Thursday, October 1, 2020

Twilio SIGNAL Conference

The Twilio SIGNAL virtual customers and developer conference has just finished and I would like to capture my impressions while they are still fresh.

I wrote about WebRTC back in 2012 and the Twilio conference was a great opportunity to check how much the industry has advanced in 8 years. I found familiar WebRTC terminology in Twilio’s Programmable Voice and Programmable Video offerings but Twilio has built a lot of functions on top of WebRTC, and now provides sophisticated APIs for developers to build voice and video applications quickly. It supports various programming languages on the application side and on the client side. Most of the implementation examples I came across were about adding voice and video capabilities to specific vertical industry applications in healthcare, finance, etc. and not about building complete collaboration applications on top of the Twilio APIs.

Many applications for the Twilio technology are not even related to voice and video but rather use Programmable Messaging (as in SMS) and Programmable Chat. The whole messaging business has been booming ever since we all started using SMS for two-factor user authentication and resetting passwords. We now can subscribe to SMS notifications for pretty much everything - tracking packages, getting updates on flight changes, getting reminders from our doctors, etc. – and Twilio is often the engine behind the message delivery. It also looks like SMS is taking the path of email and is rapidly becoming a valuable marketing channel. Since I mentioned "email", I have to admit I did not expect much innovation in email... but I was so wrong. Twilio acquired SendGrid, a company that has innovated a lot in the email area and is today behind more than 50% of the emails delivered to Inboxes around the world. SendGrid follows the Twilio API approach to communications and rounds up the Twilio offering which now includes a full set of communication channels: Email, SMS, Chat, Voice, and Video.

Twilio is also adding functionality to allow for rapid development of more complex applications such as Contact Centers. Twilio Flex builds on top of the APIs I mentioned above and allows developers to put together a contact center of a decent complexity within days or few weeks - compared to months and sometimes years for on-premise CC deployments. But the benefit of this new (programmable) approach to contact centers goes beyond the initial deployment. Business environments change fast (think COVID), and companies have to adjust their customer engagement process quickly. Regular contact centers require lengthy redesign and charge extra for supporting new configurations while Twilio has made everything very easy to program and changes of business processes can be reflected in the CC (as well as in any voice-only, video-only, chat-only environments) by editing few lines of code. Very powerful!            

Most recently, Twilio acquired IoT company Electric Imp, and used its technology to develop firmware for micro-controllers in IOT devices. It is called Microvisor and is fully managed by Twilio; this includes regular updates of the firmware and network stack to fix vulnerabilities. Developers can now build on the Twilio APIs and focus on high-value IoT functionality. I understand that the Microvisor was made possible by the brand-new Trustzone hardware function in ARM Cortex-M processor that allows communication via a lower level encrypted communication channel... back to Twilio.

To complete the SIGNAL overview, I have to add the wonderful discussions with former President Barack Obama and with the Delta Airline CEO Ed Bastian. I was prepared for the Delta Airline story: passengers clearly need a lot of SMS and email updates to navigate frequent changes and numerus updates related to travel in times of COVID. But I was not sure about the link between Twilio and Obama… It turns out that President Obama knows a lot about the software development community and even came to Silicon Valley to look for software developer talent to help getting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) web site up and running.  He talked extensively about his approach to attracting software programmers to work on important government projects such as Social Security and Veterans Administration.

In summation, the Twilio SIGNAL conference was very well organized and highly informative. My takeaway: Everything is possible if you provide stable APIs and enable software developers to build on top of them.