A quarter century ago, Ray Ozzie invented Lotus Notes, a pioneering piece of workgroup software which did as much as any other single product to popularize the idea that computers were useful tools for teams that wanted to collaborate on projects. More recently, Ozzie was responsible for Groove, an interesting take on collaboration which ended up being acquired by Microsoft, where Ozzie (briefly) succeeded Bill Gates himself as the company’s chief software architect.
When Ozzie left Microsoft in 2010, it shouldn’t have shocked anyone that he ended up starting yet another startup devoted to rethinking how teams can work together. His new company and product are called Talko, and they’re launching today. I got a sneak peek from Matt Pope, one of Ozzie’s cofounders.
Talko is the first thing Ozzie has been involved with that’s a product of the highly mobile smartphone age rather than the more deskbound PC-centric era which preceded it. And as its name hints, it’s about the phone part of smartphones. Pope says that the company’s goal is nothing less than to reimagine the phone call as it might be if it had never existed until today.
Why focus in on the spoken word? Pope says that text-based collaboration is less humane than voice, and more open to misinterpretation. “Even though we’re saying more, we’re actually connecting as human beings less,” he contends.
Unlike many collaboration tools, Talko is designed to be useful for personal projects as well as business purposes. “We just believe there should be no bifurcation in the tools we use in life and in work,” says Pope. It’s mostly an iPhone app with a little bit of web functionality, but an Android edition is in the works, as is a full-blown web client for use on Windows PCs and Macs.
The interface is built around teams–groups of people who might be work colleagues responsible for a particular project, or family members. You can select a team, and immediately call everyone in it en masse.
That’s where Talko departs from phone calls as we know them. You can choose to have your Talko call ring everyone in a team, for a real-time spoken conversation that’s like an outbound conference call. But you can also decide to simply record audio which other team members can check out at their own pace, and then respond to with their own recorded comments. A call that starts out live can continue on with recorded audio; one that begins with recordings can segue into a live conversation.
Participants can annotate either type of call with hashtags; insert shared bookmarks at important points in the discussion; and use their phone cameras to snap photos which get instantly shared with everyone else. There’s also built-in text messaging. When team members revisit a call later, the audio, photos, bookmarks, and text messages are all synchronized, and it’s possible to bop around to key moments rather than listen to the whole thing from start to finish.
At the moment, Talko is free. The plan is that it the basic version will remain so, but that non-paying customers’ calls will eventually be deleted. Fee-based plans will let organizations that use Talko keep their calls archived indefinitely. The company isn’t saying when it’ll put that measure into effect or how much it’ll charge.
Talko isn’t the first startup to come along that’s rhapsodized about the magic of spoken conversation and tried to reinject it into workplace collaboration. Others, such as CloudTalk, have failed to catch on. But Talko, which builds on some of the lessons that Ozzie, Pope, and fellow cofounder Eric Patey learned at Groove, is the most ambitious and imaginative attempt I’ve seen at making voice newly palatable.
Back in its heyday, Lotus Notes succeeded largely by catering to the interests of the IT departments which deployed the elaborate infrastructure it required. With Talko, the infrastructure is all cloud-based; its value is right there in the app itself and the things it can do. It’s too early to predict whether a critical mass of real people will find it useful enough to reshape the way they work around it. Still, as I watched Pope demo Talko, I wanted to try it for my own collaborative projects–which is definitely not a feeling I get about every new workgroup tool which arrives on the scene.