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Microsoft legend Ray Ozzie wants to kill the conference call

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Talko is a phone app that even your boss will approve of

We haven’t heard from Ray Ozzie in a while, which is unusual. Ozzie has been a very busy man since the early 80s — he worked on VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet app, invented Lotus Notes and sold it to IBM for billions, then founded Groove Networks, a peer-to-peer collaboration app, which he sold to Microsoft in 2005. In 2006, Ozzie took the reins from Bill Gates as Microsoft’s chief software architect.

It’s quite the resume. Five years have passed since Ozzie left Microsoft, but he hasn’t retired. He’s been pursuing an old vision disguised as a new one. It turns out that Ozzie wasn’t finished with the problems Groove set out to solve. The app prophesied a new age of internet services where you could share files, instant message, and manage tasks with colleagues in real-time, but floundered under Microsoft (similarly, Wave floundered at Google). Today, Ozzie is reviving that vision with Talko, a new app for iPhone that’s coming soon to Android and web.

ray ozzie talko

Talko co-founder Ray Ozzie

Talko is a little bit WhatsApp, a little bit Google Voice, and a little bit push-to-talk app Voxer. The app lets you text, call, send voice or photo messages, and conference call your team — with the ease of today’s top consumer apps. Every message and call is recorded inside one thread, and you can bookmark specific audio bits or messages so people can return to them later (similar to SoundCloud). Talko is designed to turn your average meeting minutes doc into a living conversation — a conference call, then a series of messages, then a photo — and each conversation has a URL only accessible to your team.

"The ring is evil."

"People have been able to record conference calls for quite some time, and there are various products that let you take sideband text notes, but they haven’t been wrapped in a form that has broadly gotten people’s minds away from equating voice with the phone," says Ozzie. "What’s broken about the phone call fundamentally is that people hate interrupting other people. The ring is evil." So, Talko is built around the asynchronous nature of how we talk to each other today. If somebody misses the beginning of a conference call, they can hop in midway and listen to what’s happened, or send a quick text to the people on the call, or listen to the call later with the aid of bookmarks and tags to guide the way. Someday, Ozzie says, Talko will likely transcribe all these missed calls for you.

Talko has clever indicators to shows who’s in on a call, who’s just listening, and who’s talking right now, but also includes signals that let you know when a colleague is or isn’t available to chat. Tap on a person’s face, and tiny icons will tell you if they’re online in the app, if they’re using cell service or Wi-Fi, if they’re driving in the car, or even if they’re low on battery. "Sometimes, little signals are all you need to get something done," says Talko co-founder Matt Pope. "If a person’s really low on battery, you won’t call them."

The app’s laundry list of features isn’t wholly original — in the consumer space, at least. (For example, Path Talk uses similar indicators to show when a friend’s nearby, moving, or listening to music.) In the workplace, though — where "bring your own device" doesn’t always mean "bring your own app" — these kinds of features are almost totally novel. "Consumers have so many different apps. If they want ephemerality it’s Snapchat or Cyberdust. If it’s photos they have Instagram," says Ozzie. "There are so many different ideas people are experimenting with, but not really on the enterprise side." If Outlook (or even Lotus Notes) is your inbox for email, Talko is intended to be your inbox for voice calls and messages with your team.

"There are so many different ideas people are experimenting with, but not really on the enterprise side."

But can you trust Talko with every word you speak and text to your colleagues? After all, the reason for the slower pace of innovation in enterprise apps is because they need to be tested, certified, homogenized, and often neutered of certain features. Ozzie says Talko’s systems are secure, and points to his involvement as a board member of the Electronic Privacy Information Center as an indication of how much he cares about data security. "Both Groove and Lotus Notes were acclaimed in their time for having the most secure technical implementation of anything in their generation," he adds. "Lotus Notes got the first mass-market export license of any product in the US!" Assuming Talko is indeed secure, it’s still risky to move your company over from the age-old (but rock-solid) voice networks to cellular data networks and Wi-Fi. Anyone can tell you that a cell call may not sound as good as Skype, but it’s more reliable.

"Complexity kills," Ozzie once wrote in a famous memo to Microsoft employees titled The Internet Services Disruption. The memo aimed to convince Microsoft that if the company didn’t shift towards the web, it would be doomed. Ozzie was right — not just because the web was something new, but because it enabled new kinds of productivity. Interestingly, Talko goes full circle, trying to convince workplaces to embrace familiar tools (what’s more familiar than voice?) in new ways.

"Voice is the killer app" is a cliche that’s nearly as old as the smartphone, and selling data-hungry, text-focused users on that line in 2014 could be Ozzie’s single greatest challenge. As Slack’s overwhelming popularity has shown, people are hungry for better ways to work — it’s just a question of whether they’re also hungry for better ways to talk.