I recently reviewed Zipwhip, a great program that brings texting to desktop PCs. You can type out messages without ever picking up your phone. I’d recommend the app, as it makes texting into a much better experience.
Talking to Zipwhip CEO John Lauer was an interesting experience as well. He has some different opinions about the state of technology industry and what messaging will look like in the future. Here’s how a company that’s all about texting sees the world.
An Interview with John Lauer, Zipwhip CEO
What inspired you to make Zipwhip?
As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that is what drove us to create Zipwhip. With all of our social networks out there, IM clients, and email, texting is still the dominant medium we all use for our day to day communication with friends and co-workers. We sit on our laptops, tablets, and desktops for the majority of our day and to always have to pull your phone out, unlock it, and then navigate to the texting app the moment you get a text can become a real pain.
The worst part is painfully typing your response on your phone’s tiny keyboard. It made no sense that you shouldn’t be able to get your texts on your other devices. The solution was Zipwhip–cloud texting for everyone.
Similarly, what was your goal with Zipwhip?
The goal was to take this incredibly important medium in our lives–texting–and make it available in the cloud. It shouldn’t be locked inside your phone. Every other major medium in our life is now available in the cloud. Email is in the cloud. IM is in the cloud. Even the television medium is moving to the cloud. Why shouldn’t texts be in the cloud? Well, our goal with Zipwhip was to solve that and indeed we have.
How difficult was it to develop the service? Is it hard supporting OS X, Windows, and PC?
First off, we have to tap into your flow of text messages. Secondly, we then need to get those texts down to whatever device you are logged in from.
To tap into your flow of texts, we grab them at any possible location we can. We hide the sausage-making from you so you everything just works. Our predominant method is our background Android app. However, we have always worked closely with the wireless and landline operators. So in many cases today and in the future, we’ll be tapping into your flow of texts at the network level well before the text even hits your phone. We do this today with our landline and toll-free texting products.
To get the texts down to your device we had to build a full signaling network. If you have our browser app open, it’s connected in parallel to any other app you have running so you get your texts at the same time. If you have our Windows desktop system tray app, it’s logged in and sends and receives texts perfectly in sync with the browser. We built our OS X, Windows, and Linux apps with the same Java code-base, but made small tweaks for each platform to have the app run as natively as possible. It was hard to achieve this, but we think the result came out pretty well.
Was there anything you wanted to add but couldn’t?
We want to add a lot of stuff and will continue to, so yes, we feel that we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. I’ll leave our new product development mostly secret, but it’s fair to say that Zipwhip will continue to be the single place you can go to login to your EXISTING phone number in the cloud. When we say existing, we mean your existing mobile, landline, or toll-free number. When we say existing we mean not a new number, not a second number, but your main phone number–the one that really matters to you, not some throw away number that a company just dumped in your lap.
What do you think about efforts such as Google Hangouts and iMessage that focus on data-based messaging?
We think those efforts are great and will push the innovation around texting. iMessage has been an interesting app/platform to watch to see how well it gets adopted. Many folks don’t know they’re using iMessage and that Apple is intercepting your text and directly sending it. We think it’s a neat model and something that we may borrow from, however, it’s very important to keep texting the beautiful medium that it is. So we don’t want to take away the cultural rules that are great about texting.
In our opinion adding an “is typing…” feature like what iMessage does can be seen as a backward step as to why we love texting. People love texting because it’s an asynchronous medium. You send a message to your friend and put the phone back in your pocket and get back to your life. If you see the other person “is typing” you tend to be held captive staring at your screen waiting for them to reply.
It’s even rude for you to put your phone back in your pocket because by god they’re typing a message to you right now. That sucks. You now just stole more of my life from me making me wait for the response. We want to make sure we don’t break what’s beautiful about texting, while also adding value.
Google Hangouts is great. We know there are rumors about them adding texting and if they do it will be an interesting dimension to Zipwhip’s product presence. If you think about it though, Google already has a competing product to Zipwhip. It’s called Google Voice. This product has had a lot of success with the early adopters, but for the most part it hasn’t crossed the chasm. We’ll have to see what they do with Google Hangouts.
Why support SMS when the major tech companies are moving away from it?
We know a tiny little secret that nobody else knows or realizes. The secret is so precious to us, you shouldn’t include this answer in your story, but we’ll leave that up to you. The secret is–SMS is here to stay for a really, really, really long time. Why? Because it’s brain-dead simple. Because it’s crossed the threshold of ubiquity that makes it nearly unstoppable. Because it comes automatically on your phone. Because, at least in the U.S., it’s for the most part free.
All new carrier messaging plans just bake it in. Because there’s no spam. Because there’s no requirement for a “friending” process. Because phone numbers are beautiful and simple, despite people like Mark Zuckerberg saying the phone number will die. Because SMS is forced brevity.
