Alltel Pushes the Envelope Again

I love competition on the open market. Crowded sectors are always on the verge of a revolution, as one player or another tries to rock the boat with new products, features, services, or pricing plans. Anything that brings in more customers will work. It's a bonus if the new stuff is profitable, too.

That's why I still care about Alltel, even after the company was taken private by TPG Capital and Goldman Sachs last November. Alltel has a history of being first-to-market with innovative services, with copycat efforts from big boys like AT&T (NYSE: T  ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) lagging months and sometimes years behind.

Alltel's latest is innovation is Axcess Voice2TXT, a service that converts your incoming voice mails to SMS text messages. Powered by British startup SpinVox, the service is aimed at businesspeople with a yen for discretion in meetings and such, but the incoming message list also calls to mind Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and the much-loved Visual Voicemail lists you get on an iPhone.

I had a chance to compare Voice2TXT with the equivalent feature from my landline provider Vonage (NYSE: VG  ) . Both worked fine for short, simple messages, but Vonage broke down in more challenging situations, like heavy background noise or a heavy dose of Swedish accent. Alltel delivered perfect transcripts until I tried to leave a message in Swedish.

I'm told that the secret sauce is a human element in the machine-learning process, sending garbled messages on to a call center for touch-ups. That would explain why it took a couple of minutes longer to get a message back when it sounded like I called straight from an ABBA party in the local IKEA warehouse.

Now, Alltel isn't putting much marketing muscle behind this usability feature, and you could get the same service directly from SpinVox for a somewhat higher fee and some extra setup hassle. But in America, convenience is king, and this is certainly a time-saver. Watch Alltel's peers scramble to implement similar features in a year or so.

And wouldn't it be nice to see SpinVox go public? A human touch can make all the difference in a computerized world.

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