Wednesday, 18 March 2015

In-Call Service Evolution

Recently, I was asked some questions about how I would improve the telephony experience on a mobile handset.  I made two suggestions:
  1. Introduce mobile 'favicons' during a call, to the call history view and, more contentiously, to the contacts app.
  2. Add a 'where are you' feature to the telephony app.  
These are ideas my colleagues and I mooted a decade ago.  Nothing new here then - I really have not given it that much thought since 2011.  Until now.

Given how close I used to be to these in-call services, my interest was piqued when asked abut telephony and so I thought I'd take a look at the state of play.  The last time I wrote on this was regarding the Thrutu app.  There has been a great deal of progress and, excitingly, at least one vendor has made these features a core part of the telephony app.  Sadly, Thrutu seems to have withered and died, so not an easy path...


Some Background

On most 3G networks, it is possible to have a simultaneous voice call and data session.  This core network feature enables a range of enhanced telephony features and, dating back to more than a decade ago, I worked on a range of apps that exploit these features.  For example, in Bullant's 2005 Call-Share app for Symbian S60 handsets I could share with the other party in the call:
  • my location;
  • a picture;
  • a contact; and,
  • a game.
These were all peer-to-peer services and Thrutu did a very good job of launching a commercial app that implemented these and more.

Taking a different tack at Phidget, we enabled a range of campaigns based upon the caller ID including:
  • advertising;
  • roaming support services like dialled number correction; 
  • call interception for support services; and,
  • called party free/busy through Exchange integration.
There are two sorts of app here:
  1. One enriches the communication between two humans engaged in a telephone call, both of whom must have an enabling app; and,
  2. One provides information about the other party in the call, but otherwise does not directly enhance the interaction between the two parties.
I continue to be surprised that no mobile operating system implements any of these enhanced telephony features.  Until now that is.  The second of these - Enhanced Caller Id - is gaining traction in the market as a core telephony service.  As noted, the first, as the Thrutu experience has shown, did not even survive.


Enhanced Caller Id

Xaiomi, now the world's third largest manufacturer of mobile handsets, is on an incredible upwards trajectory.  Their handsets are getting excellent reviews: the hardware seems to be well designed, well built, and, well specified - check out  Redmi Note 4G.  Oh, and the price point is nothing short of amazing. 

Xaiomi handsets run on Android and, like other hardware vendors, they are attempting to control parts of the software stack in order to create an ecosystem and lock in revenue after the point of sale.  Xaiomi's custom Android stack is called miui.

Amongst many other features, miui has enhanced caller ID baked into the telephony app.  The miui telephony app supports:
  • unknown number lookup allowing call filtering;
  • service number lookup (an enhanced mobile favicon that shows the company name and logo for the other party in the call); and,
  • an in-call mobile IVR system - kind of a visual voicemail, but for IVR and similar to work by Nuance.
The key to these services is the underlying directory which maps phone numbers to icons, names, URLs and more.  No doubt it's the same directory that powers Xaiomi's various lifestyle services.

There does not seem to be a great deal written in English about these services.  But, from the information available, but it looks like the future of telephony has arrived on a truly mass market handset.  Miui's telephony features represent the first step from a major vendor down the road of in-call services.  There is much more that can be done, however. 


What's Missing from miui?

A Favicon and HTTP URL

As noted, miui supports 'service number lookup' - essentially a favicon for a telephone number.  I am intrigued as to why they have not taken the next step and made this interactive through the addition of a URL to a linked website with an associated 'favicon'. 

Such a telephony app would work as follows:
  • As I dial a number or receive a call, a lookup service would be queried to find an exact match for the number.
  • As soon as an exact match is detected, an icon that would be used to 'decorate' the telephone number entry field, rather like the URL entry field in your old browser.  (This would be particularly useful during slow, manual dialling because the it would enable a data session to be established and would give visual feedback whilst the user typed.)
  • In the case of a dialled number, as well as the call establishment button, a secondary button would be enabled that allows the user to either make the call or to visit the associated website.
  • The icon matching the other party's telephone number is shown in the call history view against that telephone number.  This icon might also be used to decorate a contact in the user's address book.
Earlier I noted that in Australia where I live, Sensis have launched an award winning app that does even more than this using the Sensis Yellow Pages directory - there are plenty of other examples of similar third party apps that provide similar services, such as CallApp.  (As a footnote I showed both Telstra and Sensis exactly this in 2009, but hey, no hard feelings...) 

Here, I made the case for a minimalist, incremental improvement to the caller-id service provided by the core telephony app.  The idea being to enhance the offering making it more useful, but keep a tight lid on scope so as to limit the impact on a core handset service.  

