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Voice call functionality is very hot at the moment. Skype, Fring, Viber, Google and dozen other applications have had voice functionality for many years, so what’s the rush to release voice call now?
WhatsApp and Google rushing voice
WhatsApp, the biggest chat app on the planet (600+ million users), is going to launch voice calls in Q1 2015. They were intending to launch this earlier, but are delaying because they haven’t figured out how to get microphone access on certain phones (presumably J2Me/feature phones) and how to make the technology work well on 2G/Edge connections – which is common in emerging markets.
Google has sent top product manager Nikhyl Singhal to India and other countries to do user research. They are planning to release a WhatsApp-like chat app in 2015. The app will not require a Google login, which is interesting because they have spent the last few years trying to integrate all of their communication products such as Google voice, Google talk and Gmail chat into one chat product, Hangouts. Now it appears they will again branch out a new chat/voice product.
First mover advantage
WhatsApp is probably the biggest and fastest growing chat app because they have focused on apps for feature phones and all other popular platforms, and on minimalism and low data/memory usage. WhatsApp was also early on the market, and grew fast by having an easy to use address book integration and SMS invites. WhatsApp is the place where all of your friends are, just like Facebook. That’s why it actually works as an SMS replacement.
Skype, IM+, ICQ, Google voice, Fring and all the other mobile messenger apps with voice call functionality didn’t have the same level of integration into people’s existing network (address book) as WhatsApp and weren’t able to grow just as fast. Because of that, they weren’t able to disrupt network phone calls. With more and more people on smart phones and data connections and with address book integration, you can potentially reach all of your friends on chat/voice apps just as easily as calling them over the network.
There are still hundreds of millions of people on feature phones. Luckily many of them are moving over to smart phones, although it will take a while. This graph shows how the smart phone market is growing in India. Despite fast growth, it might still take 5-10 years to get below 10% market share of feature phones. It’s definitely late to get into the dying feature phone market, but it’s not too late. Especially if you want the first mover advantage and reach a larger audience.
Facebook has in many ways disrupted e-mail, at least for private use. People use Facebook for arranging events, for connecting with new and old friends and send messages. Chat apps are replacing SMS. Voice calls over the internet is probably the next disruption.
When you can reach at least 80% of your contacts through a chat/voice app, and at a cheaper price – that’s when there will be a tipping point. Being THE app for both chat and voice is all about being first to market and gaining the biggest market share as fast as possible. And that is what WhatsApp and Google are trying to do right now.
Keys to success in emerging markets
There are a set of key factors that will be important for emerging markets. The challenges are quite different than in more developed countries. Data plans are usually more expensive, the network might be slow and unstable, people are using mostly low end phones and they might not have other social media accounts.
Many of the voice apps on the market are way too cumbersome to use. A solid UX design and UI efficiency (few clicks to perform a call) is vital to the success of voice call apps. It’s not about the number of features, it’s about minimalism and quick calls-to-action.
It has to cheaper than network phone calls. If I’m already paying for an expensive data connection, I would want all my calls for free. If calling phone numbers, it would have to be the same price as the network operators or cheaper.
Getting onto the hundreds of millions of feature phones is not an easy task. Many transfer apps through Bluetooth (to save data usage) and it might take years to distribute an app. Download links through SMS, physical options (such as installing the app through a physical store) and Bluetooth are potential better ways of distributing apps in emerging markets.
The app should also be able to auto update to newer versions, even on feature phones.
Performance and memory
This is the tricky one. If you are on an unstable 2G/Edge data connection, it will be hard to have a quality voice call. Compression and noise cancellation will be important. Also, the ability to resume calls or to switch over to voice or text messaging when the network fails is important.
Memory is also important. The app has to use very little memory so that it can run on any phone. Skype on Android is a well-known memory hog using way too much memory and battery. (Personally, I always shut down Skype on Android after use to save battery.) That will not work on low-end phones in emerging markets.
Address book integration
The ability to contact all of your friends and family, transparently. The app should automatically detect all emails, phone numbers, usernames etc and keep it constantly updated. The users shouldn’t have to search and add people like they do in Skype – unless they want to.
It should also be possible to launch the app directly from the address book, so that the user can make it the default app for calling.