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 their appearance, and who they’re with. Video is one future application that could be added to Thrutu for those situations where you do want to go into video. But if you just want to share a camera shot, Thrutu is more appropriate, or if you just want to share your location.”

Sequoia Capital invested in Metaswitch in 2008. Jim Goetz, a Sequoia partner who focuses on cloud and mobile technology, says Thrutu is the end product of a decision at the company more than a year ago to move a small contingent of engineers from London to Silicon Valley, where they could be in closer touch with the community of developers that has emerged to build consumer apps for the Android and iPhone ecosystems. For a time, Sequoia’s Sand Hill Road offices served as the Metaswitch team’s incubation space.

“In Europe this team has an organization that dominates voice over IP, with an interesting history out of Oxford and Cambridge,” says Goetz. “They are voice experts, and they have built-world class voice technology that powers most voice calls through North American carriers. They looked at lots of different approaches to the market and concluded that the traditional phone call needed to be elevated, with the transition to smartphones. And they began to put a lot of energy into Thrutu, which is not only a client app, but leverages a lot of cloud technology on the back end.” In particular, Thrutu had to come up with a new so-called “sharding” mechanism for matching up two phones linked only by an active call and passing data between them over a separate Internet connection.

Goetz says it would have been difficult for a less experienced team to come up with a product like Thrutu. “The voice-over-IP ecosystem is a bit of a black art,” he says. “There are a bunch of nuanced issues that aren’t at the forefront for people who are doing iPhone or Android development, and the Thrutu team has an unfair advantage because of that. There just hasn’t been a lot of innovation around the phone call over the last decade—and certainly nothing like this.”

The Thrutu app is free to consumers, and there are no fees for sending data, beyond what cellular subscribers are already paying to their operators. But Metaswitch could earn money down the road by licensing the Thrutu software to carriers and handset makers for direct integration into handsets. “There may be ways of working with carriers where we could offer premium version of Thrutu that go beyond the pure over-the-top client,” says Mairs. “Having talked to carriers about voice and data technology in general, I think they can see a lot of synergies with what they are doing in the long term.”

In addition to the photo, contact, and location sharing functions, Thrutu has a more whimsical feature: the “prod.” It’s a button that causes the other party’s phone to vibrate. Rice describes it as “a tactile emoticon”—a way to gently jar or tease the other caller.

Thrutu is available in the Android Market starting today for phones with the Android 2.1 operating system or above. Mairs says iPhone and BlackBerry versions will be ready “well within” this calendar year—assuming the company can earn the blessings of Apple and RIM for an app that superimposes itself over a phone’s built-in dialer app. “Obviously we are thinking very carefully about the issues of how to get through the App Store approval process,” says Mairs. “We certainly believe [Thrutu] is compatible with their guidelines.”

Here’s a quick video from Thrutu explaining how the app works:

Xconomy goes the extra mile to bring you in-depth startup profiles. Compare this story to:

Thrutu Makes Phone Call Multitasking Easy (GigaOm)
Thrutu Aims to Let Android Callers Do More While on the Phone (All Things Digital)

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

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