In-app messaging: Why more developers will want voice and SMS in their apps

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Facebook's takeover of WhatsApp may have represented a high point for the market, but new entrants are jumping into the space all the time.

There's so much talk about the rise of voice and messaging-based apps--including WhatsApp, WeChat, Tango and others--that indie developers are probably starting to feel like they can't get a word in edgewise. 

Facebook's mammoth takeover of WhatsApp may have represented a high point in the market for voice and messaging apps, but it's hardly the end of the story. AT&T recently hosted a full-day workshop offering help in deploying its speech and messaging APIs. WeChat, meanwhile, released its own open API to allow third-party developers to tap into its network. New entrants are jumping into this space all the time, suggesting that if they haven't thought about voice and messaging for their apps, developers might want to get started now. 

New ways to chat
"The human DNA is to communicate," says Andreas Bernström, CEO of a recent newcomer to this space, a firm called Sinch that was spun out of Rebtel. "We like chatting, and the technology to do it has become so good and so advanced that the ways we can communicate are plentiful. You're consistently seeing new ways of doing that."

Andreas Bernstrom Sinch CEO

Bernström

Sinch, which launched with $12 million in financing from investors such as Index Ventures and Balderton Capital, is offering a platform for iOS and Android developers to add a layer of voice and messaging to their apps in 15 minutes or less, for free or at a fraction of the cost of competitors. Bernström said he went to the Rebtel board less than a year ago to make the case for taking Sinch from a developer API to an independent company. 

"We looked at all the user scenarios, from games to social applications to dating utilities," he says. "In each and every case we can find a case why developers would like these tools."

Twilio has been in this space for some time, becoming the first third party to offer voice and messaging via Google App Engine, but there are plenty of others vying for developer attention. According to John Higgins, chief technology evangelist at San Francisco-based Tropo, the rise of these OTT voice and messaging app companies like WhatsApp or Groupme makes a great case that the market for simple voice and messaging APIs continues to grow. 

"I've been seeing some encouraging growth in the medical space, everything from patient reminder systems to telemedicine," says Higgins, who also goes by the name Johnny Diggz. 

Lucy Zhao Plivo

Zhao

Many apps have used voice and SMS APIs as their core offering, such as conference apps, text messaging apps and call-tracking apps, adds Lucy Zhao, product marketing lead at San Francisco-based Plivo. More recently, however, she says there has been a trend that's growing in adding voice and SMS to apps to augment and enhance the user experience. On mobile, this could mean two-factor authentication (voice and SMS) or app download invites (SMS). "For games, it's prize notifications and coupon redemptions for in-game awards and purchases," she says. 

Perhaps because of the possible use cases, it's probably too early to pin voice and messaging as functionality that will take off more in the business or consumer app space, says Diggz. 

"Actually, I think we're just starting to see the tip of the iceberg on the enterprise side," he says. As the enterprises start to fully understand the power, scalability and price advantages of the cloud, Diggz adds, they are more likely to launch a cloud-based telephony solution, whereas previously they would have built a costly in-house solution. "Indie developers continue to pave the path."

It only takes a developer a few lines of code to send out SMS messages or link people in a conference, Zhao points out. And it's this ease of use that has given developers the ability to create well designed user experiences that have drawn in lots of traction. To prove this point, Plivo recently built a Web-based conferencing app called VoiceChatAPI.com just over one weekend. "There is much more room for indie developers to use voice and messaging features with their apps," she says.  

Everyone wants to monetize
Bernström says there is lots of room for competition in the voice and messaging API space, in part because developers large and small are facing so many of the same challenges. "They're all looking at ways to monetize. Nobody's going to get the $19 billion exit," he says. "It's about how you can help with distribution of the service."

Diggz suggests that as the technology matures, there could be some interesting changes in the expectations of consumers around what their apps do. 

"I think the big change is that consumers will forget, or never know that voice and messaging were once a service that only the telecom companies provide," he says. "With the opening of the data channel, now anyone can provide voice and messaging with an app. But don't forget, the two largest apps on every phone still are the phone and SMS. Whatsapp and the like are just eating away at the minutes and messages. The giant telcos are just starting to take notice and will respond with Godzilla-like size."

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