Disrupting the walkie-talkie world with an app
By Benjamin Cher December 23, 2015
- Voice Ping looking to do better than the Motorola PTT system
- App-based solution for industries from hospitality to oil & gas
PUSH-to-talk (PTT) devices, more commonly known as walkie-talkies, are synonymous with emergency and security services the world over.
Yet this domain has been held captive by a single institution for a long time, as Zhou Wenhan, chief executive officer and founder of Voice Ping, discovered while at Singaporean development house 2359 Media.
“A couple of years ago, Singtel (Singapore Telecommunications Ltd) asked us to create a PTT solution, which we could not do at that time.
“So we gave them a competing app, which did not work very well,” he says, speaking to Digital News Asia (DNA) in Singapore recently.
“The current Motorola system is pretty good, it’s reliable, the device is specifically built for PTT,” he says, adding that this makes it a real challenge for app-based solutions to overcome.
“An app can only bring you so far – being able to push a button to talk is constrained by the operating system.
“That has been the state for the last two to three years – the app can be good, but people still have to open the app to use it, defeating its purpose,” Zhou says.
Besides the operating system, there are hardware issues.
“The speaker is key – most walkie-talkies have pretty good speakers, but most smartphones don’t.
“That’s what we understood we had to overcome – the Motorola system exists as a high barrier to entry into the market,” says Zhou.
Voice Ping thus had its work cut out for it in designing the software, while finding a smartphone with the right hardware requirements.
“That was the hard part, providing a complete solution to the customer,” Zhou says, adding that Voice Ping is still currently fully owned by 2359 Media.
2359 Media had been at it a few times before starting Voice Ping, beginning with Singtel’s request for a PTT solution, according to Zhou (pic above).
“After a year, we decided to try again. We got to a technical prototype, which proves that what we built was faster than the competing app.
Starting Voice Ping was part of the framework for projects to spin off, according to Zhou, and the budget was in place to do it.
Following the successful software development, Voice Ping proceeded to trials, where it discovered the hardware and technical issues, according to Zhou.
“We got to trials pretty fast because customers were eager for it,” he declares, saying that when Voice Ping established its website in February, he was inundated with calls from interested customers asking for trials.
“Customers commented that the button works differently from the usual Motorola device, because they had to turn on the screen of the smartphone and open the app,” Zhou says.
“They also told us our speaker was not loud enough – we were using a cheaper Samsung phone then, and within the one-week trial, we quickly found out what we needed to fix,” he says, adding that having this active customer feedback was useful in zeroing in on areas that Voice Ping needed to fix.
Finding a target market
Despite the walkie-talkie’s ubiquity, narrowing down the target market for the Voice Ping app was a challenge by itself, according to Zhou.
“Initially, when we started this project, we didn’t know what the target market was.
“We just thought that if we could replace existing [Singtel] subscribers, that would be enough for us,” he says.
Zhou had to go and find out who exactly was using PTT systems – he discovered that there were a lot of them.
“Honestly before this, I had never seen this system and I didn’t know how it works – I didn’t make the link that there were many people using it,” he admits.
While Singtel sold the original PTT solution to the hospitality industry, that is only a small segment of the market, Zhou believes.
“When I looked at the Motorola system, I realised it was antiquated and we could do a lot better – even when we didn’t have a clear idea of what to do better,” he says.
Zhou even found a hospitality customer that was frustrated with the Motorola system and wanted a change, “mainly because they wanted their housekeepers to have another application – customer demand is the main motivation for this project,” he says.
“I can see that there is a lot of pent-up frustration with the current system, but no one has been able to match it and bring it further,” he adds.
While the current system is tough competition, Zhou says he is motivated by the fact that his customers are amazed by simple functions like sending a text message or making a phone call through the Voice Ping app.
Building the product
The official product was only fully conceived in late September, with just the app and website available since February. This official product integrates a connection plan, the phone, and the software.
Customers buy the device and sign up for a monthly subscription.
“This is unique only to Singapore because we are competing with the Motorola system,” Zhou says.
“In other parts of the world, our competitors don’t do the hardware or connection plans – you bring your own device and download their apps,” he adds.
This kind of an environment affects the end product, according to Zhou, which led to Voice Ping designing a fully integrated product.
“Like in Malaysia, there is nothing like this, and customers don’t know they can use walkie-talkies nationwide,” he says.
Customer interest for Voice Ping has been global, especially in countries where the Motorola system exists, Zhou claims, adding that he has gotten “quite a lot of requests from Mexico.”
Tackling the market
Now that Voice Ping has gone beyond an app, distribution is key. “We need distribution partners who will bring the products overseas, educate the customers about it, and do some training,” Zhou says.
“It’s a very different business from a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) company,” he adds.
The startup will be focused on customer growth in Singapore for the next six to 12 months, but is also looking for distributors in other countries.
“Singapore is only that big – Hilton is opening 10 hotels in Indonesia in the next 12 months, and that’s just one brand alone,” Zhou says.
“The opportunities are much bigger overseas and walkie-talkies are much more expensive than phones,” he adds.
As for the team, Voice Ping is currently only four-persons strong, and will be looking to hire more sales and marketing personnel.
“I’d be interested to hire someone if they can solve my problem of sales and marketing in Singapore,” Zhou declares.
Voice Ping is also on the fence when it comes to external funding.
“I need an investor who can give good advice on overseas distribution – getting more cash is not a key concern,” Zhou says.
“Hardware distribution is something many have no experience in, and so far I have not seen a good fit,” he adds.
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