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Talko, and Using Your Voice

Talko, Ray Ozzie's new iOS app for adding voice-to-photos or photos-to-voice (depending on where you like to start), is buzzing across web media right now. There are plenty of product profiles around the web already that I don't mean to duplicate. (Steven Levy's write-up based on interviews with Ray Ozzie is a good first read if you are new to Talko.) Instead, I want to dwell on what may, perhaps, be the killer feature in Talko: voice communication.

More to the point: in striving to "reinvent the phone call" Ozzie and his team have built around WebRTC. Co-founder Matt Pope told me that Talko decided on WebRTC two and a half years ago, not long after its public release. Explaining why Talko chose WebRTC, Pope told me: "We believe in the open web, we believe in voice as a native and integral part of that, and we placed the bet on the potential (at that time) of WebRTC gaining momentum...[we] feel like the bet is serving Talko extremely well". Many companies thinking about WebRTC implementations may want to take a step back and consider, as Ozzie and his team have done, what they can contribute to our voice communications.

I have recently been writing profiles with some colleagues covering all the companies that market commercial WebRTC offerings. Looking across the many companies building with WebRTC, one thing is clear: video is where many companies see WebRTC's value. It seems to be the implementation of choice.

I am not writing here against the value of new video implementations. Video certainly has its use cases, many of which are yet to be fully realized. Still, many vendor companies seem to work from the assumption that voice is good but video is better. I don't think this logic always holds. Not everyone wants to use video. Even though, perhaps, it is exciting that we can do live video, in practice many people still hesitate to jump on a live video call.

Video engages us in something near personal contact. It is powerful and brings affective cues to important conversations. However, much of our personal and work life--especially much in between--does not require the level of interaction that video provides.

We seem most often, in practice, to go to video chats for either our most professional meetings, where we benefit from buttoned-up affective self-presentation (board meetings; interviews; consults), or for our most informal meetings (family or close friends), where we value the sense of connection but don't fret our self-presentation. Somewhere (everywhere?) between our text messages and our videoconferences is a wide range of personal and work interactions for which voice is the practical, preferred tool.

What is your company doing with voice right now? Are you thinking enough about how to leverage WebRTC to improve voice? Is it just the old VoIP stuff that sits in the feature set but isn't getting attention from designers and programmers, least of all executives?

Talko has me thinking about new possibilities for voice (more so than usual) because it has made voice paramount in its design. Talko has some features built naturally into its interface design that can change what we expect from voice communication:

1. Ping or ring. When you go to contact someone in your Talko app contact list (which is an aggregate of your email and mobile phone contacts that have a Talko account), you are asked whether you want to ping them or ring them. This is helpful because voice calls usually interrupt something. That is why we schedule many voice calls and go to email for even more of them. A simple ping lets me know there is a call going on that I might want to join. A ring lets me know that it might be worth interrupting what I'm doing. This interruption-aware approach is not dissimilar to the "are you there", "can you talk" method that co-workers often use via chat clients to respect ongoing work.

2. A second feature is information about your contacts. Before I ring someone on Talko, I can see at a glance what time it is where they are (oops--it's 2AM for them in Japan right now) and what kind of network they are using (Wifi or mobile data).

3. A third feature also helps allay the interruptive nature of a voice call: Recording by default. Every call made on Talko and its media content are recorded on Talko servers by default. With your Talko contacts, you don't feel pressured to get the audio content as it happens live because you know it will be there when you get back to it (the free version removes recordings eventually). Before you go calling security, consider that any user on a call can scrub the whole thing if they don't want it on the record, or any particular piece to which they contributed.

4. A fourth related feature: Playback. When you tap a call (listed in order of most recent) you can hit "play" to listen as it scrolls through any images or texts sent, right in time with how the call unfolded in the first place. Or, you can scroll down to a certain picture and pick up the chat at the moment it was posted.

5. Group voice chats are the norm. Point-to-point works great in Talko, but user groups are a cinch to set up and chats can be titled--they become a thread to which additional content can be added at any time. You can ring the whole group with two taps in the app or revisit the conversation if you got the invite but could not join live.

6. "Push-to-talk" or "always-on" microphone options. In Talko, during a call, tapping and holding the mic button, which is center at bottom, lets you just say what you need to say and then be voice-off. Or, quick tap-and-release the button and your mic goes live.

In these user-friendly ways, Talko has made it possible to use voice on your mobile with added context (pictures and messages) while allowing voice chat to be better-managed and less intrusive.

Next Page: Talko's Challenges

Talko has some programming mountains to climb. Important ones, like releasing AndroidOS and web browser clients. Also, future business features like additional content exchange and permanent call records are yet to come. Then, of course, everyone is already asking where the heck the video feature is in Talko. The public comment from Talko is that video will be added after the app is exposed to a mass audience. However, when you hear Ray Ozzie describe his vision for the app: it is all about voice. I get the idea that the company wants to lead-out and scale up with its paradigm-shifting voice features and then let the video bull loose after the momentum for voice primacy secures its territory.

Talko is built on WebRTC, remember, so the new channels are easy enough to implement. It will cost the company more money and require much more server capacity to add video, of course. Even backing from Andreessen-Horowitz doesn't take profit out of the equation.

However, it is the power and ubiquity of voice, and the possibility of shifting how we use our phones and our voices, that is driving Talko. Ray Ozzie thinks it will drive revenue once business users get Talko-ing with each other. WebRTC in the pipes keeps the playing field open for all manner of added channels and modes of entry, but Talko will only succeed if it can bring a giant constituency back to voice (and to this one particular app).

The achilles heel? Well, um, you already have voice capability--on your phone. Even an industry luminary like Ray Ozzie faces a daunting challenge when you consider that he is competing with Apple's native iPhone tools themselves. Not to mention, you know: the telephone. Time will tell whether he is a sitting duck in the minefield of app dreamers.

I am going to take a chance, though, and suggest that he might just have a shot at changing the game. Why? The voice quality is awesome. I used Talko with family members, connecting from multiple Internet services (3G, LTE, and Wifi), and the experience was wonderful. I can imagine myself using Talko for a lot of different scenarios (if only other people used the app--I know). Audio content was crisp and the experience flowed better than in any other environment I have used for communication. A seamless, user-experience-grounded app that lets people talk and send pictures from wherever and whenever? Talko may not be first to the game, but the company could be a standout in the sport.

Voice might be the reason. Talko is brave enough to focus on a communication mode so "Twentieth Century" that we might have forgotten how much we count on it. When we are thinking about ways to use WebRTC, we should think first about how we communicate now and what will help us communicate better. "Add video to that" is often a useful strategy, but I think we can imagine more WebRTC implementations where voice is paramount.