Truphone - Helping Keep VoIP Alive and Well

In my most recent Service Provider Views column, I identified a number of companies that typify the innovation taking place now in VoIP that I think will make this an exciting space in 2009. One of them is Truphone, and readers of my blog will know that I’ve followed them for some time.

Yesterday I had a chance to speak with their new CEO, Geraldine Wilson, and it was great way to get a first hand update on what they’re announcing this week and next. Between Macworld and CES, they are playing on some big and important stages, and this alone should tell you that VoIP is far from dead.

Even casual followers of Truphone understand what they’ve done to advance mobile VoIP, and how they were the first VoIP application available to iPhone users from the App Store. That alone makes them worth watching. We all know that mobile VoIP will become mainstream sooner or later, so there’s nothing really groundbreaking there.

The more interesting news that will be announced during these two events has to do with broadening the scope of how we communicate with smartphones, and making them even more relevant to our everyday lives. While the focus is on the iPhone and iTouch, it's just a matter of time until these capabilities become true value-adds for smartphones as a category. I've always viewed smartphones as pocket-sized PCs rather than telephones, and Truphone is making some big strides now for extending the desktop experience to your mobile world.

First, is the introduction of IM on the Apple devices. This capability will be launched now for Skype and Google, and in time, they will add MSN and Yahoo. Using a touchscreen to tap out an IM is not my idea of time well spent, but my son Max would just love it. The IM feature is important for a couple of reasons. Aside from being a quick, convenient way to communicate, it's habit-forming, and cheaper than SMS. This is something that many Apple fans I'm sure will pick up on right away. This leads to my second point, which is presence. Wow. With IM, Truphone adds presence to the iPhone and iTouch. That's a cornerstone Web/Voice 2.0 feature, and with presence, communication becomes a much more powerful aspect of using these devices. This opens the door to all types of presence-enabled applications that I'm sure will turn up in the App Store very soon.

Second, is the ability now to move between an IM session and a voice call on these devices. This is where I think Truphone makes things very interesting, and more importantly, this is where they can make some money. It doesn't take much to see how appealing this combination can be - start out doing IM with your friend, and then deciding on the fly you want to talk instead. All in the same session - that's great.

With these two capabilities, Truphone has made some huge communities - Skype and Google - much more relevant to iPhone and iTouch users. Those buddy lists and address books will become much more valuable, not just for Apple users but the service providers carrying these sessions. It's a big deal for Truphone, but to me, it's an even bigger deal for Apple, as it validates the power of the smartphone, not just for communicating, but for community building. Neither Skype nor Google have yet to effectively extend their respective communities to the mobile world, but Truphone now makes that possible for them. I'm sure both are thrilled!

An interesting sidebar to watch will be how this impacts the behavior of iTouch users. With Truphone, they now have less of a reason to carry a cell phone. Since the iTouch really only works with WiFi for voice, it won't be a total switchout, but I'll bet it will be enough to catch the media's attention. That said, I don't see this cannibalizing iPhone sales, but you never know.

Looking ahead, the next frontier for me would be federating these capabilities across IM communities. Let's say I IM a Skype contact and escalate that to a voice call. Then my presence indicator tells me another contact on Google is available, and I've decided I want to patch that person into my Skype call. Ultimately that defeats the purpose of having distinct communities, but it sure would be a powerful feature to have.