Building communications apps with PaaS – Part 1

Posted on February 10, 2016 by Andrea Mocherman

The digital era has given rise to endless possibilities in how we communicate and collaborate with one another. But to realize those possibilities, developers need a faster, easier way to deliver the right communications experience. They need programmatic access to telecom resources that facilitate speed to market while delivering flawless performance and immediate and direct control necessary to build the innovative apps and services the world demands.

Currently, there are two models outside of traditional telecom available to developers looking to integrate voice and messaging into their apps and services. The merits of each one are context dependent. One favors initial speed to market with little investment while the other requires a time investment upfront in exchange for greater control and better cost performance.

Software and traditional telecom don’t mix.

Answering demand for highly specialized communication services necessitates connection agility. The physical infrastructure of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) does not scale easily, and regulatory structure does not facilitate innovation. Interoperation can take months, or years to iron out. And if you don’t have three decades of experience building connections to the PSTN, forget about it.

For various reasons, traditional carriers are stuck with a model built with old technology when those carriers were monopolies. In contrast, applications that are quickly reinventing how humanity connects and communicates (Skype, WhatsApp, Uber, and Airbnb) grow out of the philosophy of competitive innovation that is the cornerstone of software development.

Even as software and telecom work toward the similar goal of connecting the masses, the two technologies are at odds. It’s difficult for software developers to navigate and integrate with networks and companies not engineered for programmatic access. Similarly it is a struggle for legacy carriers to understand and adapt to the requirements of modern software development, which clocks development cycles in hours and days as opposed to months and years.

Enter the two alternatives to traditional carriers. One a mediator, the other a conduit for the transfer of power.

PaaS mediates between carriers and innovators

Twilio, Plivo, Tropo (acquired by Cisco), and others are telecommunications platforms that pre-package communications functionality as a service to developers. They are SaaS providers of development environments and operators of telecom infrastructure but they aren’t carriers. PaaS providers invest in their respective development environments and work with multiple carriers to offer true calling and messaging services. They’re aggregators of wholesale services from one or more carriers. Anyone building voice and messaging into applications has likely settled on, or at least evaluated, a PaaS provider to simplify the integration of voice and messaging.

PaaS offers easy plug-ins that strip away the complexity of acquiring call routes and phone numbers, and managing SMS delivery. These alternative service providers are perfect for those with very short deadlines and developers who do not expect their applications to immediately scale to large volumes. Basic voice and messaging applications with well known functionality are good candidates for PaaS providers.

While PaaS providers deliver simplicity, they limit flexibility and control to serve many customers from the same infrastructure and to simplify their development and operational challenges.They control the platform and its capabilities enabling them to serve a vast number of straightforward applications.

When pre-existing functionality packages do not deliver the necessary control and transparency, developers move on from PaaS-based communications. If you need specific call or text data to bring your idea to life, and it’s hidden under the platform, you will need to find a different telecom carrier. Likewise, if your audience swells, PaaS pricing models can often impact profitability.  That’s why startup FastCustomer switched when their Twilio bill hit $500/ day before they’d even started making any money.

The hunt for connection control

It’s hard to find a provider or platform that allows a full view of what’s behind the curtain. Carriers still do business on the premise that openness and APIs serve a niche market. They also believe that they will bring innovative solutions to market, but they systematically underinvest in these areas because they are forced to remain focused on their primary, declining revenue streams. Carriers serve modern communications better when they remove barriers to transparency and control, but most carriers are run by people who seek to differentiate playing an innovation game they can only lose.

PaaS providers are the gateway to a world of real connection control in the hands of app developers. The limitations Platforms place are not a big deal for many developers and in that way these providers are helping drag telecommunication into the modern era. But the limitations imposed because they aren’t carriers and because their service begs the addition of another option to the market.

The search for total control of communications services is not in vain. A viable solution via a private hosted model will be presented in Part 2 of this series.