Getting out of a Tele-Rut

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here.

America’s reaction to voice texting surprises me, but it shouldn’t.

Since Apple announced that they were adding the ability to send voice messages as part of their text messaging system, I have watched a continual stream of editorials lambasting this and questioning the need. Many wonder why Apple is doing this. Some argue that there is no need because voice recognition can convert text and listening to audio is more time consuming. There are other arguments.

This is a great example of how America is culturally divided from Asia. And, it’s an example of how provincial we are sometimes in America.

We have our email and our text messaging and we’re busy integrating “everything” with “Unified messaging” in our new IP PBXs. That’s our view of the future.

Something around 800 million Asians do most of their communications primarily using text messaging, including voice messaging. This is a staggering number of people using a medium that replaces phone calls, traditional voice mail, and emails…the primary communications methods we are almost exclusively focused on.

Business and personal communications happen walkie-talkie style using voice/text messaging (“chat”) all day long. People are holding two to twenty concurrent, asynchronous conversations using chat. Deals are negotiated, romances secured, and student/teacher communications happen this way more than any other.

I think there are two primary reasons for the rise of chat.

First is that it is asynchronous. You communicate when you have moments of time, so you can be productive in a 15-second idle moment on your way from the bathroom back to the meeting. You are basically working through a queue of communications where you are responding as you can to each.

Second I think is deeper: Asian languages are “high context.” This is different from English. What this means (in simplified terms) is that you can pick up a previous conversation without a lot of re-introduction of the topic. In English we say a lot of words like “Remember when we were talking about XYZ yesterday and you said…” In Asian languages you don’t do any of that because every conversation thread remains open indefinitely. So, chat is just a natural think to extend these verbal conversation threads.

(Cultural note: One of the movies I love is “Lost in Translation.” There is a scene where Bill Murray is talking with the Japanese through a translator and he says a few simple things and when translated into Japanese it takes forever because the translator must use so many words. The implication is that Japanese (and Asian languages) are hugely inefficient compared with English. In fact, the opposite can be true. Look at a contract written in Chinese and translated into English and the English version will almost always be significantly longer.)

Back to chat and Apple…

The inclusion of voice texting in Apple’s iMessage is hugely important. It demonstrates that Apple is acutely sensitive to the needs of their Chinese and Asian customers. Apple recognizes that their needs are not identical to American needs. The addition of voice chatting to iMessage is certainly the most important feature for the Asian market.

Now, I mention all of this because I use WeChat, which is the most popular chatting service on earth (I know you have never heard of it, but it has two or three more times the number of people using it as America has people.) I find WeChat to be easy and productive. It’s great to be walkie-talky talking in many threads at once. And, with the group feature a group can be chattering together on a topic.

So I think we should quit slamming the voice message feature Apple announced and give it a try. And, as we think about “Unified messaging” and the future of telecommunications we need to keep an open mind. The future probably doesn’t revolve around twisted copper pairs, PBXs, Voice Mail systems, or even Unified Messaging.

And, while were at it, we should steal a few good ideas from around the world. Voice chatting is one of them. What are your plans for it?