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Twilio starts sending pictures to phone numbers and expands into the internet of things

Twilio is adding a twist to its MMS service, which lets developers embed picture, video and other multimedia messaging into their apps. It’s now adding MMS support for regular 10-digit phone numbers, wherever that number happens to terminate. That means companies can now use a single phone number for all of their customer communications, whether its voice calls, text messaging or multimedia messaging.

The capability isn’t entirely new. Companies like Zipwhip and Bandwidth already offer SMS-and MMS-to-landline services to their business and telecom customers and carrier like Frontier Communications have already starting offering offering it to local businesses. But this could be a very powerful tool for Twilio’s core developer customers because it lets them set up visual two-way communications with their customers, said Jeff Lawson, CEO and founder of Twilio.

A phone number the most direct way companies communicate with your customers, Lawson said. If you can call that number, it makes sense that you should be able to receive text or multimedia messages from that same number as well. Twilio doesn’t yet offer MMS support for toll-free numbers, though it does offer SMS over 1-800 numbers.

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Today many companies use short codes to communicate with their customers via SMS and MMS. Not only is a expensive to provision a short code, it just shows up as a random number in your messaging client, Lawson said. If 1-999-DOG-WALK is how you communicate with your canine-owning clients, then it should be the number they can text to reach you and the number from which they receive photo updates of their pooches.

[company]Nordstrom[/company] is using Twilio MMS on the back end to power what amounts to a customer relations management system for its network of personal shoppers. A personal shopper can snap photos of new items a client might like and send them to that client through Nordstrom’s app. The client just sees an MMS and personal message appear on their phone coming from his or her personal shopper’s number. The personal shopper, however, sees an app or website that manages the recommendations and communications with dozens of individuals clients.

But Lawson said MMS could become a key behind-the-scenes technology in the internet of things. Twilio is already working with hardware developers to embed its communications technology into gadgets. For instance an automaker – which Lawson said he couldn’t name – is using its SMS services to “wake up” telematics systems of cars when they’re parked and offline so they can record a location or take a sensor reading.

SMS, however, can only send basic information: “on” or “off” commands, or whatever status updates you can pack into 160 ASCI characters. MMS was designed for multimedia communications between people, but those multimedia files can be used to carry a lot more data. A sensor for instance could compile a week’s worth of data and embed it into a JPEG file. A device could send data in the form of QR code, video or even a audio WAV file.

More developers are starting to tap Twilio’s SMS and MMS APIs for machine-to-machine communications because SMS is cheap, simple to implement and it’s both reliable and ubiquitous, Lawson said. You might think of Twilio is a new-economy company providing old-school communications services, but according to Lawson, Twilio is evolving into a communications platform for the internet of things.

The network behind the internet of things will be one of the key topics at Gigaom’s Structure:Connect conference next month in San Francisco.

This post was updated at 10:45 AM PT to clarify the statement that Twilio MMS can send messages to a landline. While Twilio can send MMS from any regular number, that number technically terminates on a virtual extension, not a traditional wireline phone. Also Twilio isn’t yet offering MMS support on toll-free numbers.

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