You can add comms API merchant Twilio to the list of tech firms that have seen biz booming thanks to lockdown

'Everybody wants to build video into their apps now'

Twilio reckons COVID-19 and lockdown has driven an uptick in its business, thanks to an increased demand for cloud-hosted communications.

Founded in 2008, Twilio's cloud platform allows corporate apps to programmatically handle and route phone calls, instant messages, video chats, and other events. Its first product was an API for making and taking voice calls via its off-premises systems.

Since then acquisitions have included Authy, for managing two-factor authentication, and SendGrid, for sending emails programmatically. Its products now include Flex, a cloud platform for contact centres, and more programmable voice, video conferencing, and text messaging.

According to Twilio, the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown, and rise of work-from-home has caused companies to rethink their digital communications to keep customers and staff connected, a claim backed by a survey of 2,500 executives in companies with 500-plus employees. Nine out of ten of those polled said the pandemic had accelerated their digital communication strategy, with half saying it brought forward communication plans by five years or more, apparently.

Technology like live chat, and video and interactive voice response (IVR), may have seemed ubiquitous before the crisis, yet 35 per cent of respondents (for example) reported using live chat for the first time as a result of COVID-19, while 54 per cent increased their use of live chat. "Video has boomed. Six months ago we were still in a voice world, and now we're in a video world. Everybody wants to build video into their apps now," Twilio's Chief Customer Officer Glenn Weinstein told The Register.

Six months ago we were still in a voice world, and now we're in a video world. Everybody wants to build video into their apps now

Although the reasons for this are obvious at one level, the breakdown of reasons for the acceleration makes interesting reading, in particular the blockers that were removed. According to the survey, lockdown made it easier to get executive approval for changes, clarified strategy, accelerated replacement of legacy software, cut bureaucracy, and made available the time, skills and budget to implement changes.

Another facet of the pandemic's impact is that in 92 per cent of cases, organisations expect changes in digital communication to remain even as the world reopens. This applies both to communications with customers, and to remote working for staff. 99 per cent of respondents stated that the technology used or developed to enable remote working during the pandemic will "open up future opportunities" for remote work.

"Our customers are having to rethink their interaction model with their customers," said Weinstein. "There used to be channels like, come into the branch, come into the restaurant. Now we have to communicate with customers in a much broader set of ways, mostly digital ways."

Contact centres are an example of a sector shaken up by the virus outbreak. Pre-pandemic, "contact centres broadly were still running on-premises technology for the most part," said Weinstein. This is in contrast to the cloud transformation in other spaces, such as CRM. Lockdown forced change, an "immediate and sudden need for mass numbers of contact centre workers to work from home," he said. "Working from home is a complicated technology shift when you have on-premises telephony and on-premises technology. It's made much easier by a 100 per cent cloud based platform." The consequence, he claimed, is that we're not "going back to the era where 100 per cent of contact centre workers are expected to work in a physical call centre. So many companies have made rapid shifts."

Twilio's niche is in communications APIs rather than fully baked solutions. "We're not in competition with the Zooms and [Microsoft] Teams of the world," said Weinstein. "Twilio brings to the market the ability for enterprises to build this same level of natural communication into their applications and interaction models with customers."

Working from home is a complicated technology shift when you have on-premises telephony and on-premises technology. It's made much easier by a 100 per cent cloud based platform

There are, of course, plenty of other options. Developers can build real-time communications into applications using technology like WebSockets, or free frameworks like Microsoft's recently open-sourced Fluid Framework. The big cloud vendors also have solutions, such as Amazon's Chime SDK, which is an API for voice and video communications. Twilio has speech-to-text and text-to-speech interfaces, but does not yet compete against Google in terms of adding AI to its technology. "We've got a well-established integration with Google's contact centre AI," Weinstein said.

Using Twilio is handy for developers under pressure to get solutions implemented quickly, especially if it involves complications like interaction with other telephony systems. In its latest quarterly figures, the three months the end of June 2020, the company's revenue was 46 per cent up year-on-year to $400.8m – though it made a loss from operations of $102.6m.

A recent deal with Deloitte Digital is intended to increase its reach into enterprises. The question will be whether it can continue to stay ahead and add value as these services become increasingly commoditised. ®

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