HearMe: Talk Is Cheap On The Internet

The Web just may become a very noisy place.At least that's the goal of HearMe, a company known until last week as MPath Interactive that has set its sights on making two-way voice conversations as commonplace online as text-based chat rooms.

The Web just may become a very noisy place.

At least that's the goal of HearMe, a company known until last week as MPath Interactive that has set its sights on making two-way voice conversations as commonplace online as text-based chat rooms.

The company, which already provides two-way voice services used in instant messaging communications such as Yahoo! Messenger, this week is taking the wraps off a system that lets individual Web sites offer chat areas where multiple users can have voice conversations.

"The voices you hear on the Web are coming from us," said HearMe's Chief Operating Officer Lynn Heublein.

Using the equivalent of a private network of nearly 100 servers hooked into the Web, HearMe is patching together online users for about 250 million minutes of voice conversations monthly - mostly through the company's MPlayer.com online gaming service.

By spreading its voice chat application to partner sites on the Web, the company aspires to grow its voice traffic to 1 billion minutes monthly by the end of next year.

If the company were to price its voice offering like a long-distance telephone service, such volume would generate $50 million in revenue per month at the current rock-bottom rate of a nickel per minute offered by long-distance carriers.

But HearMe's business model is vastly different from that of a long-distance giant. It is charting a course more reminiscent of RealNetworks, the Internet pioneer of streaming audio.

Just as RealNetworks created a new online medium by seeding the market with free software that could play its content stored in formats compatible with RealNetworks' servers, HearMe is trying to establish itself as a commonplace application that enables two-way voice exchanges online.

The company intends to give away its 60,000-bit player software to online users in a free download. Its goal is to make money by selling Web site operators the tools they will need to better manage their voice chat rooms.

If successful, HearMe could drastically alter the landscape and commonly accepted rules for building online communities.

"We see audio being the single biggest catalyst for generating demand on a Web site," according to Rob Scongor, vice president and general manager of the company's technology products group. "A year from now, it will be hard to remember a time when you didn't go to a Web site to interact."

Indeed, many new uses appear possible employing widespread two-way voice services online.

Manufacturers, for instance, could offer voice-based customer support services. Other companies could provide online product training seminars. Even retailers could serve up the equivalent of celebrity-based online talk shows aimed at moving merchandise, akin to the way comedian Joan Rivers sells jewelry on television shopping networks.

"It's definitely going to open up new forms of interaction and streamline some existing forms of online communication," said Senior Analyst Jeremy Schwartz at Forrester Research. "But a lot of technologies appear exciting and powerful at first. The big question is whether the interface will work and how do consumers adopt these things."

Another potential hurdle is devising ways to enable effective voice conversations when three or more people are in the same chat area, said Jae Kim, analyst at Paul Kagan Associates.

"Voice enabling everyone in the same room can be cumbersome," she added. "HearMe does run the risk of being a Tower of Babel."

The real answer, Kim said, is to develop systems that integrate the use of voice and text chat, using each where appropriate.

A community, for instance, could feature a large text-based chat room combined with technology that would allow users to break off for private one-on-one voice conversations, Kim said.

However the application is ultimately used, HearMe executives view their audio network as a stepping stone toward providing two-way video communications online.

"Audio is just the first of the rich mediums that people will use to interact on the Web," COO Heublein said.