Wednesday, 29 April 2015

"Hello" - A New Android Dialler with Facebook Profiles, Blocking and More

No sooner than I post about in-call services than none other than Facebook flex the power of the social graph and release Hello for Android.

Hello is intended to be a replacement for the Android telephone dialler app - to be successful, it must improve the experience of calling someone.  It attempts this feat by integrating a user's contacts on their handset with their Facebook contacts; using caller ID, it shows public profile information for the other party in a call; allows search of the open graph to find places and phone numbers; and, borrowing some of the functionality of Messenger, provides free calls to other users of Messenger or Hello and free texts to anyone on Facebook.

Caller Id Services

Caller Id is front and centre for the offering: if the other party in a call has a public profile on Facebook, you will see this in your Hello app and vice-versa:
  • if your public profile contains your any of your phone numbers, and
  • you call someone from any one of these numbers, and
  • the person you call has the Hello app, then
  • that person will see your public Facebook profile when their phone rings
  • even if you are not friends
In short, Hello is simply exposing information that's already public, albeit in a novel way. 

Facebook hardly hides the fact that our profiles, including our phone numbers, are searchable.  The harvesting of this information has made the headlines time and again and, therefore, it seems impossible to believe that information about me - my picture and whatnot - is not already being routinely used by cold-calling marketing operations - the nuisance callers, that is.  Every time I consider this, I shiver, but this is the price I pay for using Facebook (and I have no friends on 'Ello).  My point being that we live with this without thinking about it - Hello serves to highlight what is already happening. 

Anyone who is offended by this should change their privacy settings as follows:

Years ago, mobile number verification was not enforced by Facebook, although in recent times strenuous efforts have been made to get users onboard with this.  Nowadays, if you add a new mobile number, verification is mandatory:

It is unclear how this is achieved for fixed line numbers.  I'm guessing landline numbers are harvested from business listings on the open-graph.  Therefore, there is the potential for someone else to attach a number to a false profile or to simply mis-enter a number (inevitably, this has happened).

In summary, Hello's Caller ID function makes use of public profile information and mobile numbers can be relied upon.  More on landline numbers, below.    

Call Blocking

Call blocking has been around since, well, forever.  The value that Facebook brings is in social call blocking.   It's pretty neat in 'Hello' and Facebook are giving it quite a high billing in their marketing material:

The image shows that 1218 users 'blackballed' an 800 number that has no attached Facebook profile. This social call blocking in action - the wisdom of the crowd at work.  Absent a profile, blocking results in the creation of an entity that is seen by everyone.

In and of itself, the public display of counts of users who have blocked a number has social implications.  Forget for a moment cold-calling and consider the implications of this feature amongst a group of friends.  Let's say there are a group of teenagers who form a tight clique.  There is a fall out, leading to one of the group being shunned by their peers.  The group blocks, en-masse, using the Hello app.  It does not matter whether the person being blocked has a public profile with attached phone numbers - once blocked, an entity for that number is created.

Recall that everyone using the Hello app sees the blocked number count and this means that there are social implications of blocking.  It's not hard to imagine a pretty bleak scenario where 
ostracisation and social stigma is spread as an unintended consequence of this feature.

That said, as someone who increasingly gets cold-called on their mobile, I appreciate this feature.  Genuine nuisance calls are a pain.  (As an Australian I would also like some means of reporting breaches of the ACMA Do Not Call Register, but that's probably a little too much to ask...)   

Facebook has provided a means to blacklist numbers.  You can bet that by the time you read this, the nuisance cold-callers will be actively seeking the most expedient work around - getting a new number, setting up a new profile and so on.

In summary, call blocking in Hello is useful, but, if I have understood it correctly, appears to open up the possibility of some unintended side effects.  


Search - useful, right?  With the information Facebook have at hand, this aught to be vey useful indeed.  

In their demo, they search by name for an Italian restaurant.  The results show 10 thousand people like the restaurant (wow), the opening hours, the number of reviews, a rating and so on.  Google gives me more in their app...

What I did not see in Hello was how many of my friends like the place, how many have eaten there and how many have eaten there multiple times.  This is where Facebook can shine compared to Google, but it does not yet...

Conceptually, I also like the idea of being able to ask a friend who has eaten there for information "what's the wine list like?"  Because this is a phone, I aught to be able to call or message any of my friends who have been there.  Which is an interesting UX question given that I am in the results of a restaurant search.  

In a similar vein, can I search for 'Italian" and find local restaurants that my friends like? 

My point being that search could be truly awesome in this context.  It looks like a good starting point but the social angle needs to be worked further.

Messenger and Call Diversion to VoIP

The 'Hello' app contains elements of Facebook messenger.  Calls can be directed via the Messenger VoIP feature.  Texts can be sent avoiding SMS charges.  Who'd be a mobile operator?  It is several years now since I used my mobile directly for an international call...

What's Missing from Hello?

There are plenty of comments online and on Google Play about weaknesses in the app.  

First and foremost, it is not a replacement for the Android dialler and that makes using the app ungainly as a number of one star reviews attest.  Unless this core failing is addressed, Hello seems likely to remain in beta forever.

Beyond this, there are two simple features that I would add.  I have written about these before so I shall not spend too long discussing: 
  1. Where are you?
  2. Your Time

Where Are You?

The idea being that if the other party in the call is using "Hello", then they can share their location with me for a limited period of time, for example, the duration of the call, for five minutes, for a day or even forever.  

Your Time

This is about time zones.  Skype does some of this, but it could be a whole lot better.  My contact list and the dialler should show the local time for the contact - as I type this, it's 3:56am in Denver and so calling my buddy is not such a hot idea.   There is lots that Facebook could do with from address book time (he lives in Denver where it's 3:56am) to actual time (he's in New York where it's 5:58am).

This is a little thing, but I have many overseas friends and so perhaps I am biassed?

Hello - A Work in Progress

Hello, from Facebook makes great use of public profile information to provide caller ID services.  Number blocking is simple and social but possibly open to abuse.   Search is useful and could be much more so.  Directing calls via Messenger infrastructure is great, as is the integration of texting via Messenger rather than SMS.

As a beta product, the one great failing seems to be that the app is not a true replacement for the Android dialler app.  Until it is, I believe that it has not yet met the criteria for viability because it is clumsy.

Ultimately, in-call services need to be a core part of the telephony experience - only Xaiomi with miui are doing this.  Facebook should take note of what miui does - it is more polished than Hello.  Other handset vendors should take note - this shows the possibilities of an enhanced telephony app.

The Hello app is a completely separate beast from the stand alone Messenger app.  Over time, it seems that 'Hello' and 'Messenger' should be exactly the same app, with the dialler component able to replace the core Android dialler app.  Now that would be something.