Imagine clicking a single link to have a phone conversation with any person or group, on any Internet-connected device, anywhere in the world.
That’s the aim of Speek, a teleconference company that considers the tedious process of dialing phone numbers to be practically medieval. With Speek, you hand out a link like speek.com/YourName in lieu of a tricky 9-digit number. And unlike some competing apps and services, there’s no clunky software to download first.
Sounds convenient. A little too convenient, perhaps. If we knew there were a way to get around using numbers to reach other people, why doesn’t it already exist?
As is always the case, there’s not just one reason innovation in telephony has been sluggish. I talked with Speek cofounder and CTO Danny Boice about three of the reasons why.
While we think of today’s digital world as something futuristically connected through the Internet, teleconference software hasn’t caught up.
“From the merry old world of copper and the public telephone network to the emerging universe of fiber and Voice over IP, telephony technology innovation still woefully lags behind web and mobile,” said Boice. “They’re still advertising on billboards and radio.”
Every time a developer needs to give a Web application voice or SMS (Short Message Service) capabilities, it involves connecting to these existing copper or fiber wires. APIs from companies like Twilio and Voxeo have made this faster and easier, but not inexpensive, lightweight or absolute.
Matt Turner, Speek’s Vice President of Engineering, explained that Node.js works well because unlike orderly Java, it’s asynchronous, the better to manage the chaotic, organic nature of human communication.
“With Node.js you have one connection with each person waiting for data, but in an idle sleep state until there’s data to transfer,” he said. “So when one person is listening, it doesn’t transmit that absence of data. It’s great at idling and saving space when there’s nothing for it to do.”
With Node.js powering the API, Speek was free to focus on building an interface that completely takes phone numbers out of the experience without adding bulk.
If Node.js works for Speek, there’s nothing to prevent other teleconference providers from harnessing the same computer language for their own products. But because of a mix of complicated reasons involving U.S. telephony regulations, most companies have been able to make an ample profit without spending time on innovation.
Have you ever wondered how companies like FreeConference.com make money, if they’re well, free? It’s all thanks to a controversial (and soon to be outlawed) practice called “traffic pumping.”
As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC allows rural telephone carriers to charge significantly higher access fees than carriers in urban areas. This is because they’re supposedly paying higher infrastructure costs for lower call volumes. But in order to increase that call volume, some carriers partner with teleconference companies, 900 numbers and others, then divvy up that higher fee among themselves. Because of the Act, traffic pumping and free calls are a practice unique to the U.S.
The FCC has recently caught on to the practice and has adopted rules designed to prevent it in the future, mainly through formal complaints.
“Companies haven’t innovated because they haven’t had to. Nobody's forced their hands,” said Boice. “[But] this new legislation completely disrupts the existing business model.”
Bulky Web Apps
If you’re already using an app like Skype, Fuze or Google Talk, it may not feel like there’s much incentive to stop. What Boice hopes is that users of existing apps will get tired of their size and lack of versatility.
“With Skype you have to download a big, fat client, connect with people before you even talk with them, and be forever alerted when they sign on even if you only talk once,” he said. “With Speek there’s no friction. You don’t have to register, connect, install or ever talk to that person again.”
Speek takes simplicity to an extreme. So far, the company is undecided about whether it will even ever support video chat.
“Video is one of those cool to have features, but computer lag is directly corollary to video,” he said. “And it’s a potentially bad user experience—we’re not all sitting on brand-new Macbook Pros.”
Skype will continue to be one of Speek’s most well-known competitors. But Boice said he’s disappointed in the turn the Microsoft-bought service has taken.
“We talk to the Microsoft team a lot,” he said. “They’re so focused on integrating Skype with other Microsoft products that they’re not working on innovation.”
Even in the digital age, telecommunications progress is slow. But as Speek and its competitors vie for consumer attention, it just might crawl into the present.