The irony is that as our smartphones become more and more powerful, they behave less and less like phones.
Think about it. When was the last time you worried about the number of call minutes you’re using? Do you even listen to your voicemail messages? More than ever, we use our phones to communicate via text—not voice—leaning so heavily on everything from SMS messages to Facebook, Twitter, and many other internet chat apps, that talking hardly seems to matter.
But Ray Ozzie thinks this is silly. We all have voices for talking. Every smartphone still has a microphone for listening. And voice is the most natural way of interacting. The only problem, he says, is the phone part of the smartphone hasn’t evolved as quickly as the rest of it. That’s why he’s introducing a new collaboration tool called Talko. The idea is to bring more voice to online collaboration, particularly in the business world.
Ozzie isn’t the only one to explore this kind of thing—think Google and its video Hangouts—but his effort carries more weight than most. From 2005 to 2010, after Microsoft acquired his online collaboration startup Groove Networks, Ozzie served as chief technology officer and chief software architect at the tech giant. Before that, he built one of the most important business communication tools of pre-web era: Lotus Notes. He’s been thinking about computers and communication since before many of today’s startup founders were born.
During the client-server days, Ozzie says, the focal point of collaboration and productivity in companies was the document. “How you communicated about it was at the periphery,” he says. But today, that communication—made possible by mobile computing—has become the core way people in businesses work together. “We’re entering the golden age of social software,” he says. Talko aims to ride this wave.
To hear Ozzie tell it, Talko is an attempt to rebuild the smartphone phone app from scratch, free of the legacy practices and assumptions of the landline. In practice, this makes it a kind of full-featured messaging app with a voice-over-internet layer built on top of it. Or you can think of it as a group calling app with texting, photo-sharing, audio bookmarking, and annotations built in.
Talko operates around the concept of a group. Users can be members of any number of groups, much as with group messaging, and initiating a call opens up the conversation to the whole group. A key feature is the default recording of all audio on the call, which is meant to create a way to go back through voice conversations just as you would an email or texting exchange.
“Almost every other tool has some sort of artifact,” Ozzie says. The problem, he explains, is that those tools often don’t allow for the necessary complexity of thought. “We’re texting way more but we’re saying less because of the stacatto nature.”
Group conversations on Talko also allow anyone to drop in audio without making a phone call at all. Other group members will be notified that there’s been activity in the conversation, just as they would if new messages or photos came in. In one sense, that creates the danger of Talko acting as just another version of the reviled voicemail, which has emerged as the least efficient way to convey information on a mobile device.
On the other hand, Apple’s own Messages app on iOS 8 now includes the ability to send and receive audio messages right in the app. Ozzie says he doesn’t look at Apple’s move so much as competition but as a gateway for getting users accustomed again to the idea of talking a lot more on their phones, which he believes will get more people on Talko. And Ozzie is convinced that more talking will equal more doing.
“Voice on its current path is in its decline,” he says. Success in his eyes means reversing that trend. “We increase the total addressable market in words spoken,” he says. A side benefit: the more talking and less texting people are doing, the less they’re bumping into each other in the street.