Push-To-Talk Lives! Where a 90s Technology Fits in Today’s Unified Communications Landscape

It’s funny how a little danger can bring people together and spark a conversation.

Early last week, I was on an American Airlines flight from SFO to Charlotte, on my way to International Avaya Users Group (IAUG) Converge 2013 in Orlando.

Busy with work, I ignored the 50-something lady next to me (to be fair, it was mutual). Not until we neared Charlotte, when the plane started bumping, and my stomach started jumping. To take my mind off my rising nausea, I started making small talk, and soon found out that she was a former CTO of a billion-dollar pharmaceuticals company who had switched over to consulting biotech startups and was now headed to a biomedical conference in Atlanta.
Somehow we ended up reminiscing about mid-90s cellphones like the Motorola StarTac, during which she confessed that while iPhones like the one she carried were nice and all, the feature she really missed was Push-To-Talk.
This was the feature that turns your cellphone into a walkie-talkie or CB radio. If you were like me and grew up in the 70s during the heyday of TV shows like BJ and the Bear and CHIPS, you probably fell for the manly glamour of CB radio-using truckers and walkie-talkie-using motorcycle cops like I did.
Push To Talk Lives! Where a 90s Technology Fits in Todays Unified Communications Landscape image cb radio3
 
Or maybe it was just the awesome marketing.
Though I was a certified fanboy as a kid, I never actually used Push-To-Talk as an adult. Something about never having been a construction worker or stadium usher, I guess.
But my seatmate told me that she used PTT all of the time, as it was the quickest way to reach her family for short conversations. Sorta like texting, but without annoying AutoCorrect. Her question to me: could she still get PTT?
I didn’t really know, though that didn’t stop me from misguidedly mansplaining, anyway. I said I thought PTT was probably dead for several reasons. First, while Push-To-Talk was a popular feature in certain professions, it had never really caught on with the mainstream. That was why Sprint had purchased Nextel in 2004, the U.S. carrier most closely identified with PTT, and not vice-versa.
Also, I said that Nextel’s PTT relied on a communications technology developed by Motorola called iDEN that only worked with a particular bit of spectrum – a frequency range that had probably become overcrowded years ago and was unlikely to be released by the U.S. government again.
Finally, I resisted saying this, but I was thinking: in the age of supercomputers-in-your-pocket, what consumers or businesspeople would want to use a crude, half-duplex (i.e. semi-real-time) communications medium like PTT?
Turns out, a lot more people than my tiny brain could imagine. The three largest U.S. carriers are all now in the PTT game. While Sprint is shuttering the old Nextel PTT network, it is in the midst of trying to move all of those users over to Android smartphones running on its new mainstream service, Sprint Direct Connect. 
Verizon has been trying to steal those users since it began offering PTT-enabled BlackBerries three years ago. But the bigger threat to Sprint is AT&T. Besides PTT-enabled Android smartphones, AT&T is readying PTT-enabled iPhones running on its latest-generation LTE network. According to AllThingsD:
Push To Talk Lives! Where a 90s Technology Fits in Todays Unified Communications Landscape image attptt2
AT&T is hoping this will offer the sweet spot of business collaborative capabilities inside a consumer-friendly package.
Having seen all of this, I’m now convinced that Push-To-Talk has a long future as a business tool. Sure, texting, Twitter, video conferencing, etc. are all growing and becoming more mainstream. But for many settings and industries, convenience, speed and freedom from toypos are all that consumers and businesspeople want and need. And I have no doubt that WebRTC will enable the creation of dozens of PTT-like apps. Though considering PTT’s strong industrial heritage, I would argue that PTT app developers should consider a more enterprise-oriented platform.
Any readers out there still using PTT? What industry are you in? And are you considering switching services? 

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Comments: 1

  • Tom McGuire says:

    I was just talking about PTT a few days ago with some colleagues and that it is all of a sudden (well sort of, it never went away and isn’t a hot topic yet right now) en vogue again. While a PTT policy isn’t necessarily forthcoming at our company, there is enough interest in it to keep it alive and well. I for one would use, and did use back in my contracting days with Nextel, it if others in my company also had the feature on their mobile device.

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