Just a few years ago, it seemed that the old-fashioned phone call was going out of style. Smartphones were on the rise, and many people were using them for everything except making calls.
Phone calls were still part of my job, but they were absent from my personal life, save for the occasional restaurant reservation or doctor’s appointment. I preferred sending messages by text, instant message or email. It felt much easier and more time-efficient than trying to reach someone by phone.
But a few months ago, something curious started to happen.
My friends started picking up their cellphones for an unusual purpose: They wanted to talk. And I started answering when they called.
For example, one friend who lives in California grew tired of trying to have intimate catch-ups over instant message and email, and now uses those means only to coordinate a time when she can call to chat. Another, who lives not far from me in Brooklyn, finds arranging outings over text message too exasperating, and prefers to quickly call and sort out our plans instead.
As much as I enjoy sending and receiving messages, they can be confusing, particularly when it comes to conveying sarcasm or sincerity. And as much as I love using emoji — those colorful cartoons that can be inserted into text messages to infuse them with warmth and humor, they don’t have all that much nuance. Using them isn’t always a guaranteed way of getting my feelings across.
Many industry experts say I’m not the only person to have a renewed appreciation of the virtues of actually talking on a phone, even on a smartphone.
Chetan Sharma, an independent analyst who follows the wireless industry, noted that cellular voice volume in the United States grew 14 percent in the last year: According to figures from CTIA — the Wireless Association, the number of voice minutes in the United States increased to 2.62 trillion, from 2.3 trillion.
One reason for the uptick, Mr. Sharma said, is that nearly 40 percent of American households are now mobile-only, meaning that they no longer have a landline phone, and rely entirely on their cellphones.
“Those minutes are transferring over to mobile,” he said.
He also suspects that shifts in consumer habits are playing a role, and he notes that Americans now have a much wider array of communication options. Texting by SMS — the technology used for basic cellphone messaging — is being supplemented by messaging applications like Apple’s iMessage and WhatsApp, which is now owned by Facebook. In other words, people are adjusting their habits, choosing the platform and service that best suit their conversation needs at a given moment.
A handful of new voice-centered mobile applications are gaining traction as they try to improve on the old-fashioned phone call. All are aiming to solve a basic problem: For people accustomed to messaging, a phone call often feels disruptive and inconvenient. They may not want to answer a call immediately, but if they don’t, they may be caught in endless, irritating games of phone tag.
The new services aren’t trying to replicate the phone calls of yore. Instead, they are trying to fashion a new kind of voice interaction that is efficient and intimate, yet not intrusive. Many have the advantage of letting the recipient of a message play it and answer it at her leisure.
One service, Voxer, works like a walkie-talkie, letting people relay quick snippets of audio to one another. Another, called ChitChat and developed by Ideo, the design firm, performs a similar function, although messages disappear after they are heard.
One entrepreneur, Alan Braverman, has been developing an app, Sobo, that his company describes as “an audio version of Twitter.” His company says the application “will be satisfying a void in the social media app world by enabling quick, nonperishable sound bites.”
Even the giant technology companies are seizing the trend.
This month, Apple announced that it would include a feature on the next version of its mobile software that will also allow its users to send voice notes that will disappear after they are heard.
Thomas Gayno, one of the founders of Cord, a voice messaging service that recently raised nearly $2 million in seed funding from investors, says his start-up aims to combine the best parts of text-based communication — its brevity and convenience — and apply them to voice interactions.
“Maybe we can combine the ease of asynchronous communication like text and Twitter with the power of voice to create a new way to communicate,” he said. “It is much more adaptive to our always-on lifestyle.”
Mr. Gayno built Cord with his friend Jeff Baxter. The men, who met while working at Google on projects including Glass, the computer eyewear, are also betting that voice interaction will be an increasingly crucial portion of technology products, and are building Cord with an eye on that future. Although they did not share early user numbers, they said Cord was slowly building an audience.
Mr. Gayno pointed to devices like smartwatches, smart household appliances and in-car navigation systems as products that might be easier to control with spoken commands.“The next generation of computers won’t have keyboards,” he said. “Or if they do, they’ll be impossible to use. They will work from a voice interface.”
Of course, companies like Cord still have something of an uphill battle. Some people have no interest in going back to what they consider the dark ages — the era of making phone calls.
“The nontalkers are still out there,” Mr. Baxter said. “Some people say, text has won, voice is over, and they don’t want any of it.”
And I can’t say I want to totally give up texting for talking, either. But I appreciate having the option, and hope to convince more of my friends to get on board.
Article source: The New York Times
A version of this article appears in print on 09/21/2014, on page BU5 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Pass the Word: The Phone Call Is Back.