Facts and Truths on an Emerging Internet Calling Revolution.
We are witnessing the slow death of telephony.
“But”, you say, “its easier to get a hold of me by phone than ever… I carry the damn thing with me everywhere.”
“Bah”, I say. I’m talking about a shift in how you manage voice-based communication, and the convergence of digital media data in general.
The two most recent additions to my communications arsenal, Google Voice and Skype ver 1.2 for iPhone. Together they represent just today’s capstone of available audio communication tech. I’d like to share how they have folded into my life, how their future brethren will change our phone bills, and what they don’t do yet, but have no excuse for not doing.
In the last few years, my communication life has been transformed by a suite of technologies that make it easier to find me than ever before. Aside from the omnipresent iPhone; it’s been Google Talk, twitter, Skype, Posterous, FreindFeed, Facebook, Flickr… On my “Find Me” page at withdrake.com, there are no fewer than 11 ways to get a hold of me. You get it, because you’ve felt the explosion too.
I may be unusually well folded into the fabric of electronic media, but no more than the average geek, whose choices we can reliably look to for a picture of Joe Hotmail’s life in six months to two years.
So where do Google Voice and Skype’s newest offering fit in? First, some background.
Skype is the VOIP program we have all come to know and love. It lets us talk to our parents when we are abroad or away at school, make free long distance calls, and offers us ever improving video quality. It is the video phone that the 1980’s promised we’d all have by the 1990s. Sort of.
Google Voice is the less well known of the two, though arguably more revolutionary. Currently in Beta, everyone’s favorite search-giant-turned-verb is offering a web telephony solution.
The elevator summary is that with Google Voice, you are able to get a real phone number, free of charge. You can then send and receive calls with that real number from your PC . More importantly, you can have that number forward all of its incoming calls directly to any other number… say, your cell phone.
Gvoice also has some nifty features like voicemail and an engine that kinda sorta transcribes voice mails to text.
It’s still in testing and it’s like when Gmail was new— you have to get an invite to become a user. Sadly, as of this post the invite has to come directly from the Google guys, whoever they are.
What are they good for?
Up until today, I used Skype in sort of the same way I used to use AIM in dial-up days. I’d hop on and see if the person I want to talk to was signed in. If not, I’d use some other means of connection. If it was important, I’d make sure to make an appointment with them to meet me on Skype (insert your own irony). It was nice, if it could be arranged.
The release of an iPhone application meant Skype became something else. It went from regular squirrel to flying squirrel, if you will.
If your iPhone is connected to a wifi network (not the 3G connection) you can make and receive Skype voice calls from the phone, using the phone’s hardware. This means you can totally sidestep your wireless carrier if you have wifi.
The reason you can’t Skype (yes, I verbed it) over 3G isn’t some escoteric technology issue. In short, its because Apple and AT&T don’t want you too use Skype over their air because it would take some change from their pocket. The 3G internet connection on the iPhone blocks Skype connection protocols and neuters (or spays, if your technology is a lady) it to a lowly instant messenger.
The bump Skype just added to its services (complete list here), aside from the usual “quality improvements”, is worth noting.
As a computer user, you can now choose to have your Skype calls forwarded to another number, Just like Gvoice. Also substantial is the ability to stay signed in to Skype when the phone is locked. This is yet another example of everyone in the app development community trying to figure out how to make their software run in the background of an iPhone.
It’s a 50 percent solution at best, but when coupled with the call forwarding, it becomes a real contender with Gvoice.
My jury is still out on Skype on the iPhone. I need more time to let it seduce me with its web 2.0 looks and twee-pop vector-arty welcome screen.
Google Voice, on the other hand, has been folded into my communications armada for months now.
It is the phone number I list on my website, the one I give to new colleagues, and what is printed on the little 2.5 by 3 bits of tree that I carry and people still seem to love.
I also spent serious time picking through the many numbers I could choose from, looking for one that placed me in the San Francisco section of the 415 area code. It was a professional decision, like keeping a 202 number if you do work in DC. I think it gives people a subconscious warm fuzzy that I’m not actually a call center in Bangalor.In short, my Google Voice number my public face.
It works well, and seemingly better every day. When someone calls, I can chose whether they are put right through or politely asked to state their name before it rings me.
This is because, as yet, Gvoice can’t pass the callers number through to your phone, so anyone who calls you on that number shows up as your own Gvoice number. Only giving that number to people who occupy a certain place in my life is my low-tech caller ID. For now.
SMS is free when sent from the account, and replies get passed to your phone just like calls.
I can visit my voicemail box on the computer, or through an admittedly clunky web app interface (through no fault of Google’s… read on) from the iPhone.
How I use them for work
As a student and aspiring journalist, communication is my business. I do it all the time, mostly electronically.
Google Voice, and soon Skype (I predict), runs in the background of my communications network.
Like most good technology, they are starting to be like my shoelaces. They are there every day when I need them and otherwise I never have to think about them. They work adequately, are well suited to their tasks, and most importantly, keep my shoes on.
I get calls on Gvoice every day, though I seem to use it to make calls infrequently because I rarely call people when at home in front of a Macbook with a dozen other messaging options.
The calls are clear and at least as good as on my iPhone. With Skype’s video features (Google’s Chat function in Gmail also supports video), I can have very productive conversations incorporating the all important body language, or shadow puppets.
Voice calls have become formal in my life. They are used for important conversations, or when the bandwidth of the conversation (amount of info needed to be transmitted in a short amount of time) is too high for a simple SMS.
