In my last column I delved into a few boneheaded moves that Microsoft could make with its Skype acquisition that would almost ensure failure. That seems to be the mindset of many observers, who can't figure out what the $8.5 billion purchase of Skype could possibly do for Microsoft. Yet there are some things Microsoft's Skype could do that would make using a smartphone much more awesome.
It's long overdue for smartphone voice communication to be integrated with all the other details that smartphones know about us: our location, our activities, and our contacts. A Microsoft-based Skype client could make that happen. It's not a one-horse race though; Google's got plenty of similar infrastructure with their Google Voice product and the Android platform to show it off. Apple has their FaceTime app as well, so you have to figure they won't let Google or Microsoft take over voice and video calls without a fight.
Voice communication with smartphones is not much different than it was with landlines twenty years ago. You call the number of a person, and they answer (rarely) or you roll to the dreaded voice mail. That scenario is just fine with the carriers, as they charge you by the minute. By the time you've listened through the voicemail instructions that you know by heart anyway ("Joe Blow is not available. Please leave a message after the tone. When you are finished recording, you can hang up or press one for more options. BEEP") you've already burned at least one of those minutes. Yet you haven't accomplished anything but wasting time.
Compare that prehistoric voice experience with the higher standard we've grown accustomed to with software like Skype or instant messaging clients such as Pidgin. Before making a call or sending a message, you can see if the person is available, and whether they are currently active on their computer. If that person doesn't want to receive calls, they can "go invisible" or set "do not disturb" so you won't bother them. Conversely, if you see that they are busy you can set a "buddy pounce" to alert you when they go online or exit do-not-disturb mode. It's a more civilized and less time-consuming form of communication than phone tag, that's for sure.
Google Voice has several additional features that I already use regularly. You can have any call to your Google Voice number ring through to multiple numbers simultaneously, and have those numbers be different depending on the time of day. For example, you might have it ring both your office landline and your cell phone during business hours. If you answer on your cell and reception isn't good, you can transfer back to your landline without ending the call. And of course, it's handy to get the automated speech-to-text transcriptions of voice mail messages. Even when they're not completely accurate, there's plenty of humor in the transcription errors.
The reason why Skype or Google Voice can do so much is that they are integrated with the other information you have about your contacts, and they update that information nearly in real time via the network. The dumb voice calls offered by the carriers still follow a tired (but profitable) model, and they're far from being interesting technology at the consumer level. Microsoft and Google could still manage to integrate quite a bit of information that would help you decide whether to make a voice call regardless of wireless carriers' cooperation. For example, when you pulled up a contact, the phone might show you that they'll be going into a meeting in five minutes based on the information in a calendar they have shared with you.
Now imagine that you pull up a contact, ready to make a voice call. The phone might show you that they are already on a voice call, and suggest that you send a text or instant message instead if the communication is urgent. Does that sound too invasive? Well of course, you would be able to set that sort of shared information on a contact-by-contact basis. If there are people you don't want to let see into your activities that deeply, they simply will communicate with you the old fashioned way with blind calls and voice mails.
With Wi-Fi becoming pervasive, there are many opportunities for voice and data integration. Both Skype and Google Voice have the ability to make outgoing calls via a Wi-Fi connection, saving carrier minutes for the times when you actually need to use them. Even better, Wi-Fi connections can thrive where cell signals are low, such as inside large buildings or underground. For example, I can never get a cell signal inside my local grocery store, absolute zero bars. If they had Wi-Fi, though, it would finally be possible for me to call home to ask whether we needed bread.
While it isn't all here yet, nearly everything I've mentioned up to this point could be done just with apps on the phone. What most Wi-Fi calling systems can't do yet is hand off calls to a cellular network, or receives calls when only on Wi-Fi. Those are places where the functionality can't just be bolted onto the phone via an app; it takes cooperation with the cellular carrier to do it. But it doesn't seem like most of the carriers are in a hurry to make that move. Perhaps it's because they need to find a way to justify raising their rates in the transition.
A carrier like T-Mobile might be in the best position to take advantage of a hybrid Wi-Fi-mobile approach. The company is already encouraging the use of Wi-Fi on some of their phones, even selling some Android phones with Wi-Fi calling apps installed. That makes sense because as one of the smaller players, they can expand their range and eliminate dead spots through Wi-Fi--without the expense of installing new towers. If they could partner with a company like Microsoft or Google to get both incoming and outgoing calls and seamless handoffs, it could save a lot of money. That would allow them to price aggressively. None of this may happen, of course, if AT&T's impending absorption of T-Mobile goes through.
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