We’ve reached an odd point in the evolution of messaging. My wife and my aunt both have large Android phones, but can’t stand the virtual keyboards. They speak a message out loud which Google translates back into text. When I get these messages while I’m driving my car, I ask Siri to read me the text, and she gives it her best shot. We’ve gone through a completely unnecessary triple translation that wastes time and often garbles the meaning of the message.
"That has made voice messaging a dirty word."
At the same time I know many people who absolutely refuse to listen to voicemail. Entering a password and wading through an options menu to listen to scratchy audio is a miserable experience. So what do you do when you can’t just hop on the phone and chat in real time? Today two veterans of Google’s Creative Lab, Thomas Gayno and Jeff Baxter, are releasing a new app, Cord, that lets you send and receive brief audio messages up to 12 seconds long. "People hate voicemail, and justifiably so" says Baxter. "By extension that has made voice messaging a dirty word. But it doesn’t have to be that way."
The Cord app is very simple, but surprisingly nuanced. You connect with friends through your contacts or by inputting their username. Tap on a buddy's face to listen to a message they've sent you. Tap and hold on a face to send a message of your own, like with photo-messaging app Taptalk. It automatically plays over the speaker, but lift the phone to your ear and it will play over the earpiece instead. I’ve been playing with the app this week and it works well. The interface is intuitive and I was able to quickly send and receive messages, even on a 3G network. "In terms of data, these messages are much lighter than an Instagram image," says Gayno.
Voice calls have been declining sharply since 2011
It’s ironic, but in the age where everyone has a phone on them at all times, we’re actually talking to each other a lot less. The amount of time we spent on voice calls rose with the advent of cellphones in the late 1990s, but that trend has reversed more recently, with voice calls falling sharply since 2011. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of teens who used their phones to talk everyday dropped more than 50 percent, and a recent British study found just 3 percent of millennials use voice calling for daily communications.
There are plenty of other apps that already provide a voice option: Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Voxer, to name a few. You can hack your way to a voice-messaging app using the native recording app on Android or iOS, and the upcoming iOS 8 makes simple voice-messaging standard. The difference is that all these apps also let you send text, photos, and in some cases, video. "We know Apple is baking voice into iMessage and no doubt it will be part of Google Hangouts," says Baxter. "But it will always just be one choice among many, and that will make it hard for them to make a first-class voice experience of the caliber we are focused on building."
Cord just closed a a $1.8 million seed round of funding led by Metamorphic Ventures and Lerer Hippeau Ventures, with participation from Google Ventures, Greycroft, Dave Morin's Slow Ventures, and Gary Vaynerchuk. "Messaging is a very noisy space right now, but we’re betting this team knows how to stand out," says David Hirsch, the managing partner at Metamorphic. Before starting Cord, Baxter, and Gayno spent five years leading teams at Google’s Creative Lab, where they worked on projects like Google Glass, Android, and Hangouts, an experience that inspired them to focus on a more emotional form of communication that could work across not just phones but all kinds of smart devices.
"We think it’s a good bet that in five years a lot of people will have a smart watch, or glasses, or car. Those are all devices where using your voice to communicate makes a lot more sense than a keyboard," says Gayno. There have been recent reports about a slew of new Android Wear devices in the works, and the Cord team is planning for the world. "As you can imagine, having worked on Glass, and other still-unannounced projects at Google, we believe the next couple of quarters are going to be very rich in terms of new wearables," says Gayno.
Planning for a future of connected devices without keyboards
Still, why would I use a dedicated voice-messaging app when the ability to send and receive audio is likely to be a native feature of these next-gen gadgets? "One of our most obvious advantages is that we are not Apple or Google, therefore we are building for a seamless experience across any platform, and we can be faster to get on any device that matters." says Baxter. "If you have an iPhone and an Android watch and maybe a smart-car system with an entirely different operating system, we want Cord to be the layer that connects them all and makes it easy to sync your contacts and messages across devices." The app is currently on iOS only, but the founders says Android is coming soon.
Cord taps into another big trend in messaging, ephemerality. "We got rid of threaded messages, because it doesn’t really make sense to display audio that way," says Baxter. Your messages are stored as a list of the 100 most recent messages, and after that, "They fade off your phone unless you mark them as favorites to keep. So that makes it kind of naturally ephemeral, and not in a gimmicky, but in a functional way."
"Our phones got so smart, we forgot they were phones in the first place."
The best part of using Cord for a week was how shockingly good the audio quality was compared to the native voicemail and phone calls. "People who have been testing the app asked us what we did to get the sound in HD, but we haven’t done anything," says Gayno. "These devices have amazing microphones. But the whole voice experience has been really neglected and depends so much on the carrier infrastructure, and they are compressing that voice audio to a really low level. That’s part of the whole problem we’re attacking here. Our phones got so smart, we forgot they were phones in the first place."