How Voxer is pushing push-to-talk apps into the future

Sprint (NYSE:S) may have pulled the plug on its iDEN Nextel network, but there's still life in push-to-talk services. The free Voxer Walkie-Talkie application expands on traditional PTT by offering voice communications that are simultaneously live and recorded, enabling users to respond to messages in the moment or at their convenience. Voxer--available for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone--operates across any Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G, 4G or Edge network worldwide. Since going live in 2011, the app has attracted tens of millions of users worldwide, including employees in 80 percent of the Fortune 1000, and raised $30 million in funding from investors including Institutional Venture Partners, Intel Capital, SV Angel and CrunchFund.

With enterprise adoption booming, this summer Voxer introduced two professional-grade apps. Voxer Pro, priced at a $2.99 per month or $29.99 per year, adds new features like Live Interrupt Mode, allowing users to hear chats outside of the app, and Extreme Notifications--i.e., shrill, repetitive alerts. The complementary Voxer Pro Business offers IT managers administrative controls and private network communications support alongside headset integration and real-time maps with geo-tagged employee location data. Voxer Pro Business is priced at $4.95 per month per user through Oct. 1, when the cost increases to $9.95 a month per user.

FierceDeveloper contributor Jason Ankeny spoke to Voxer CTO Matt Ranney about the firm's push into the enterprise segment, the evolution of mobile voice communication and the importance of embracing native development.

Matt Ranney

Matt Ranney

Matt Ranney on Voxer's competitive edge: Nobody else is doing what we're doing. It's a live communication system, but everything is also a message. You can be live or non-live, and save a message for later. It's a seamless transition between those two states. The more live we can make it, the more people use it, but they'll still always depend on the time-shifting component. We're not only giving them the choice between live and non-live communication, but also trying make it as natural to be live as possible.

The etiquette for mobile voice is still emerging. When you have phones everywhere, time is scarce but connectivity is abundant. It used to be that you'd answer the phone without even knowing who it was calling. Now, the phone rings and it's kind of annoying. You need a way to manage connectivity.

Ranney on building and maintaining Voxer across multiple platforms: It is definitely a challenge. It requires us to have a lot of engineers doing the same work, but on different platforms.

Interoperability hasn't been an issue. The big challenge is the unknowns of the different hardware and network combinations, especially in the Android world. Some devices we haven't even heard of before, and our availability to test on those devices is virtually impossible. It's mostly a problem on Android, but increasingly on iOS as well--there are still lots of old versions of iPhones that our engineers don't carry around. But that's the cost of doing mobile business.

To make a good mobile app, you need to do it the way that particular platform wants you to do it. Initially we tried going more cross-platform using HTML5, with a PhoneGap wrapper. We thought we were mighty clever. It worked, but it wasn't very good. We went down that road for a while, then we switched gears and decided to go all-in on native.

Voxer Pro offers such features as Live Interrupt Mode and Extreme Notifications

Ranney on Voxer Pro and Voxer Pro Business: Our plan all along was to offer a free version and then a paid business version. We built a critical mass of free users, and figured out what kind of features people are interested in using that might be useful to businesses.

The Pro version is designed for prosumers. The Pro Business version gives your company's IT manager the same kind of controls you get over email systems or PBX systems. There's an admin portal for managing groups and teams, so you can see how much people are using it.

We included Extreme Notifications based on feedback from people using [Voxer] for work in settings where a notification might go unheard. It beeped, but users didn't always hear it. The Extreme Notification beeps loudly and persistently until you acknowledge it. We also added background audio with the Live Interrupt Mode. If you're using the app for work, you want to be interrupted sometimes. In both cases, test users told us, 'This is what we need to make it useful.' Everything we do is driven by customer feedback and usage metrics.

Adoption has been very interesting. I can't name names, but we're seeing adoption in retail, transportation, aviation--all companies you've heard of--where people are carrying two or three devices like PDAs, tablets or different phones in order to interact with internal business systems. People want to consolidate that down to just one smartphone, or whatever devices they bring to work with them. Companies don't want to manage fleets of devices. They want everything on one device.

Voxer Walkie-Talkie expands on traditional push-to-talk

Ranney on capturing push-to-talk users: We built this business product to give users a better way to transition away from Nextel. There are some technical limitations with Nextel--for example, you can't use it if you don't have good coverage, so people got repeaters. Now that they shut down the iDEN network, people are working in places without strong connectivity. We're trying to be network-agnostic. We'll run on any network you have. It shouldn't matter where your bits are coming from.

What is the point of push-to-talk? I don't know. It's changing. People that have used push-to-talk in the past are willing to be interrupted, but only a certain segment of customers are willing to live with that. We're working to figure out a better way to talk into your mobile. It's still early and ultimately it's got to be more broadly applicable than just business. Consumers want a better way to use voice on their phones, too. It's going to be exciting to watch it all settle out.

Ranney on remaining competitive against operator PTT services and rival messaging apps: Carriers have a vested interest in keeping people on their network. They're not excited about push-to-talk working on every network. That's a serious, serious limitation. Getting locked into one network is not attractive. Maybe some operator will be very progressive and decide on push-to-talk interoperability, like they did with SMS, but their initial efforts are locked down. Push-to-talk is also a pure live and live-only system--it doesn't do time-shifting.

On the over-the-top side, if you look at WhatsApp, [voice messaging] was an obvious thing for them to add. It doesn't seem to be making a big difference to our usage. They're not trying to be live--they're just doing messaging.

There's another aspect related to competition. Around this core idea of one system that is live or time-shifted, we've filed and been granted a bunch of patents in many countries. We hope we don't have to use them, but if it comes to that, we're ready.

Ranney's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Go full native. Don't try to go cross-platform. I love the open Web, but I would never do a cross-platform design, at least in the current environment. Embrace the platform and do it that way.

Also look a little bit into the politics of the various app stores. What kinds of things get you kicked out? What gets you promoted? It's not like developing PC software where you control distribution. There are gatekeepers and other factors at play, and they can make your life great or ruin it, so make sure you understand the dynamics.

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