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Ray Ozzie, the software wiz behind Lotus Notes, Groove Networks, and the former Chief Software Architect who drove Microsoft’s cloud strategy, likes to take on big problems. And with Talko, Ozzie, co-founders Matt Pope and Eric Patey — both former Groove guys — and their team are taking on the problem of communications.
Face it: for all the advances in smartphones and apps, dropped or poor quality calls make communication more of a hassle than it should be. Talko is a VoIP application that utilizes public cloud resources to let workgroups (or just a group of friends) reach each other by whatever channel is best and available at the time. But, it also enables communication in real time and/or asynchronously in case a group member or connectivity isn’t available at the moment.
The new client is for iOS 7, but Android and web versions are in the works. The Talko team uses an array of back-end cloud services — both from [company]Amazon[/company] and [company]Microsoft[/company] — so users can communicate with individuals or an entire workgroup or family via voice, video, or text over Wi-Fi or cell networks; whichever connection is available and optimal. [company]Talko[/company] negotiates the handoff from network to network. But the part I really like is there’s a push-to-talk capability so if your people are online you can click to talk immediately but if they are otherwise occupied they can ignore that click and listen to whatever you had to say later.
That ability to choose real-time or asynchronous (save it for later) communications is a great feature.
The ability to play back an entire session, or maybe skip to the important bits — as indicated by conversation bubble annotations — is a godsend for people who don’t want to wade through long conferences. Pope showed me a family interaction — you can set up different channels for friends, family, or work — where he was able to scroll through the whole sequence and immediately see where a lot of comments bubbled up, clicking on that bubble to see that is where someone shared the video of a prenatal ultrasound. Pretty slick. Oh, and if you don’t want to keep a record of the interaction, you can erase it at any time.
And — this is important — if there is no connectivity, you can still record whatever you need to say for later playback. “As you can imagine from my history, it’s important to have offline capability,” Ozzie said in a recent interview at Talko’s Boston office. One of Lotus Notes’ selling points was that users could work offline and then sync their changes to the workgroup mothership when connectivity was re-established.alk
In the broad realm of chat and communication, Talko will no doubt compete with a gaggle of new-age chat and collaboration products like Slack and Hipchat and doubtless other startups coming online.
No longer talking in circles
The [company]Talko[/company] team — distributed between Boston, San Francisco and Seattle offices — used the software to conduct their product walkthroughs. All of that interaction is stored in the cloud. A free version will nuke the interactions after a set time — although users can export their sessions if they want. The business version archives it all.
Patey said the tricky ability of switching between networks on the fly is made possible by both the smart client device and the back-end services. “Delivering this kind of functionality to people on the go is very hard because while mobile networks are ubiquitous, they are also ubiquitously flaky. You can pretty much know you’ll usually be connected but those connections come and go,” he said.
There is quite a bit of intelligence in the client to know the user has Wi-Fi and cell availability and how both networks are performing. The client assesses which is best connection at the time and gauges which is best in terms of battery life; cell connections usually, but not always, suck up more juice.
But a lot goes on in the interaction between the smartphone client and Talko’s media server, which is based on FreeSwitch, an open-source multiprotocol switch customizes for Talko’s own use.
As Ozzie has said in his few public comments to date about Talko, the availability of capable, inexpensive cloud services, open-source software and ever-smarter smartphones has enabled the creation of very rich services like this. Startups no longer have to sweat the plumbing whereas a decade ago new companies spent most of their seed capital buying pricey servers and commercial software just to get down the chute.
Keeping the cloud options open
The company seeks the most generic cloud services to avoid lock-in. “We try to design our software so that — to the greatest degree possible — we are service agnostic,” Patey said. Talko runs many services both in Microsoft Azure and AWS but he would not specify what they were. It would be safe to assume that Talko uses [company]Amazon[/company] EC2 compute and S3 storage and their [company]Microsoft[/company] analogs. And a NoSQL database service which both AWS and Azure — “actually everyone” — offers, Patey said.
So Talko builds on an array of cloud services and the latest-and-greatest iPhones, to enable video, and text capabilities. Beta tester Scott Armstrong, CEO of Brenthaven, a maker of computer bags based in Seattle with offices in the Philippines, is impressed. He set up different groups for management and various products.
“I use it instead of texting — I click into a voice snippet, ask a question,” he said. “If the other person is online, they’ll click on my link and we’ll talk live.” Or they’ll get back with a response whether or not he is online.
But the single biggest selling point in his view, was something very basic: Audio clarity. “The most amazing thing is just how clear the sound is. I was chatting with our VP of operations in Manilla in a taxi and [the call] was crystal clear,” Armstrong said.
Gee — a cell phone that actually completes high-quality voice calls? Now that is impressive.
Check out the videos below to get a taste of what Talko does.