voice is the central takeaway for this post, it’s equally important to view voice in this broader context—where it happily co-exists with video and messaging— and ultimately gives us greater options for communicating – bigger and better than ever before.

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