Telephony’s basic premise (one on one instant communication) hasn’t changed in the last 150 years. In the era of internet based broadcast mediums like twitter and facebook, it’s easy to slot the humble telephone into the dinosaur category.
Thanks to the mobile explosion though, 85% the world now has a telephony connection of some sort, making it the largest social network.
The first modern revolution in telephony was messaging. It removed the historical limitation of voice in telephony and allowed subscribers to communicate in a richer, time-shifted & less intrusive manner.
This could partially explain the valuations for the WhatsApps of the world. Messaging however is only the precursor of what telephony can be in the future. Some forms that we could see telephony taking include:
01. Ubiquitous communication:
Much like email or chat, a conversation on voice could hop across multiple devices seamlessly (mobile, tablet, computer). Additionally, context (which currently is just caller ID) could also carry metadata that includes location, website & possibly the problems that the user is facing.
This can enable applications & services to understand not just who is calling for help or support but also where they are stuck (on a website for example) leading to more productive interactions.
02. Secure by default:
It’s ironic, but the first version of the telephone was possibly the most secure, peer to peer communication device invented.
In today’s day & age, it’s even critical that conversations between two or more private citizens remain exactly that – private. This is a tough ask in the current model, since all legacy telephony connections are routed through public networks or by private operators that are regulated.
At the other end of the spectrum, enterprise customers are erecting digital firewalls around their data, but paying scant attention to how easily information can be leaked or intercepted by a third party over the phone.
For all the hullabaloo that heart bleed raised, we seem to forget that tapping a phone conversation is limited only by the ability of another party to connect to your phone line with a parallel jack that costs less than a dollar. This needs to change.
Voice conversations should have voice based authentications to ensure that the correct parties are speaking to each other and the conversation is encrypted by default. Additionally, the phone number, which is currently a point of permanent identity, will become as ephemeral as a mail ID that you use for a specific task.
03. Context aware stream:
There’s the parable of keeping visitors waiting 15 minutes in your reception but rushing to pick up your phone before the third ring. The problem with this model is that traditional telephony is blind to the user’s status (busy/unavailable). Voicemail is a poor compromise that’s reactive & post the call.
The ideal case would be your phone broadcasting your current availability to the caller so that meetings, movies & lunches are not interrupted by trivial calls. Additionally, think of a scenario where a simple shake of your phone could connect the right colleagues or friends (that are relevant & free at the current time) into a call that you are having with someone else.
Telephony could move beyond person to person singular transactions to a more stream like state where participants can move in & out of a conversation depending on requirement & availability.
04. Searchable knowledge:
Considering that storage costs are at their lowest rates ever and well on their way to the point of becoming irrelevant, it would make sense to not just archive calls but also tag them to be searched at a later point.
That way not only do conversations become a record of ideas & discussions, but also lend themselves to integrating better with modern workflows in which archival, tagging & keyword search are taken for granted.
The big ideas that you had at the last meeting then can be searched up, right to the minute or second when you had them so that the conversation’s essence can be refreshed at the press of a keystroke. Right now, the only archives we have are our memories, which are terrible at storing anything well.
05. Background sentience: Siri & Google have brought utility and interactivity to the voice interface in a great way, but the conversation still seems forced. The ideal tool is like great service at a restaurant – just the right mix of attention & action, without nagging you or waiting for the user to initiate a request.
In the voice context, this could mean that our future digital assistants will tap into our daily conversations to extract meaning, context & a course of action automatically, without waiting for us to prompt them into doing something. This could be real time or by running through our conversation archives.
If a conversation on phone is going to lead to a lunch meeting being fixed, the digital assistant should be able to scan, extract, understand & action the desired service (booking lunch at that great new place at noon on the coming Saturday) without us having to go through another set of text inputs to achieve what we just discussed & agreed on.
06. Klingon vs Vulcan: While the technology for telephony is universal, the language still remains our largest barrier to communication. With close to 200 nations and as many languages and dialects as they are communities, we are falling into communications biggest fallacy – the assumption that both parties think it has occurred.
While translating one language to another in the text is easy though not perfect, translating voice on the fly into the language of the listener in a conversation still remains the holy grail. This might sound completely like science fiction but recent efforts in this direction are making this more science fact.
The ultimate aim would be to move this to the back-end so that multiple devices & platforms can use this service to seamlessly ensure that two people speaking different languages can understand each other in real time.
07. Natural interfaces: Flat icons, minimalism, non-skeuomorphic design. These are all UI/UX discussions that pervade the visual internet. Voice interfaces though are still duct taped through a patchwork of recorded messages, designed to sound specifically like a non-human interaction (case in point – railway station announcements). If the voice has to occupy its rightful place in the interactive landscape, extraordinary design thinking needs to be resorted to & applied.
This is possibly the easiest piece to crack in the grand vision of voice/telephony since it doesn’t depend on technology, a shiny new thing or any other external inputs. All machine driven voice interfaces are focused on delivering data to the end user. If this thinking changes to adapting the system to the user’s needs & workflows, the least of the results will be shorter & less frustrating wait times. Our small service to humanity can start with a better IVR system, that sounds like your friend, not the neighbourhood cop.