These services suit those needs well, and do continue to improve. However, they each have yet to include features that would be endlessly useful.
What should they do?
For the app makers-
In the short term, the teams that bring us Google Voice, Skype and in my case, the iPhone, do have some work to do.
First and most obviously, Gvoice should develop a function that allows me to reverse their process. If I were to connect from my device to their server, I should be able, with the help of some software, to send calls from my phone using my Gvoice number. I can only assume this is a functionality they are looking at if Apple ever takes their shiny, aluminum boot off the Gvoice app that they claim to be “studying”.
As a journalist, I’d like to see skype and Gvoice offer inline recording features that allow recorded bits to be exported in standard audio formats. Supremely low costs of data storage and our looming friend “The Cloud” means there’s little reason they couldn’t.
Any article I write now must have some kind of media component, whether I produce it or not, in order to be marketable. I have experience in radio, and I’d love to be able to ditch my ‘50s tech phone tap in favor of something that keeps the data digital and inside my computer for editing. It’s all data. There’s no technological reason it can’t happen.
I’m not saying we should all record our conversations and Linda Tripp out together. (There will be a day, soon, when that reference makes me feel old) I’m saying there is a legitimate use for such a feature for doing valuable, society-serving work.
How do you solve the Tripp dillema? Probably by having a little “red light” show up on the receiving end of a conversation when the recording starts. That, coupled with automatically giving both parties access to the recorded file would keep everyone honest. Easy.
Such a feature would get journalists and writers of all stripes to spend a little more time making sure they get the quote right.
For my friends at AT&T and Verizon-
Wireless carriers should embrace number portability and offer services that compete. Why not fold a decent voicemail transcription engine into your own voicemail system? Add some features that allow you to check your voicemail and respond to SMS from your computer when you are, say, in class.
The carriers will need to keep up to compete, because one of them is going to chose to do it, and then the others will too, but they will be a generation behind.
And for mobile device makers (Apple)-
From the Apple end of things, I’d like to offer a reccomendation based in political science theory, but which seems to hold true in economics, evolution and human behavior as well.
It goes something like, “Any policy, which relies on truth being restricted from the public, will ultimately fail.” Now, it is a truism that every policy and government are doomed to failure. But I’m talking about the ever-expanding competitive market on which Apple has built such success.
Apple’s product model is largely to create beautiful, expensive products that can make your life more flexible.
Artificially restricting a Google Voice app, or limiting Skype protocol will, in the long run, alienate customers and allow others with more open models to bring serious challenges.
Product innovation is at the core of Apple’s model and (as I write this Apple just released a new ipod-come-videocamera forgodsakes ) combining hardware to streamline life is what has lifted them out of their “macs are for schools and nerds” 90s hell.
It makes little sense then, in the long run, to neuter the effectiveness of the devices they work so hard to place at the center of innovation. In the short run I get it, its profitable. But isn’t the lesson we are supposed to learn from the recent economic crisis that American businesses need to do a better job of looking further down the track?
All of these communications technologies: Twitter, Google Voice, skype, Flickr, etc are, lets face it and call a duck a duck, just data handling and interface engines. It’s all streams of digital information, that is, ones and zeros at the most basic level.
Twitter happens to deal in data organized as text. Flickr traffics in your images. Gvoice, which I’ve been nearly typing out as Gvice for over a thousand words now, and Skype deal in digital data that is organized to be heard, and in Skype’s case, also seen.
Holding that true, there is very little reason why everything cant work together, feed each other, and allow users to translate and deal with data as they choose.
This truth is manifest in the flood of web-based APIs that have been released in the last few months. Everything CAN, theoretically, talk to everything else. We just need to teach our communication programs the language and grammar of all the others.
I like the new telephony products. They make my increasingly infrequent phone calls easier and more customized.
In the long run, I imagine that data convergence will make this whole conversation moot. As wireless services begin to accept that they don’t really handle calls, just ones and zeros, and effective wireless bandwidth increases, we will all just be using our devices to interface with people, machines, and other intelligences in exactly the ways we want, and none of the ways we don’t.
Its all really just data, remember?
My good friend and media mega mind Steve Lambert produced/hosted a radio show at KDVS 90.3 fm a few years back that was incredible. Steve would post a weekly question on an answering machine and encourage people to call in and talk to the machine about that question or theme.
I imagine long hours spent by Steve recording the message tape so that it could be edited on the computer, and then arranging the show digitally. This is an extreme version of a process Journalists go through all the time.
To highlight the unnecessary complication of how some data gets to you, and how badly these processes need to be streamlined, I will play for you now my imagined process of Steve’s show making it to air.
Steve uses his voice (analog) to record the voice on the answering machine. Listeners call from their cell phones (digital) to a land line (analog or digital), and record a message that is saved (digital/analog). Steve uses some kind of recorder to bring those audio clips into a digital editing environment (digital), edits them, and burns them to a CD (digital). That CD is put into a player at KDVS, where it is sent to amplifiers (analog), and through the mixing board. That analog signal is sent to the roof where it is conerted to a digital signal (digital) and sent via microwave link to the transmitter. It is then decoded (analog) and sent through a series of amplifiers, to an antenna and then picked up by your radio (in KDVS’s case, still analog).
That’s, of course if your not streaming it online from one of a bunch streaming options offered at kdvs.org. Theres a whole other digital reconversion process on that end.