'The phone is stupid, so let's make it smarter with software'

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson talks about how APIs and modern application development can improve communications.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor
Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.
Image: Twilio
Offering telecom services to developers through a set of APIs (application program interfaces), Twilio is one of the success stories in its arena. Boasting over 700,000 developers using its services, it has provisioned enough numbers to be the second largest telecoms company in the US, and supports a rapidly growing number of transactions.

Earlier this summer at Twilio's Signal conference, I sat down with company CEO Jeff Lawson to talk about how he saw application development changing, and his company's role in the new world of service-based development.

As Lawson points out, the interaction models we use for telephony have changed very little. "The first telephone arrived almost 150 years ago, and how we interact has changed very little. The phone is still stupid, and while we've gone from rotary dialing to the number pad, context is lost on the old network," he said.

Lawson firmly believes that the future of communications and software is in understanding user context and using that to build better applications. "The context of our lives is in software, and if we use it to reshape communications, it's time now to make things better as well," he explained.

Twilio's APIs are key here, as they're intended to allow developers to blend communications into their apps. Lawson sees a future where the current generation of monolithic applications are broken up, adding new communication layers. High level APIs like WebRTC mean it's now easy to add video to applications, and Twilio is adding support for it (and related network traversal tools) to its SDKs. "We're building a cloud-scale communications platform," he said, "and it's orders of magnitude cheaper."

Lawson pointed out how services like Twilio's are changing the way telecoms services and applications are built and run. "In the old world American Express had 8,000 agents, delivering 100 million interactions annually. In the new companies like Uber have 200,000 agents, and two billion interactions."

What Lawson is charting is the end of the traditional call center, with the cloud offering distributed services that can be routed anywhere in the world. If an operator in London is busy, a call can be sent to a phone in Dublin, or Auckland, or Kansas City, along with the context of the caller, allowing an agent working at home to respond quickly and efficiently, with no need for an expensive telecoms infrastructure. The caller will never know that the agent they're talking to is using a web app running on their PC, or on their smartphone.

Lawson points to what Twilio calls its "Hall of Doers" as an example of how APIs change things.

Winners this year included a high school hackathon winner, a transgender support hotline with 70 trained volunteer operators, a tool to support the hearing impaired, and a browser that uses SMS to transfer data, bringing the web to places without wireless internet.

Twilio's own services have expanded beyond voice and SMS, as Lawson notes, "Authy's been part of Twilio since February. It's a two-factor authentications system that we're bringing to consumers everywhere. We work with developers to give them a UI, and have two apps. One sends a one-time password over SMS, the other is a soft token: 11,000 apps are already using the service."

That's going to be followed up with a new flexible authentication tool, Authy OneTouch. Here a device is partnered with a server, and when you log in to an application, you automatically get a token on your device - you just click to authorize access.

A key element of Lawson's thinking is the move to microservices, with new architectures that let developers aggregate elements.

Here services become the building blocks, letting us build our applications. He suggests that it's a new wave of infrastructure thinking. The first wave, 'Infrastructure 1.0', is where most businesses are, thinking about metrics, deployment, discovery, messaging, and API contracts.

The current wave, Lawson's 'Infrastructure 2.0', which is driving cloud development, is one where there's a move to NoSQL key/value storage and containers.

The end state, 'Infrastructure 3.0', is where, as Lawson said, "Everything is programmable; we're able to build things we never could before: secure, predictable, fault tolerant, scalable, cost control."

As he points out, it's an approach that lets you make mistakes: "You can just try again."

Lawson expects modern architectures and applications to be data driven, with a deeper understanding of statistical models.

"You'll instrument everything, put everything in logs. You'll expect a distribution of performance, and will be able to understand the whole distribution. You won't think in single failures, won't treat failures as an exception," he explained.

Then there are new security models. "Encrypt everything," Lawson said. "The tools are there, use them."

Modern architectures are controllable, adaptive, data-driven, and above all, resilient.

For the user the biggest change is one of the simplest. "You used to have a separate computer and phone. They are finally one."

That opens new doors around contextual communications, removing the separation between communication and application. "In the app, you're already authenticated," Lawson noted. "And at the end of the day, customers want seamless interactions, so just talk to an agent in the app."

Getting to the right person is key to this, and Lawson uses the example of Porch, a home maintenance application built using Twilio's SDKs. "It sends the details as part of the call to a contractor, so the call is in context of the query, and you're talking direct to the person who is helping you. You don't have to be sitting in a call center to talk to someone, applications like these turn employees into communications endpoints."

"This way of communicating is becoming more and more common," Lawson says. "Embedded in the application it stops being separate." Building around tools like Twilio simplifies development. By using an API, you're dealing with a solved problem, "We're solving at scale, cost effectively, there's no need to do it again."

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