VoiceTime, or a future in which Apple can take over VoIP

FaceTime. iMessage. VoiceTime?

Apple has FaceTime, and it has been very successful in introducing simple video calling to a ton of Apple users. That success—as Apple’s usually are—can be attributed to clear directed marketing and unparalleled ease of use. If the person on the other end of the line has an Apple device too, the only thing you need to do is press a FaceTime button and then seconds later, be talking to them via a video call.

I know a friend of mine who was super surprised when he pressed the button and it worked first time. He expected more of a setup process, perhaps creating an account or entering user credentials. Or heck, maybe being taken through a wizard. It’s the same user flow with their SMS counterpart—iMessage: you text a person and if the other end is an Apple device, the text is delivered via the iMessage IP network. It’s not just Apple who is doing this of course: a classic example is iMessage’s cross-platform and much more successful rival: Whatsapp. If you have anybody’s mobile number and if they have Whatsapp installed, you can text them. Works amazingly well!

So with FaceTime, Apple has video over IP. With iMessage, they have a simple texting solution over IP. What if Apple makes a dead-simple, works over the same mobile number, voice calling service?

First off: some historic background:

  • Apple first introduced the iPhone in June 2007. When it did so, it broke the stranglehold US carriers had over mobile phone vendors: AT&T controlled neither the production timelines of the device, its content, nor its software updates. It even bent over backward to refit its voicemail service to support Visual VoiceMail.
  • In July 2008, Apple introduced the App Store. The App Store further diluted the participation that carriers had over user mobile phone experience. Instead of subscribing to mobile VAS services, users could now download and experience much richer mobile apps: apps that could work offline, would work over the internet, and apps that didn’t add any extra charge to their mobile phone bill.
  • In June 2010, Apple introduced FaceTime, a seamless way for any iPhone user to make video calls, effectively destroying any plans that carriers had for charging premium for video calls over their network.
  • iMessage was introduced in June 2011, and is continuing to deliver 28,000 messages/second that would otherwise have been chargeable text messages.

In short, in a span of less than six years, Apple has steadily worked to decrease the control carriers had over mobile phone user experience. It has reduced the importance of core apps (text messaging), and provided a better experience for premium apps (video calling, mobile internet, apps, et. al.). What if the next milestone is to do to voice what it did to video and texting?

Let’s explore another tangent. Why is Apple best placed to do this first? Android for example looks on the surface like a much better candidate. Android is an open environment and there are tons of apps that provide deep hooks into the platform to provide free (or close to free) Voice over IP. Tango is a great example of such an app. There are several reasons:

  • Apple has always done what it thinks is best for its users. Android was conceived to build the best mobile phone operating system for carriers: it was unveiled alongside the now largely defunct Open Handset Alliance as a countermeasure to iOS popularity.
  • Android has always put carriers in control. Carriers control the content of the phone and they can customise Android to a large extent, and because of such customisation, Android updates are slower to roll out.
  • It’s a better operating system than Symbian, but the core philosophy is the same. Put carriers in control, give them a smartphone OS choice largely equivalent in feature-set to iOS, but with none of its Apple control.
  • Google has never developed a competing  phone number based video-calling or text messaging solution. Hangouts—which is their latest unification of text and voice—asks for & confirms your mobile number but then does nothing obvious with it.

What is the bare minimum experience that Apple needs to provide to make VoiceTime a success?

  1. First and foremost, it needs to be transparent to the user. If I dial a contact and I’m connected to the Internet via WiFi, 3G or LTE & the receiving device is an Apple device, the call should be routed via VoiceTime. No fuss, no setup.
  2. If I’m not connected to the Internet, the call should be routed via cellular with the same experience. Just like iMessage, the dialer can subtly indicate (via a change of colour perhaps) that I’m on a cellular connection instead of VoiceTime.
  3. Third, and another important one: transparent handoff between cellular and VoiceTime calls. That is to say: if I start a call on VoiceTime & my Internet disconnects, the call is handed over to a cellular MSC without a call drop.

The third is the most technically intractable problem. But like every open problem, somebody more intelligent has probably thought of solutions. In this case, IEEE 802.21, specifically describes this problem. And several workable solutions.

Why hasn’t anybody done this yet? Simply because mobile operators don’t want to lose the last bastion of money making they have. In India, despite have the lowest call rates in the world, voice calls contribute the most to subscriber ARPU. Nobody is looking for a blue ocean strategy when their existing business is doing just fine, thank you!

But why do you, as a subscriber want VoiceTime or an equivalent solution? There are so many reasons:

  1. It’s stupid to pay thrice: once for your data plan, once for your voice minutes, and again for your texting. The mobile world should be like your internet world. You pay once, for data.
  2. The Internet Protocol has proven to scale as much (or more) than any telecommunications network. The questions of reliability that led to the creation of dedicated protocols for voice telephony largely don’t exists any more. Indeed, the next generation of telephony networks (SIGTRAN and LTE) are based on IP. If the future is a data driven Internet, why are we still living in the past?
  3. The reality is that voice calls over cellular networks suck. Frequent call drops, cross connections, terrible voice quality and lack of any presence features is not what you would expect in 2013. Skype-like voice quality, a network more resistant to call drops and integration with the larger Internet & other devices is just an implementation away.

Would you be willing to pay Apple for such a technology? Let’s say Apple charged something like $10 a year for VoiceTime & let carriers have 70% of it (Voice is just another app of course), would you pay?

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