Thrutu Reinvents the Phone Call, Letting Smartphone Users Share Photos, Contacts, Location In-Call

3/3/11Follow @wroush

When you think about it, the experience of talking on the phone hasn’t changed all that much since the world’s first telephone call in 1876 (Alexander Graham Bell’s famous “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you”). The underlying technology is completely different, of course, and today we can make calls from almost anywhere thanks to wireless networks. But at its root, a phone call is still just a two-way audio transmission.

Now Thrutu, a Sequoia Capital-backed startup in Palo Alto, CA, is trying to shake up that tradition a bit. The company has created a new application for Android phones—soon to be available on iPhones and BlackBerry devices as well—that lets users share data during a voice call without switching between apps. In its first release, the app can handle three types of information: photos, contact details, and the sender’s location on a map. But in future releases, according to the company, users will also be able to share live video, play games, and exchange other data such as social media updates.

“We have this vision that for voice to stay relevant, it has to be much more tightly integrated with other communications experiences,” says Chris Mairs, Thrutu’s chief technology officer. The startup is a subsidiary of Metaswitch, a London, UK-based maker of hardware and software for wireless carriers that Mairs co-founded in 1981. “There has been this barrier between the voice aspects of telephony and the data aspects, and we now have devices that will do both, but they’re still in two halves. We are bringing the two halves together.”

The Thrutu app consists of a small group of buttons that slide onto an Android phone’s screen during a phone call; they look as if they’re layered on top of the phone’s regular dialer app. By clicking the photo button during a call, you can snap a photo with your smartphone’s camera, and the shot will be instantly transmitted to the other caller’s screen and saved in the device’s photo gallery, all without interrupting the voice connection. Sending a saved photo, address-book contact details, or map coordinates works similarly. You could do some of these things via e-mail or SMS on an iPhone, but it would mean bringing up other apps while the person you’re talking to waits.

Both parties on a call need to have the Thrutu app installed and running in the background for the service to work—which gives users a strong reason to recommend the app to their friends. Bump, another app now used by more than 25 million iPhone and Android users to share data between devices, benefited from the same sort of viral distribution. And in fact, Mairs says “Bump is like Thrutu without voice.”

Thrutu obviously isn’t the first mobile app to mix audio with other media in real time. Skype’s apps allow two-way video calls on iPhones and Android phones, as does the FaceTime feature on the iPhone 4 (and, soon, the iPad 2). But the Thrutu experience is different. First off, Thrutu really is the first app that lets users send data while they’re conducting a call over a wireless carrier’s traditional voice network. On GSM-based networks like AT&T’s, the app does this by accessing a 3G data channel; on CDMA-based networks like Verizon’s or Sprint’s, which don’t allow simultaneous voice and data transmissions, users have to be within range of a Wi-Fi network.

In addition, Thrutu is intended for more casual situations than video calling apps. “The contexts where people are really happy doing video calls are few and far between; they’re rarely spontaneous,” says Thrutu vice president Liz Rice, who formerly worked at Skype. “It’s much more of a prepared thing, like a Thursday evening call with the grandkids. People worry about … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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