It follows that I think that, whereas as a third party app like Sensis or CallApp is great, but it may be a little over the top as a model for the core telephony service.


A Social Context In Call - Where Are You?

Bullant in 2005 and Thrutu in 2011 implemented a feature that allows two users engaged in a voice call to answer the all important question 'where are you?'  Since that time, iMessage and Google+ location sharing (and dozens of other apps) have gone some way to make this feature redundant.  Thrutu, though excellent for its time, has now vanished from Google Play.

I still believe that there is a place in the core telephony app for one in-call social feature - one that answers the question 'where are you?'  This will be used in many contexts including where the other party is not represented by an entry in my address book and, therefore, is excluded from the iMessage and Google+ services.

This is best explained through a use-case.  Last Friday, I received a call from a recruiter who had been given my number by a mutual acquaintance.  I was in the city and free and so agreed to meet him immediately.  I got, via SMS, directions to a cafe close to Wynyard Station.  Since there are many cafes close to Wynyard, this was of little help: two additional calls were required for me to home in on his actual location.

It so happens we both had an iPhone, so he could have gone to iMessage and shared his location.  It certainly would have been easier than the calls we made.  It would have been even easier if location sharing were exposed through the telephone app itself.

I argue that the utility of this feature and the frequency of its use is such that it is a contender for its own button on the telephone screen.  On an iPhone at least, the existing iMessage infrastructure and multi-tasking can take care of the rest.


In and After Call Advertisements - One Feature Too Many?

I am sure that Xaiomi have considered in-and-after call advertisements - they do not seem to have launched anything yet, however.  Here's an example of the sort of thing I am talking about - it's a demonstration campaign we at Phidget built for a pitch to an agency + UK operator:

The campaign works like this:
  • The app detects an international call to a Singapore number.
  • An in-call overlay is created that shows the time in Singapore, sponsored by the advertiser.
  • When the user hangs up the call, the narrative continues - the handset screensaver shows a rich-media campaign linked to the call that has just completed.
The idea being that the in-call campaign was useful in and of itself and tied into an existing holiday-money promotion.
As noted, Calldorado is now making a business of exactly this style of service in-call, but in third party apps.  Amazon has, of course, sold an ad-supported Kindle and Kindle Fire since 2011 - my recollection is that they offered a $25 discount on the purchase price.

In early 2010, Vodafone UK ran a series of market research groups using our Phidget PACE ad campaigns.  As expected, users demanded quid pro quo for the introduction of advertising.  Fair enough except for the fact that our respondents felt they could reasonably expect two free movie tickets per month in exchange for having the service on their handset - that was unexpected. 

My point being that there is a gulf between users' perceived valuation of advertisements and the actual value generated by a service such as this.  Furthermore, ads in-and-after call, however well designed, were thought of as an intrusion of privacy.  Users lower on the socio-demographic spectrum were the only ones open to such a service, particularly women.

A search reveals that various users have reported that miui is reporting call details back to a Chinese server - which of course it must do to enable even the basic services offered by miui today - there is real privacy concern here that remains to be addressed.

In 2009, I put a straw man proposal in front of Vodafone UK.  I voiced out loud the suggestion that we implement an ad-words style system where we auction ad-slots based off of telephone numbers.  I illustrated my idea by dialling an Indian restaurant close to Vodafone HQ in Newbury, UK and showed an ad for a competitive restaurant.  The view was that an operator simply could not launch such a service.

Having been enthusiastic, beating the drum for this feature, my current view is that there is still a mountain to climb here.

Other In-Call Services

At Phidget, we built a range of in-call services whose value, I think, is self evident even today because they allowed a user to correct common problems.

In this example screenshot, a UK subscriber is roaming in Australia.  The user dialled a UK number from their address book and the in-call service detected that the call could not complete and provided a suggestion of how to correct the problem.

Unsurprisingly, in a trial of Australian subscribers, this feature was valued very highly.

In Summary

The 3G UMTS standard envisaged a world of simultaneous voice and data.  Multi-tasking users make use of this feature every day during telephone calls.  Xaiomi, with miui telephony, has finally directly made use of this feature in order to improve the core telephony experience.  The developers of miui should be congratulated on the restraint that they have shown - focusing on simple, core services that are of use to every user but never intrusive.

Services such as the Sensis app provide even more information to the user and are a useful install for those users who want the additional information provided.

Although previously a strong advocate of in-and-after call advertising solutions, I believe that these, if fully realised, will remain niche, providing a modest subsidy for users.  It is unclear to me whether they would be acceptable on a modern mobile device - particularly on larger screens where the battery penalty might be significant.

I believe that miui is the closest yet to an acceptable mass market in-call telephony solution.  With some additional minor changes, the feature could be made even more useful.