THE BLOG

Over-The-Top Is Coming to Take Your Voice

01/06/2015 16:10 BST | Updated 01/06/2016 10:59 BST

Tech giants have recently made a startling discovery. One so profound that they believe it will change the industry for ever. It is the long-buried secret to eternal tech success: 'People like to talk to each other. And they like to do it for free'.

Let's put this revelation in context. VoIP technology is more than 20 years old and the first consumer application was introduced in 2006. This is not new technology or a new concept. But, still, there are tech companies out there that appear to have only just discovered it exists. This has turned OTT voice into the new battle ground in the so-called global tech war. Internet giants like Google, Facebook and Apple are suddenly desperate to grab users in this 'new' market.

But why has it taken them so long to realise that people like to talk to each other, preferably for free? I think the answer lies partly in the emerging markets.

Ever since the introduction of the internet, tech giants have regarded it, primarily, as Western technology used by people living in the West. They have created Internet products largely with a Western audience and their cultural habits in mind. The companies thought that messaging by text on social platforms was what users wanted - and in the West, largely, it has been. (Although, even in the West, there is a resurgence in good old-fashioned voice conversation.)

But in the fastest growing regions of the world voice remains the most popular means of social interaction and the primary way of doing business. If you have visited India you will know that small businesses - which will contribute the lion's share of GDP growth in the country over the next decade and beyond - do not list Twitter handles, web addresses or even email addresses on their shutters. In India it is telephone numbers that are 'king'. That is the way most small business owners across India, Asia and Africa communicate - and it's unlikely to change any time soon.

What does this means for the tech industry? As an investor with decades of experience in the sector, I've seen the industry do a something of a 'double take' over the last year. Growth is slowing in the West on multiple fronts: on one hand, macroeconomic trends do not play in their favour; growth in the West is likely to be in the low single digits for at least the next decade-or-so. On the other hand, many Western users are tiring of social networks - sometimes due to privacy concerns - and leaving them completely. According to Piper Jaffray, the proportion of teens using Facebook fell from 72 per cent to 45 per cent between Spring 2014 and Autumn 2014. That sounds like a crisis.

Suddenly these companies need to expand, and they've started to look East towards Asia and the boom regions where voice calling rules. Now the penny has dropped, tech giants - who have largely ignored VoIP platforms - are scrambling to launch products. Facebook acquired WhatsApp, and rushed to launch a calling service on the platform; a direct response to the need for free voice calling in emerging markets. Google has recently launched Project Fi to replace Google Voice.

There is, of course, another reason why tech companies have started battling over voice too: data. VoIP platforms can mine useful data that just isn't available on other forms of communication. Data such as call times, call length and most regular contacts is of particular interest to the big tech players, especially Facebook. With this information you can build lots of interesting and valuable tools that can help people manage their 'verbal' social life better.

The tech giants are only just starting to recognise what they can potentially offer to their customers - and by offering their users new services they hope to tie them into their existing social networks.

But, as I said, this territory isn't new. Companies like New Call Telecom have been operating in the voice sector for many years; we also know the market and its challenges better, and in great detail maybe, than those who are only now entering the fray. We've built up valuable knowledge on how to build voice products that people want to use and can use reliably in spite of technological constraints in emerging markets.

Take India for example. My company develops apps and telecoms solutions in Asia for Asian users. We recently launched Holaa in India, a call management app, which offers users advanced voice calling and features such as spam blocking and additional information about callers; both features, which reflect the needs of the local user. And the app is growing rapidly. Its adoption has been primarily driven by the fact its features fit with the local market need. We have exactly addressed an issue for hundreds of millions of consumers not only in India but in many other emerging markets too.

It's now clear that voice calling in emerging markets is the next big tech battle ground. But I'm not convinced that the giants will have this terrain all to themselves. The outcome will not depend on who can grab the most customers in emerging markets. Rather, it's going to be about who can retain those customers long term. And in my view, it's the local companies with in-country teams that will ultimately win the war.