Ray Ozzie, in conversation with Ina Fried and Walt Mossberg last week, reflected on his decades-long effort to enlist computers in support of collaborative work. Ina asked whether the tools he’s built — Notes, Groove, now Talko — have been ahead of the curve. Ray’s response:
With Notes it was an uphill battle, and then once it took off, it took off. We built a very substantial business around that, which is what gave me confidence there’s a macro-economic basis for computer-supported collaborative work. If you solve collaboration problems, there’s money to be made.
With Groove that wasn’t the case. It was a niche audience. But Groove is where I got excited about voice. It was used primarily by non-governmental organizations — in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, after Katrina, in many situations where people from different organizations needed to get together very dynamically to get something done. People used the text and file-sharing features in Groove, but they also used the push-to-talk button much more than we expected. Because when you want to convey emotion and urgency, there’s nothing better than your voice.
It’s ironic that Talko’s effort to re-establish voice as a primary mode of communication is ahead of the curve. Somehow we’ve come to accept that talking to one another isn’t a primary function of the devices we call phones, but that typing on them with our thumbs is.
With Talko, you speak in a shared space that’s represented as an audio timeline. Conversations can be asynchronous (like email) or synchronous (like chat), and the transition between those modes is seamless. When I bought my first iPhone in order to try Talko — it’s iOS-only for now — I contacted Matt Pope, Talko’s co-founder, to let him know I was available for Talko-style conversation. Over a period of days we chatted asynchronously, creating an audio timeline made from his voice messages and mine. In that mode Talko is a kind of visual voicemail: a randomly-accessible record of voice messages sent and received.
At one point I happened to be reviewing that conversation when Matt came online, noticed I was active in the conversation, and switched into synchronous mode by saying “Cool! Serendipitous synch!” Just like that we were in a live conversation. But not an ephemeral live conversation. We were still adding to the audio timeline, still building a persistent and shareable construct.
I’d been revisiting my conversation with Matt because, in a parallel Talko conversation with Steve Gillmor, he and I wondered how to exchange Talko sessions. Matt used our live conversation to explain how, and inserted an iPhone screenshot into the stream to illustrate. (Mea culpa. It would have been obvious to me if I’d been a more experienced iPhone user.)
When I hung up with Matt I captured the link for our conversation, which was now a record of a back-and-forth voice messages over several days, plus a live conversation, plus a screenshot injected into the conversation. And I added that link into the parallel conversation I’d been having, on and off for a few days, with Steve.
Talko’s business model is business. In that realm, voicemail is a last resort. And nobody loves a conference call that has to be scheduled in advance, that includes only invited attendees, that leaves no record for attendees (or others recruited later) to review and extend. Email is the universal solvent but it’s bandwidth-challenged with respect to both speed and emotional richness. Voice is a radically underutilized medium for communicating within and across organizations. It’s not a panacea, of course. On a plane, or in a meeting, you often need to communicate silently. But a smarter approach to voice communication will, I’m certain, solve vexing communication problems for business.
And not only for business. My most pressing collaboration challenge right now is helping my sister coordinate care for our elderly mother. My sister lives in New Jersey, I’m in California, mom’s in Pennsylvania. We are in ongoing conversations with mom, with each other, with staff at the facility where mom lives, with her friends there, with an agency that provides supplemental care, and from time to time with the hospital. Communication among all of us is a fragmented mess of emails, text messages, voicemails, pictures of handwritten notes, and of course phone calls. It’s really one ongoing conversation that would ideally leverage voice as much as possible, while enhancing voice with text, images, persistence, tagging, and sharing. I wish I could use Talko to manage that conversation. The iOS-only constraint prevents that for now; I hope it lifts soon.