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Talko app does mobile collaboration right

Find out how the Talko app for the iPhone, our latest Network Innovation Award winner, is changing the way teams communicate and collaborate on the go.

This month's winner of SearchNetworking's Network Innovation Award is Talko Inc. Aimed at team-oriented business communications and collaboration, the Talko app combines voice, messaging and photo sharing in a manner that's optimized for users on the go.

The Talko app is free and supported on iPhones. A beta Android version is expected to launch later this summer, and a subscription-based version with more advanced administrative features for IT admins is slated for the future. To get a sense of what other enhancements Talko has planned, SearchNetworking's Jessica Scarpati spoke with Matt Pope, the vendor's co-founder and product lead.

What problem were you trying to solve when you created the Talko app?

Matt Pope: With mobility, there is a completely different environment within which people and teams communicate and get things done. And when you're on your feet and need to do those things, we think it requires a very different user experience and very different assumptions about your networking environment, relative to sitting at a PC and typing away with an Ethernet cord plugged in.

We built Talko to be a team communications app that is highly optimized for that environment -- where there is a team of people and many or most are often, if not always, doing their job while standing, moving and on the go with the phone as the primary device. It does certain things like blend different ways to communicate -- voice, text and images, and search on all those things -- in ways that are unique. Whereas, for instance, in a normal messaging app that's just a linear sequence of posts, we observed that many mobile teams encounter things like break-fix scenarios where the ability to show what you're talking about while you're talking is very effective. You can mix photos with your voice as you're talking. We focused on photos initially because, oftentimes, these are networking environments where video just can't occur.

Can you talk more about how you handle voice?

Pope: We all know that mobile networks are highly variable and sometimes nonexistent, so in Talko, there's no such thing as a dropped call. We've done a lot of work to make sure that the transition from strong to weak networks -- and back to strong networks -- between cell networks and Wi-Fi are all seamless, including through pockets of non-connectivity. If you're in a Talko call or team conference and you go through a pocket of non-connectivity, of course you can't continue to hear and other people can't hear you. But we visually leave you inside of the call. A few seconds after the operating system says, "I've regained the connection," you just drop right back in there live. In any other [call] -- whether it's a conference bridge, a phone app or any other VoIP app -- you have to redial and re-establish that connection. We just handle all that under the covers.

Talko app for iPhone interface
The Talko app optimizes mobile collaboration for business teams with features like real-time and asynchronous multimedia conversation streams, one-touch conferencing, automatic call recording and the ability to bookmark and hashtag any interaction.

We also record all calls by default. We treat voice as a persistent data type -- just like texts, photos and so forth. The reason that's important is any time you're dealing with a team of more than three people, it's really rare -- even if you schedule your meetings -- to get everybody on [a] team together at once. The fact that the call persists means those people who aren't there can very easily, with no [effort required from] the rest of the team, quickly come up to speed, fully be in sync and even participate in that call asynchronously.

Previously, many teams would have a design discussion or a sales prospect discussion when somebody important wasn't there who needed to be brought up to speed and have some input. So, somebody else would take detailed meeting minutes. They'd get sent in email. A meandering and often painful email thread would ensue. People would start talking in sidebar conversations one-to-one. Suddenly, all the decisions that were made in the meeting are being unmade and nobody has the complete picture.

The Talko app supports various communications tools, but it seems there's an emphasis on voice. Why is that?

Pope: We like texting, but when you're dealing with teams of people who are on their feet and moving, many times, texting is either just not possible or extremely frustrating. We have customers in manufacturing. They encounter scenarios where there's a break-fix issue -- something goes haywire in the production run of their goods. The technician needs to communicate with an engineer who's across the country. They are not going to solve that problem by texting. Talking in those sorts of scenarios, where you have a phone at your disposal, is the most natural thing to do.

In that situation, why wouldn't you just make a standard phone call?

Pope: Talko brings messaging, calling and team conferencing all together in one environment, so there's no fragmentation across the different modalities of communicating. For every person and team that you communicate with in Talko, you have an asynchronous stream where you can send messages with voice, text and photos. You can mix those things together. You also have the ability to tap a little phone icon in the UI, which initiates a real-time phone call.

Suddenly, all the decisions that were made in the meeting are being unmade and nobody has the complete picture.
Matt Popeco-founder and product lead, Talko

The unique thing about those Talko calls is you can mix the data types together in interesting ways to create this show-and-tell experience. The call is recorded. The audio timeline can be bookmarked. Let's say you're having a design meeting and one person can't be there, but they need to be aware of the decision. It was a 60-minute conference, but there's really only one minute that matters. You can apply a bookmark to that very discrete moment in time so that when that person comes in, they just tap that bookmark and they hear the one minute that matters without having to listen to the other 59.

It's also one-tap team calling. You don't have to set up a conference bridge. You don't have to call one person, then call another person and then merge them in, then call another person and merge them in. You don't have to do any of that.

Was all of this technically challenging to do, or is it that no one has thought of it before?

Pope: A little bit of both. But the stuff that we do in the core VoIP platform is, in fact, really hard technically. Most VoIP apps have a peer-to-peer architecture. The reason why team calling in VoIP apps didn't exist until recently is because a peer-to-peer architecture is not a very good one to support multi-way team calling over highly variable, sometimes not good networks. So [we re-engineered] cloud-deployed team calling in the VoIP platform. That was very hard.

Beyond that, the fact that we record calls by default means that there's some pretty sophisticated things that we need to do with respect to a live call -- making sure that we're doing live streaming in every direction. We're mixing the various sources of audio, recording it and then on-demand sending those out so that people can replay it later on.

The final thing I'll mention is that transitioning from strong Wi-Fi to really weak 3G and back again is quite a difficult thing. Dealing with the variability in mobile networks in the form of jitter or latency is really hard. And it's the kind of thing that you're never done [improving]. We're continuously trying to make it better and learn from our metrics.

IT pros might hesitate to stray from vendors like Cisco or Microsoft, which they trust in terms of security, administration and support. How do you plan to address that?

Pope: Our early deployments are teams of three, five, 10 or up to 25 people at the edge of an organization, where they are fully empowered because [software as a service] SaaS exists and people can get the tools that they need at the time that they need them. We get involved with IT when an organization goes from one team of five to a team of 12 to all of a sudden you've got 10 teams spread across an organization. That's when you have deal with issues that IT and CIOs care about.

We will absolutely build enterprise manageability, administration and security features into the product. [Our] team has done all of those things in the past in other communications products that we've built. We take things like security extremely seriously. All data is encrypted over the network. It is a secure product from day one. And in the coming months and into next year, will be building up the manageability features that IT folks really care about.

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