Image Source: The Future of the Web and Mobile (Feb 2007)
For years I have been working on mobile and related software development. This has been a world of “data”-and consumer and enterprise applications and infrastructure, that for me started in 1999-2000 with CDPD, CDMA, then GSM, 2G, 3G, and today 4G and LTE from the network side, and from the device side Symbian OS, WinCE, Palm OS, RIM, WML, HTML Basic, J2ME, and into today’s iOS and Android (Smartphone and Tablets) as the main platforms for native apps and HTML5 webapps.
More recently, I have been deeply involved with Voice as an App.
Evolution of Mobile
Mobile has truly gone through a period of tremendous evolution and growth. Mobile is about convenience and easy access (to others and to information). The mobile Smartphone is a social artifact. And while today I believe that mobile has peaked in general (a topic for another blog), mobile has entered the phase of continuous stable growth that won’t stop — its essence will just transform into different form-factors and new interactions — all about improving the mobile context and thus the experience (usefulness).
Voice has always been a fundamental piece or feature of the mobile phone, and it will always be. But in the world or era of “data”, voice has been treated as “legacy stuff”, separate and driven by its own experience, drivers, and infrastructure. Voice just works, but separate, under Operator control.
As a side note, for years, many of us have been talking about convergence with respect to mobile; an example of this is a piece I wrote back in 2007 titled the Future of the Web and Mobile that covered the expected evolution of mobile from my point of view — this was written 6 months before the iPhone was first released; looking back is pretty much on target.
The early part of the 2000 decade saw technologies, concepts and lessons-learned from Europe (Nokia), Canada (RIM), Asia and USA (Palm, MSFT, others), but their impact remained pretty much closed as well as localized to the respective regions (mainly due to Operator control). Then the years 2005-2008 were the fundamental years of transformation, and openness away from Operator control and into the Ecosystem, first in the USA (thanks to Apple and Google) which then impacted the rest of the world in big ways, into what Mobile is today. Throughout that same time-period we have been talking about the convergence with voice, but this in my opinion has never really happened. I am talking about bringing voice convergence to the next level — from the device into the App-level.
On Voice Apps
Voice is by default a multi-platform application. But the future points to voice as a dominant “mobile app”. The consumer world is massively becoming mobile, and the enterprise world will be eliminating the traditional office phones in favor of mobile. Interestingly, the effects of BYOD also impact Voice apps as well.
Even though the technologies for creating voice apps have been around for a while, today we are still kind stuck in a different world when it comes to voice: a 100+ year old world of closed voice-networks, arbitrage, peering, FCC and PSTNs regulations and other. There is a lot of history on how we got there, but for folks that come from the world of “data”, like I do, it all looks like quite a mess. Thankfully, it is an “old world” that is slowly evolving (while in the process, crashing) with the new world. I am right in the middle of this world today. One day, all of this will be completely freed from such legacy world, thanks to open IP networks, mobile, the Web, the Cloud and new business models.
Voice is slowly but surely moving into becoming a “data app” — Voice as an app or an app feature. Voice will continue to be the Smartphones *main* feature (or app). Primarily standalone. But primarily standalone with many flavors or choices beyond the “core voice support” provided by the Network Operator (for example, Google Voice). These are SIP and WebRTC clients that you can download and use, point-to-point or via the old PSTN.
Google Voice. Image Source: The Next Web website
Cloud-services companies such as Plivo and Twilio are helping with this evolution to provide Voice as an app or app-feature.
Because of the current state of “voice” as an app, depending on the “app layer” you are at, the moment you want to open your voice app to complete calls to any phone out there (that is, the PSTN), you will immediately “crash” into the legacy world of voice. This is a hardcore world of telephone numbers, activations and inventories, origination and termination and routing, agreements, and fees and regulations. To effectively deal with all of this you either have to implement all of this directly (costly), or you can use solutions on the cloud, such as the services-and Marketplace provided by Shango (my company) and its partners.
From the design perspective, designing mobile apps with voice functionality does require a different way of thinking from designing traditional mobile apps and web apps. The inclusion of voice as an interaction mode does require re-thinking of your application as a multi-modal app. And because voice apps is about communication, the whole thing can quickly turn into including or not other kinds of communication such as IM, SMS, video, and group-communications (conferencing), and other.
The mobile device, the Smartphone, is a social artifact — it has always been. Voice has always been the fundamental feature on these highly personal devices. But we have always been treating voice “as its own separate function”. Voice is changing. Voice as an app or app-feature is coming, and is coming fast. BYOD has an impact on Voice apps that must be taken into consideration.
We are at a very interesting crosspoint where the old legacy voice world is moving into the new world of “data” and Cloud-based services and apps. The Cloud service providers to help create, manage and support such voice apps are out there, the Smartphones provide the support for native SIP stacks and libraries to write and/or include voice functionality into your app, WebRTC is coming, and you can download your own SIP clients/apps to use as well.
The future is clear: open IP networks, Mobile and Cloud-service providers are and will play an important role in the evolution of voice communications, voice as an app and the future of “Mobile”.