Read/WriteWeb has an interesting article about a new phone service called fonolo.
The basic idea is that the fonolo web site provides a navigable
interface for a bunch of different companies that have deep phone menus
(“press 1 for …”). You select the part of the company you want to
speak to on fonolo’s web site. Fonolo then calls the site, and calls
you back once they’ve reached the part of the company you want to talk
Sounds like a cool hack … but the long-term solution is to have much
better navigation and naming in the phone system. This solution
reminds me of the early days of the Web, when Gopher — developed here
at the University of Minnesota! — was a significant competitor. One
of the problems with Gopher is that it had no naming system beyond the
site. To tell someone how to find a Gopher resource, you would tell
them the location of the site, and then tell them a bunch of menu
choices to make to get where they wish to go. By contrast, of course,
the Web has a rich namespace in which nearly every accessible page has
a unique name. You can direct someone to a Web page by just giving
them the URL — which takes them directly there, with no navigation.
The phone system is still in the bad old days: each company has a phone
number, and then you need to follow a path from that phone number to
the resource you wish to access. Companies like fonolo (and GetHuman)
will do the navigation for you. But this is window dressing on a
broken system. Really, once we’ve looked up the resource we wish to
access, we want the equivalent of an URL that will take us right
there. Re-engineering the phone system to support such a service will
likely be difficult; perhaps internet telephony can get us there first.
Note that there is no financial conflict here between the companies and
their customers. It is true that the companies prefer to use phone
menus to get people to information, rather than have a human
representative read the information (because it’s much cheaper to have
the customer navigate the phone menu than to have a human
representative do the navigation for them). However, the company would
be happy to have its customers connected to their information more
quickly. Doing so would just reduce phone costs further.
Of course, an alternative would be for the phone system to stop being
used for this sort of information. For instance, on an iPhone,
customers can access the web site rather than dial the company. There
are many situations, though, in which a voice interface is more
convenient than a screen interface. For these situations, a better
“PhoneURL” would be useful for everyone.