Ether, a project launched by Ingenio (formerly Keen.com, an answers network that has become a call processing service), is up and running an invitation-only beta as of a few hours ago. Michael Arrington has the step-by-step look at the sign-up and call experience over at TechCrunch, so I won't reiterate that here.
Ron Hirson and Scott Faber, the guys behind Ether, walked me through the service yesterday. It's got a cleanIngenio, Ether's parent company, is already booking millions of dollars in call services revenue based on print advertising-related services, so it is easy to imagine lead generation and other compensation models emerging from the Ether economy. UI and is easy to understand. I can manage my time with people who call, setting my hours and, even, setting different prices for evening and weekend calls. No one gets my real phone number, rather they get an Ether-owned number (though Ron and Scott said customer 800# configurations will be available, too). [Disclosure: I was an advisor and shareholder in Ron's previous company.]
This kind of service and 3Bubbles, the embedded chat service that is also in beta, are adding live connectivity to static pages in a new and interesting way. Somehow, this will lead to the sale of more personal knowledge over the Net. Scoble wonders how, but let me suggest a couple that seem obvious: Calling bloggers to pitch ideas and get their thoughts, a business review service that lets entepreneurs quickly vet their ideas. If PR people really want to bug bloggers, they could pay to call them....
The long and short of it is that Ether has blended call-center capabilities with SIP, the Session Initiation Protocol, to make calling from a Web device by clicking a "call me" button embedded on a Web page to a landline or cellular telephone easy. The Ether guys are right when they say it is a non-starter to launch a service where both parties have to download and install VoIP software in order to connect.
Moreover, they've combined billing for call time, the set-up of calls with billing beginning only when a connection is actually made, as well as scheduling one's availabilty and call queuing with this functionality to provide a distributed call management system to anyone. And it's free, in the best tradition of the Web, with Ether taking a 15-percent rake of revenue generated by the user who takes calls for, say, $1 a minute.
The immediately obvious application is sex chat, but Ether is not allowing adult content. However, one could imagine a therapist or technical support person being available on a scheduled or ad hoc basis for calls from clients. Ingenio, the parent company, is already booking millions of dollars in call services revenue based on print advertising-related services, so it is easy to imagine lead generation and other compensation models emerging from the Ether economy. Ether supports free calls, too, to drive new leads and is working on a mechanism to switch a free exploratory call by a customer into a paid session.
The big money, I think is in linking local service providers to internationally distributed products through Ether. After all, augmenting physical products with greater support and knowledge is where the most revenue can be linked to a transaction, and a lot of transactions aggregated into a single account for Ether would be ideal.
For example, HP or Dell could assemble their own geek squad local services on the fly, allowing techs in a region to sign up to provide customer support for their products rather than placing offices in those areas. First step: Provide an Ether access code that provides a limited amount of free support with each new PC that is shipped, then offer additional services and local house calls, splitting the revenue with the techs who actually provide the human contact.
Big brands will want their logos on such services, which may sting for Ether at this point, but sometimes you have to know when to get out of the way. As long as there is the recognizable "Call Me" button and a powered by Ether message somewhere, it will be good for the company, familiarizing users with the idea of calling total strangers (we've gotten used to crossing such social boundaries with the telephone, email and chat, already) on a pay-per-call basis.
Then, Ether's business needs to build on the performance of people who offer services through it. Like EBay, Ether will need to provide customer feedback mechanisms that let them police the service providers. Like MySpace, they will have to be careful to establish some social mores without squealching social experimentation. Unlike the business networking services, such as LinkedIn, the growth of the network is not dependent on carefully shepherded privacy, so it has the ability to spread like wildfire. We'll see if the spark catches.