Slydial Users Pass 1 Million Messages; We Test New Slydial iPhone App, Which Isn’t Always So Sly

Back in July I wrote two somewhat skeptical stories about Slydial, the free service that lets you leave voicemail messages for cell-phone users without causing their phones to ring. My problem wasn’t with the technology itself, but with the misanthropic way that MobileSphere, the Boston company that created Slydial, was marketing it. They were promoting it as the perfect solution for those times when you have to call someone, but you don’t really want to talk with them. In the company’s own words: “Slydial provides the illusion of communication without the hassle of engaging in a time-consuming conversation.”

Well, it turns out that a lot of people are misanthropes. Either that, or Slydial has stumbled upon an unexpectedly useful new variation on the old technology of telephony. Since Slydial’s July launch, users have sent just over a million Slydial messages via its free, ad-supported service at 1-267-SLY-DIAL, the company announced Monday. That growth has come exclusively through word of mouth and public relations: the company hasn’t spent a dime on advertising, according to Gavin Macomber, MobileSphere’s executive vice president for marketing and business development.

The company believes that it’s hit a nerve with the service. “Just based on the response from our customers in the last three months, we think voice messaging is going to be huge,” Macomber told me this morning. “When we spoke back in July, there was a lot of ‘Hey, this is a great way to break up with your girlfriend’ going around, and sure, the name of the service is Slydial. But it’s also become a really practical and efficient way to communicate with somebody.” For example, many users have told MobileSphere that they turn to Slydial in situations where it would be difficult or dangerous to send a text message, such as when they’re driving, Macomber says.

Slydial iPhone AppTo make sending “sly” messages even easier, MobileSphere also announced this week that it has created three dedicated Slydial applications—one each for the Apple iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry line, and Windows Mobile phones. The applications let users initiate Slydial calls just by clicking on a name in their phones’ built-in contact lists—so they don’t have to remember the recipient’s phone number.

“All of those first one million calls were made by people using the 267-SLY-DIAL number, then, at the prompts, manually entering the recipients’ mobile number,” says Macomber. “But at the end of the day, it’s a slightly cumbersome process. That’s what the mobile apps are meant to address. If you’re a Windows Mobile, iPhone, or Blackberry user you can go into your address book in one simple step and voice-message somebody.”

You can download the Windows Mobile and Blackberry versions of the software after signing up for a “MySlydial” account here. The Slydial iPhone app isn’t available from the iTunes App Store yet (which is a saga unto itself—see below), but I was able to get the app directly from MobileSphere and test it out. It works exactly as advertised. I was able to use the app to leave messages for several people in my iPhone’s address book.

But as with the regular Slydial service, you still have to listen to a 10-second audio advertisement before your call is put through. And the system isn’t foolproof: if you really don’t want to interrupt someone, or if you don’t want them to know that you called until they notice that they have gotten voicemail, you should be aware that calling someone via Slydial sometimes causes their phone to ring once, depending on which cellular network they use.

Every time I used the iPhone Slydial app to call Rebecca’s T-mobile phone, for example, her phone rang briefly—too quickly for her to answer it, but giving me away nonetheless. [Editor’s note: Dude, knock it off!] But when I called Bob’s Verizon phone, my call went directly to his voicemail, without making his phone ring.

Those differences result from the fact that the major wireless operators all use different voicemail technologies. (Even within networks, systems vary from region to region. That’s why a Verizon subscriber in Boston can forward a voice-mail message to another Verizon user in Boston, but not to a Verizon user in New York.) But these incompatibilities are exactly what created the market opportunity for Slydial—there’s no other way to leave direct voice messages across networks.

Macomber says MobileSphere is considering several enhancements for the service, such as the ability to send a single voicemail to multiple recipients (the canonical example of group messaging: notifying everyone on your kid’s soccer team that the game has been canceled due to rain). The company is also in preliminary discussions with wireless companies about licensing white-label versions of the system that cellular subscribers could tap into directly through their operators.

“With these new mobile apps, we think voice messaging is going to take off the same way that SMS text messaging took off after the advent of phones with full QWERTY keyboards,” Macomber says. “It becomes much easier to send a text message when you don’t have to triple-tap but can crank out a message on a full keyboard. Similarly, with our apps you can instantly voice-message somebody.”

“The big question around here is, how big can voice messaging get? I don’t think it’s ever going to replace SMS or be as heavily used. But if people are sending 300 text messages a month today”—which is the average figure among cell-phone users, according to the CTIA wireless trade group—“they may well send 30 voice messages a month a few years down the road.” That’s lots of audio ads for MobileSphere to sell—and at rates well above those that online publishers get for Web ads.

Now if Apple would just add the Slydial app to the iTunes App Store. It’s becoming a familiar story: developers submit their finished apps to Apple, only to see them disappear into a seeming black hole. That’s the situation MobileSphere’s been in for several weeks, according to Macomber.

“It’s frustrating, but we’ve heard this has been happening to numerous companies,” says Macomber. “We got a very strong indication weeks ago” that the Slydial app was about to be published in the iTunes App Store, he says. “Then we were told for a couple of weeks straight that it was going to be published ‘any day now.’ It makes it tough when you’re trying to time a PR campaign around a new app.”

At least MobileSphere is in good company: No less a player than Google ran into the same problem last weekend. The company announced its upgraded voice-driven Google Mobile App for the iPhone to wide acclaim last Thursday, and users rushed to the App Store on Friday, only to find that Apple hadn’t replaced the old Google app with the new one. Same story on Saturday and Sunday. By Monday, some users were able to download the Google app, and it finally made its official appearance today.

Macomber says he’s optimistic that Slydial iPhone app will follow Google’s app into the App Store “any day now.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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