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Apple sees voice messaging as the next wave of digital communication

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iOS 8 and Apple Watch revive our push-to-talk fantasies

Remember Push-To-Talk? Before Blackberry’s ascent, and before the launch of the original iPhone, Nextel’s range of PTT devices were the hottest phones in America. Cell phones were still relatively new at the time, offering high-tech connectivity and voice calls, but PTT devices offered instant connectivity for a hefty price tag. Then, with the rise of smartphones and the death of Motorola flip phones, walkie talkie-like functionality disappeared. Texting was in. Facebook messaging was in. FaceTiming was in. PTT was out. Today, PTT’s signature chirp can only be heard on constructions sites and in taxi cabs.

But, within the last couple years PTT has become popular again, but under a new name — "voice messaging." As consumers have experimented with the various ways you might reach someone — a call, a text, a WhatsApp message, an email, a FaceTime, a voicemail — voice messaging has once again proven useful. It’s perfect for when you’re driving or when you simply don’t feel like texting. Apps like Taptalk and Cord make "one-tap" voice messages dead simple, and see crazy-high engagement from users. Viber, which has more than 100 million active users, tells The Verge that its users send more voice messages than photos.

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Viber's 100-plus million users send more voice messages than photos

The trend has gotten so big that even Apple is joining the fray, cementing voice messaging as a legit trend. In iOS 8, the Messages app includes one-tap access to sending a quick voice message, a task that used to take several steps to accomplish. In the Apple Watch, "walkie-talkie" mode is a feature worth boasting about on marketing pages, and worth elevating above almost every other feature on the device. The Watch also lets you send voice notes inside text messages. Both these functions are easily accessible through the Watch's dedicated messaging button on its side. Apple and others have taken what was most compelling about PTT — that it’s easy, fast, and immediate — and combined it with what’s best about texting — it’s asynchronous and lightweight.

In the future-world of the film Her, people talk to their phones all day and night. They dictate reminders, emails, send voice messages, and carry on lengthy phone calls without any regard for those around them. We’re not quite there yet. Voice messages aren't going to replace texts, however simpler it may be to send one. There’s an oddness to sending short sound bites that I can’t quite shake. There’s an awkwardness to dictating a reminder to Siri in public. It’s one thing to get caught talking on the phone by a stranger, but another when you get caught blurting out "Yes, ham and cheese!" seemingly to no one at all. From my experience, using your voice to send a message or control a computer is still strange unless you’re completely alone. But then, it’s a godsend.

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Cord for iPhone lets you send quick voice messages to friends

This is why voice has taken on such a prominent role in operating systems like Ford Sync and Apple CarPlay that work when you are alone. "Voice is the only way to communicate and multi-task," says Thomas Gayno, co-founder of Cord. "A few seconds of voice has much more to offer than a few hundred characters." Factor in devices like the Amazon Fire TV and Xbox One, which marketed themselves on voice search features, and you’ve found Silicon Valley's favorite new way to interact with technology.

This stuff is coming — it’s just a matter of when. Voice commands already work pretty well in places like the car and on your couch, but soon, you’ll likely hear them more and more on the street. With Apple’s distribution network, which seeds millions upon millions of devices into the hands of consumers, voice messaging could soon become more mainstream than ever. Voicemail usage has been dropping for years, but perhaps not for the reasons we thought. With the right interface, voice messages have proven to be a really great way to talk.