An engineer walks into a pub and orders “a liter of ale please.” A hacker, who bellies up next to him says, “yeah, I’ll take one of those big beers too.” They’re talking about the same drink, but in completely different ways. The same thing happens when it comes to software. Now that self-termed “hackers” (not the crooks, just people who write code and think it’s a cool term) want to leverage communications network and OSS/BSS capabilities that engineers designed, the language barrier has to be addressed.
Voxeo Labs provides a solid example of how this challenge can be met. The company has created several platforms that offer API-based, real-time communications services. AT&T and Deutsche Telekom both offer cloud-based call APIs using Voxeo Labs’ Tropo platform. Tropo makes fundamental call functionality – like “answer,” “call”, “conference” and “transfer” – available to app developers. Developers can use the Tropo API to create things like personal assistant apps that call to remind you to take your meds or pick up your kids; auto-response apps that you can call for voice-driven customer service when racing to the airport; group conferencing apps that call you instead asking you to dial numbers, codes, and PINs; or apps that automatically route calls to your voice mail that aren’t recognized in your personal phone book.
Leaning even more toward the hacker world, Voxeo offers its Ameche platform, which it describes as putting “Apps in your calls.” It is designed to integrate many SIP-like functions, as well as features we associate with social networks, into voice calls. A basic service would put real-time caller ID into LinkedIn; your mobile rings, you see who’s calling on LinkedIn, and you have the option to look at their profile and latest updates. A more sophisticated example would be to enhance your mobile experience with presence, status like “available,” “away,” or “do not disturb;” custom call routing; adding other callers to your call by clicking on their social profile or with one tap on your phone’s contact list; or moving a live call from your mobile phone to your desk phone or to your PC.
Voxeo Labs’ founders are telco engineers. When they first created their platforms, their APIs and specs were all described in engineering language. But they realized very quickly that developers – “hackers” – wouldn’t use the technology, no matter how compelling, if they couldn’t understand the API documentation or write code in plain language. So, says CEO Jason Goecke, they hired a professional who speaks “hacker,” but who knew very little about their business, to rewrite all of their documentation and make it accessible to people from the hacker world. They also built Ameche’s API to use plain-language Java scripting to make things easy on developers. Their sample code includes instructions like “ask,” “say”, and “choose” that anyone can understand.
Goecke says that his company “learned an immense amount from that experience” about their own product and have seen the benefits in terms of developer adoption. At the same time, the company is helping its telco partners to engage the developer community. Goecke believes mobile operators are in a unique position to drive revenue from these kinds of services – i.e. convince developers to pay to use them – because they are the only ones who can “put applications directly on subscriber calls or directly on the subscriber’s number.” OTT players can’t do that, because they don’t control the mobile network.
The next question will be – how do operators bill end users for these enhanced services? That question remains to be answered. Goecke says that in the mobile world, when developers or end users consume the services Voxeo Labs’ APIs enable, they are captured in Diameter event records. That’s a starting point, but it will probably take some time for operators to see what new service models emerge, define them as products, find appropriate ways to price them, and ultimately bill – or charge – for them. In the meantime, operators can focus on learning how to “speak hacker” in order to help increase their own value by catalyzing the integration of telco networks and services with social media and apps.