Ray Ozzie's new app reimagines the phone call

One of Bill Gates' all-time favorite programmers is back after pondering the hypothetical: What would people do if the phone had never been invented before the Internet came along?

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
5 min read

After a devastating tsunami caused severe damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011, Ray Ozzie received an invitation to go to Japan to help technologists build a crowdsourced radiation-monitoring network.

That's when the seeds of an idea for his next venture got planted in his mind.

"When I was out there, I watched as people tried to coordinate their activities over a broad geographic area, and what was the only tool they had?" Ozzie recalled. "They had their phones."

But Ozzie was puzzled by a paradox.

Ray Ozzie, working on his first startup since a five-year stint at Microsoft. Talko

"The one way that we're supposed to convey voice, which has such deep meaning, is locked in a 100-year-old paradigm," he said. "We still say 'dial' and we still say 'ring.' People associate voice with that paradigm and there really hasn't been much innovation in how we weave voice into scenarios where people can work together."

And that led Ozzie to wonder how tech history might have unfolded if the phone call had never been invented.

"What if the Internet came first and some startup discovered that you could transmit voice over the Internet?" Ozzie asked. "What kind of innovation would happen? How would voice have woven itself into the fabric of everything else we do on the Internet? Certainly, we wouldn't have started with a ring and an interruption."

So what would it look like? That's the backdrop for the latest creation from Ozzie and his co-founders on the project, Matt Pope and Eric Patey, an app called Talko. It offers a new spin on a notion that he's championed for decades: The need to find ways to foster social productivity and collaboration among people who use technology in an age of mobility and cloud computing.

Ozzie has long promoted the view that it would be great to use software as a tool to reshape human interaction in some form to help people get things done more efficiently.

Indeed, Bill Gates once called Ozzie one of the world's great programmers. Measuring greatness is always going to be in the eye of the beholder, and the question may be even more fraught when it comes to coding bits. But bar stool debates notwithstanding, Gates was right about this much: Ozzie's technology bona fides earn him a spot on any short list of the software industry's clairvoyant thinkers.

In the earlier 1970s, for instance, when he studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ozzie was the senior programmer on a mainframe-based network equipped with instant messaging, email and online discussions -- tools that still belonged to a George Jetson future.

A few years later, he applied what he had learned about computer collaboration to develop a technology that would help standalone PCs better communicate and share information. That product ultimately became Lotus Notes, a technology considered way ahead of its time -- so much so that when IBM paid $3.5 billion to buy Lotus in 1995, CEO Lou Gerstner paid a special visit to Ozzie to make sure that he would stick around.

He did for a couple of years, but by 1997, Ozzie was back to doing his own thing with Groove Networks. It failed to match the commercial success Ozzie enjoyed with Notes, but Groove's use of peer-to-peer technology to foster Internet collaboration again presaged the industry's later turn to P2P to share digital music. Microsoft bought the company in 2005, and Gates handed Ozzie the job of chief software architect.

Ozzie spent the next five years trying to get management to pay attention to a plan that he outlined shortly after coming aboard in a 2006 memo called the Internet Services Disruption. There were ups and downs along the way, but ultimately he packed it in after it became clear that CEO Steve Ballmer had thrown in his lot with the faction in favor of a Windows/Office-centric primacy at Microsoft over the cloud-first approach pushed by Ozzie.

Meet Talko: Phone calls for the 21st century

Fast-forward to early 2012 when Ozzie and 10 other developers he had gathered began hacking on new ways to use voice to better convey information. Social anthropologists he had spoken with confirmed Ozzie's hunch that people hate the ring so that was a good starting point.

"They cannot stand getting interrupted by a ring -- and they hate interrupting other people with a ring," he said. "Anything done on a phone call is outside the context of everything else we do. You pick up a phone and have to take notes on what happened so you can convey them to someone else. And you can't link."

So over the next 18 months, they set out to come up with an alternative to the conventional "ring and answer" over the Internet routine. The first fruit of their labor is Talko, which lets people share and annotate voice conversations as well as add photos and documents quite easily to voice threads. For now, Talko is available only on iOS, but the plan is to follow with Android and Web-based versions in a few months.

The app also makes use of tags and hashmarks so a user can quickly retrieve specific pieces of information. What's more, Talko lets someone forward conversations that others can then reply to as well as search for specific snippets of information.

The information largely resides in the cloud. What's brought to the device is a small cache of what you might need. Each night, the system purges itself so as to keep the device's storage use relatively small. It also syncs between iOS devices.

Beginning Tuesday, users will be able to download a free version that Ozzie said will be "fairly fully functional" with a base level of service. A subscription version will retain call logs while any calls stored by non-paying users will get vaporized after 10 days.

The Talko app wants to let you share and annotate voice conversations as well as add photos and documents to voice threads. Talko

"It's been very easy to learn and use from the get-go," said Walter Zimbeck of Technology Assessment, a Baltimore developer of 3D-printing technology who has been testing the product. "Historically, we've been using a combination of email and texting and phone calls. After we began using Talko in July. the potential of it exploded for me. It's replacing all of the texting we used to do and it replaces a good fraction -- not all -- of the emailing we used to do and the phone calls."

The challenge will be to convince people to break with ingrained habits. Productivity tools remain document-based, and it's still anyone's guess how the changing nature of platforms will impact how people work together. For instance, how quickly will people learn to use -- and embrace -- features offered by Talko like bookmarking and tagging? Then again, this is what disruptive technologies are supposed to be all about. And given Ozzie's record predicting technology trends, the conventional way people think about voice and the phone may well be ripe for a shake-up.