A couple of sites are reporting on the beta launch of Ingenio’s Ether. It’s essentially a billing and payments infrastructure with scheduling and phone number provisioning. It allows anyone who sells advice/expertise to do so remotely over the phone using the system.
Ether takes the "negotiation" out of the process for sellers, which is a subtle but key element of the system. A seller sets a price and the buyer can accept or decline to pursue. The system uses 888 numbers (with unique extensions) to protect the seller’s privacy. Ingenio sees Ether benefiting segments such as legal and financial professionals, therapists/coaches, accountants, computer support, authors/subject matter experts, etc.
SiliconBeat and other sites argue that the functionality isn’t new. But I think the company has put together a nice suite of tools and services that essentially "e-commerce" enable certain kinds of service businesses. Ingenio isn’t doing any marketing on behalf of the individual would-be users/sellers. It’s up to the individuals to do that. The company instead envisions this as a module on a blog or Web site that helps manage a consulting relationship between a buyer and seller. Here’s how it works.
There’s some complexity in the process of connecting the calls — in circumstances when the expert is unavailable or doesn’t want to accept the call — that will need to be tested and probably refined. Ingenio gets a percentage cut of the total value of the transaction. But, presumably, that’s not a problem because this would all be incremental revenue for the provider/seller.
A very interesting thing about this is that it takes local service businesses and potentially extends their reach to a national audience. There might be some issues where a caller from state A contacts a seller/expert in state B and there are regulations governing the seller (think law or psychotherapy). But how all that plays out remains to be seen.
The service, built on Ingenio’s patents and telephony infrastructure, is part of a larger phenomenon of using VoIP/telephony to provide leads or real-time connections between buyers and sellers via the Internet. Right now Ingenio is keeping PPCall and Ether separate. But there might be some synergy between the products going forward.