ThePudding provides free, PC-based phone calls to anywhere in the US or Canada. The big catch: computers in Fremont, CA will eavesdrop on and analyze every word of your conversation so they can serve up advertisements tailored to the topic at hand.
Users initiate a phone call simply by visiting ThePudding’s website (currently in private beta) and entering a phone number into the browser. After the call begins, advertisements tailored to the conversation will begin to appear on screen. The NYT has a good screenshot of what these advertisements will look like here.
Phone conversations are monitored only by computers, not actual human beings. The company also does not record any of the conversations or log any of the topics discussed. Therefore, advertisements are tailored to each particular phone call and not to trends in users’ calling behavior.
ThePudding has already experienced a fair amount of backlash, with some calling it a terrible idea because users will not be comfortable enough with allowing their phone conversations to be monitored. There is also the concern that niche users will not be swayed by this completely free offering, because they already pay very little for services like Skype. However, ThePudding may be a potential acquisition target for Skype itself, which may be interested in developing an ad-based revenue model.
Despite the criticism, ThePudding does not seem all that different to me from a privacy perspective than Gmail. If users are comfortable with letting computers analyze their email messages and display targeted advertisements alongside them, why won’t they be comfortable with allowing the same thing with their verbal communications? Perhaps there is an important psychological factor at play here that will always make people unwilling to let strangers monitor what they actually speak. But consumers are caring less and less about how much information they provide online about themselves to unverified companies, so it doesn’t seem implausible to me that with time many people will overcome their anxieties about this type of service.
While ThePudding is currently only available through the web browser on PCs, the company has plans to expand into mobile (and to display advertisements on the screens of handheld devices).
ThePudding is a service of Pudding Media, which was founded by two Israelis with experience in military intelligence and telecommunications. The company is based in San Jose, California.