However, the biggest reason why SMS is here for a really long time is this: SMS is the only public medium for short-format high-priority messaging on the planet. When we say public, we mean as opposed to a private medium. SMS is based on a public identity system called the phone number. Everything about the medium is public. That means anyone can play in the medium. It’s like it’s an open source medium vs closed source, ala the difference between Windows and Linux.
Why is being a public medium so powerful? Because history has shown us that public mediums stand the test of time and private mediums don’t. Case in point ICQ, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Blackberry Messenger, MSN Messenger, Trillian, and Lotus Notes. These were all private mediums that were the grand-masters of their day. They ruled the world at one point. Everyone used them. Everyone said they were the future. Now they have been relegated to the dust heap. What private mediums are the grand-masters today that 5 years from now will barely be talked about? I bet you can name a few.
Let’s use one last example. The public switched telephone network (PSTN) is a public medium, not a private medium. VOIP was invented in the late 90’s with companies such as Dialpad, Net2Phone, and Vox becoming the grand-masters of their day. Companies like Vonage caught the imagination of everyone leading up to their IPO. Skype took the biggest chunk of grand-master mindshare. Ultimately where are these companies today?
Well, they are either gone or the way they figured out how to monetize their product was to become part of the public medium of voice. Skype makes all of their money on their Skype out service which is the public part of their network. Vonage is all about giving you access to the public network. Will a private medium for voice ever emerge that replaces the public medium? History has shown us that it never will.
Why should someone use Zipwhip instead of something else like MightyText?
Zipwhip’s product is amazing. It’s hands-down the best experience out there for cloud texting. There are other services out there and we think that’s healthy for the market. It validates that people really care about texting and the need to move it to the cloud. Zipwhip has figured out the best experience. We’ve got 7 million users, which puts us way ahead of anyone in the industry, and is proof that users love the product.
We’ve also figured out how to monetize via our wireless operator partnerships. That will keep us healthy for the long haul. We’re super focused on texting and will continue to focus on it. As other companies shift their focus to non-texting elements, or can’t fund continued development, they will just dilute their efforts on making a world-class texting experience and/or fade away.
Zipwhip has an API included on the website for building programs- what kind of programs have been made with this?
The developer community’s imagination is broad, but I do think the coolest app we’ve seen built on top of our API is our own Textspresso machine. We use it every day at the office and it’s just incredible. We now even have Textspresso’s at the wireless operators’ offices so they too can text in for an espresso.
Beyond our own example, we had a church interacting with our developer forum today that is building a full texting ecosystem for their parishioners to all stay in touch with each other. That’s a pretty interesting use case beyond the typical silicon valley tech mainstream. We’ve got IVR companies building our API into their voice response system. We’ve got a guy text enabling his back door to let the dog out from a text message.
One of the cooler examples is that somebody is writing a cloud app using Google App Engine that will watch all of your texts via our API and if somebody sends the word “card” to your phone, it will auto reflect back your business card in the form of an MMS message including your logo, your business name, address, and email. The great thing here is that our API is for your existing mobile number, or even your existing landline or toll-free. That’s never been possible before and so the apps are quite unique.
What has been the general response to Zipwhip?
People love it. What’s a really interesting piece of data is that once people install our desktop app, they read 42% of their texts on their desktop. Obviously prior to that they were reading 100% of texts on their phone. That’s a huge shift in behavior. The other interesting data point is that your texting traffic goes up by 12% on average once you’ve adopted Zipwhip into your life. Why is that? Our theory is that it’s soooo much easier to reply to texts from your desktop that you simply do more of it. We have found at Zipwhip that none of us Skype with each other anymore. We just text each other.
What do you plan to add to Zipwhip in the future? Could we see something like a Growl extension? Mavericks is adding support for interactive notifications- would Zipwhip support that?
Zipwhip is going to continue to stay focused on an amazing cloud texting experience. We recently added landline and toll-free texting support. So you’ll see more and more businesses supporting texting. This is really a revolution for all of us. It will soon become the norm when you see a TV commercial with a toll-free number in it, that it will say “Call or text” below the number.
With respect to Growl or Mavericks, we’re really big on experience. We think a text message is a high-priority message. Growl and Mavericks are generally about that too, but there’s more to a text than just the notification. We believe deep in our souls that communication software should reflect the cultural rules of your communication medium. Therefore we need to build our own interfaces because something like Growl will never have the features that let us perfectly reflect the cultural rules.
So, for example, in our desktop app you can simply swipe your mouse across a message bubble to mark it as read. That message gets marked as read everywhere in your life, including on your phone. That’s a big deal. We fight every day to keep those messages read. If we make it hard to do that from our software, we’ve failed on experience.
Inline replying is a big deal as well. Texting is about being fast. It’s even why our name is Zipwhip. It’s a combination of two words synonymous with fast. If you can’t reply the moment you see a text, you actually get frustrated and even angry. Using alternate alert interfaces that stop you from replying just won’t work for us. So we’ll continue to put the extra work into solving every nuance of a text message. Somebody has to.
[Quotations edited for grammar.]