Phone Calls Are Dead. Voice Chat Is the Future.

Phone Calls Are Dead. Voice Chat Is the Future.

In the swing from calls to texts, we lost the warmth and humanity that made the telephone work in the first place; there are better ways to talk

It's faster than a phone call, warmer and more human than a text message. Voice messaging is the chat platform you should be using, explains WSJ's David Pierce, and it's already on your phone.

By David Pierce July 8, 2018 8:00 a.m. ET

Steve Jobs should have called it the iText. Maybe the iNstagram, or the iUberEverywhere. The iPhone—like every other phone in 2018—is many things, but it isn’t much of a phone.

For decades, the best and often only way to reach someone out of earshot was to call them on the phone. The internet brought chat, FaceTime, Instagram, Snapchat stories and a host of other ways to keep in touch that made phone calls seem wildly inefficient. For many of us, the phone call over the past few years has gone the way of the telegraph and the typewriter.

That’s not a good thing. We need voice back in our communication.

In the swing from calls to texts, we lost the warmth and humanity that made the phone work in the first place. I’m not pining for the days of the loudly spinning rotary phone, though. Better ways to actually talk to people already exist. A few companies are building tools that improve upon what didn’t work about phone calls, making them less disruptive and more productive.

At the same time, a new type of chat is sitting right under our noses. It’s called voice messaging, and it deserves a place alongside text and video as core parts of how we chat in the digital age.

Speak up

When it comes to effective communication, there’s no beating voice. Have you ever tried to make a joke or be brief in a text or email, and the person on the other side missed it completely, or even ended up mad at you?

A 2016 Yale School of Management study found people can assess others’ emotions most accurately when communicating solely via voice—far better than written or computer-spoken words, and even better than video chatting. And if you’re in it for the speed alone, you can probably speak twice as fast as you can type.

The problem with phone calls was never the talking. It was all the related complexities. You dial a bunch of numbers. You wait while it rings, not knowing if they’ll answer. (If they don’t, this was all for nothing.) If they do, you start with hellos, some self-identification and some small talk before you get to why you called. Then there’s more small talk and finally a protracted goodbye. A three-second question—Where should we go to dinner?—requires a five-minute conversation.

Texting’s initial limitations made it the perfect antidote. Back when you only had 160 characters and paid by the message, there was no time for wasted words.

But texting lacks humanity. We need a way to preserve our most salient mode of communication but strip away all the cruft. The answer might be in another vintage tech that has undergone a high-tech evolution: the walkie-talkie.

The modern walkie-talkie is most likely a smartphone app, not a hand-held radio the size of a car battery (or the push-to-talk feature you remember from those old Nextel commercials). Yet it operates much the same way: You press a button to talk, and when you’re finished your voice rings out from someone else’s device. They listen and talk back.

Walkie-talkies do have their baggage. If you aren’t wearing earbuds, you might have to sneak away or risk having others hear your messages. It’s still an improvement: Chatting this way offers the warmth of a phone call, with none of the time-sucking technological hurdles or social norms. “You don’t need the small talk,” says Bill Moore, chief executive of voice-messaging app maker Zello Inc. “You don’t have the social overhead of a conversation.”

This type of voice messaging is probably already possible in the tools you already use to chat. And it comes with three critical advantages over the phone calls we’ve been making for decades:

Better voice mail. Let’s be clear: Voice mail is the evil spawn of the phone call. Whether you use Android or iOS, there’s a better voice-messaging tool built into your device.

If you’re an iMessage user, just press and hold the microphone to the left of the text box, then record your message and swipe up to send it. Android’s version is a bit clunkier but essentially the same. Either way, your audio will appear in the same thread as the texts, pictures and GIFs you’ve been sending back and forth.

It isn’t as real-time as a phone call, but it doesn’t demand your full and undivided attention, either. It’s just another way to talk, for when you can’t type or don’t want to.

I recommend that iPhone users go to Settings > Messages and choose to delete voice messages two minutes after they’re played. It’s a good privacy practice and will save you some storage. You also can enable a feature that plays your new voice messages when you raise your phone to your ear, which makes it feel even more like a walkie-talkie.

WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have similar features. And there are apps dedicated to voice, too, like Zello and Voxer.

Get to it later. When someone calls you, typically they have no idea whether you are available to chat, or whether they are crashing into the middle of your day like a mariachi band arriving at your table. If they had sent a voice message instead, you would be able to listen whenever you can and respond whenever you feel like it.

Chat from anywhere. The next gadgets—be they smart headphones, smart speakers, smart glasses or smart watches—won’t have large screens with roomy keyboards.

Starting this fall, with a WatchOS software update, you’ll be able to have quick, text-like chats with friends on your Apple Watch. Rather than tap furiously on its tiny screen, or hold your wrist to your ear for minutes at a time, you’ll have a Walkie Talkie feature. If you own an Amazon Echo, you can already shout, “Alexa, send a voice message to Anna” and have a conversation without having to touch a device.

You’ll still be able to make phone calls and send texts, of course, but the best communication tools of the future will be the ones you can use however you like. “People move pretty seamlessly between text, voice and video,” says Eros Remini, chief marketing officer at Discord, a popular chat app for gamers.

Maybe as keyboards become less ubiquitous, you’ll start to dictate messages instead—a recent Stanford study found voice-to-text is already faster and more accurate than typing. And you can play incoming texts aloud if you like, with a simple “Read my most recent text” request to your voice assistant.

But consider sending a voice message instead. After all, if I were on the receiving end, I’d really prefer your voice over Siri’s.


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