Giving Voice to the Internet
About five years ago, Chris Andrews calculated how many times his fingertips would hit a plastic keyboard over the course of his life—roughly 100 million. Not only did he find that inhumane, he also found it an ineffective way to communicate. "I was looking at emoticons and 'LOL' and all the ways we find to express nuance and emotion in text," says Andrews. "I thought, what if I could just create a layer of sound to go with the content, if I could attach a voice to it?"
That question led to his newest venture, SoundLink, an application that allows anyone to take a URL and lay their voice over it. Users record themselves speaking about a web page—or something on that page—and then combine the URL with that recording to create a single link: a soundlink. With one click, you can see the page your friend recommended (or hated) and hear their reasons for sending it or their comments and opinions about it. In 2006, Andrews filed a patent for SoundLink, hired a programmer and built the application.
"Up until now, sound on the Internet has been associated with things like Skype or Google Voice," he says. "Sound as content is a very new idea."
Andrews is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who started his first company, Unidisc, in 1990. Unidisc was one of the first CD-ROM publishers. Its first project was putting the Guinness Book of World Records on CD. Andrews enhanced the text and photos with sound, like recording the world's fastest talker giving a lesson in how to talk fast. Unidisc grew out of Andrews' work in mid-1980s for NewsBank, when he created and put the first CD-ROM on the market—the company's extensive microfiche and print collection of U.S. newspapers. After the Guinness Book, Unidisc put the Grammy Awards' on CD, enhancing the text and photos with music and images. "It was the first time Eric Clapton gave permission to have his music and images digitally reproduced," says Andrews.
In 1996 he sold Unidisc and launched Livecast (he also coined and trademarked the term), a live audio and video experience over the Internet, long before cybercast and webcast were everyday terms. The downturn in 2001 hit Livecast hard and Andrews sold the assets that year and the trademark in 2008.
He also started a number of commercial websites that didn't require raising funds, like building Mozart.com to coincide with the composer's 250th birthday in 2006. It was a travel site, focused on travel to the 200 cities in Europe where Mozart performed. The site also allowed visitors to wish Mozart a happy birthday online.
Andrews got an offer for that and sold it, then started another one, Gutenberg.com, just as ebooks were entering the market. (Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.) The site was an online community for ebook readers, writers and publishers. Andrews sold Gutenberg in 2009 to devote himself to SoundLink.
A year ago he began developing the application so that it could handle millions of users. He also added tagging functionality, allowing SoundLinks to be tweeted, posted to Facebook or e-mailed. Yet despite how easy the technology might be to use, Andrews has a hurdle to overcome: listening is way slower than reading. It could be tough to get people to listen to a recording if they don't know the person speaking or aren't invested in the topic, says David Weinberger, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center For Internet and Society at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming book Too Big To Know, about the Internet's effect on learning and information.
Although Weinberger cautions there's no way to predict The Next Big Thing when it comes to the web, his hunch is that SoundLink will do best with blogging or in social networking environments. "I think people will need to know the person speaking to feel it's worth taking the time to listen," he says.
Andrews' understands that and envisions SoundLinks focused around various interests, affinities, profession and events—imagine a link like "soundlink.com/wine" or "soundlink.com/ComicCon"—with opportunities for sponsorship and advertising. Although SoundLink will be free for most users, Andrews plans to offer a premium product with privacy settings that could be used in business, for example, by a CEO who wants to send a private SoundLink message to his board members or employees.
The product is still in beta, but Andrews anticipates it will be ready to roll before the end of the year. He's got six Silicon Valley angels on board and is in the midst of raising a seed round of $500,000. "The way text is used on the web now it's quick and superficial. But if you attach a voice to it, you get things like irony, humor and nuance," he says. "And that's real communication."