Look at any picture of people working and walking anywhere in the world today and chances are most of them will be staring down at their mobile phones. According to Ericsson's latest Mobility Report there are now 3.4 billion smartphones in the world that will grow to 6.4 billion over the next six years. But are we really that "smart" if we all walk around heads-down and never talk to each other?

In fact, talking is making a comeback around the world. And, ironically, it is not because smartphones are phones--while we happily make personal calls to friends and family locally we would never dream of making a regular call to our friend in India or sister in Australia using a mobile phone--legacy telecommunications companies make this far too expensive. Which is why over a third of all global long-distance minutes run over Skype--Internet-based communication is what connects friends, family and business colleagues around the world today.

The latest innovation in global communications is to directly embed voice and video into other applications so it is easily available when you need it without having to go to a completely separate application. This has started with the big guys--Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and SnapChat, and indeed most consumer messaging applications today are embedding click-to-talk and click-to-video right into the application. One minute you are sending text messages, pictures and links to exciting events--the next minute you just press a button and you are talking and videoing to the same person anywhere in the world. This is quick and easy, so even teenagers are talking again! Microsoft's acquisition of Skype to embed it right into its office and unified communications platform, now "Skype for Business", is an example of this trend in the business market, and Amazon's "Mayday button", providing voice and video help on its Fire devices, is an example in the e-commerce space.

So here are the steps to take advantage of these communication trends for your own business.

Have a Mobile Application Strategy for your Business

You need to decide whether your business needs its own mobile or web applications or whether you can just ride on top of Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for most of your customer interactions. If your website is more of an advert or if you sell physical products through distribution channels, then maybe a social media strategy leveraging major platforms is right for you. But notice that customers will now expect you to respond to their posts, complaints and, going forward, voice and video calls directly from these platforms!

If you have an e-commerce part of your business or sell software or directly deliver information, services and online customer experiences--then you need a comprehensive mobile application strategy. You have to decide whether to rely on website applications optimized for mobile browsers or whether to build rich mobile applications for Apple and Android devices, which is what industry disruptors like Uber and Airbnb have done. Today, there are lots of industry-focused consultants and toolkits to help accelerate delivering branded business apps that are right for you. When even your local library has an app, you have to start wondering if your customers need and expect a rich app "portal" into your own business.

Understand Context

The key benefit of embedding click-to-call and click-to-video directly into mobile applications is "context". Within an app or web journey you know exactly who the customer is and everything they have been doing. The customer does not have to look up numbers or contact links and then pick up a phone and start all over again. They just click a button. And your business does not have to ask the customer who they are and what they want--you already know this from what they did before they clicked the button. However, you don't benefit from your own app context if you don't offer any integrated communications and users have to switch to Facebook or something else to talk to you.

For some businesses your apps are "social"--you are connecting people together so rather than talking to you, they talk to each other. A key part of the Uber and Airbnb apps is connecting the right people together. An interesting example of click-to-talk in a social-type app is HelloTalk, which connects over 2 million people together worldwide to learn new languages. The app has chat with dictionaries, translation between languages, grammar checking and pronunciation guides--but when needed, users just click a button to talk to another language learner anywhere in the world to practice their skills. Should establishing a customer-to-customer social environment like this be a part of your business strategy?

Focus on Customer Experience

Traditionally communications was a completely separate function--the home phone on your wall, a business phone on your desk, video in a special conference room, etc. Today, communications is an integrated software component that is there whenever needed but otherwise stays out of the way. This means that you have to look at designing a holistic customer experience where your application functions, information presentation and live communications all elegantly fit together and support the task at hand.

This is perhaps the hardest part of joining the modern age--getting better at designing amazing customer experiences. Apple's huge financial success, for example, is largely built on simpler and better design compared with everyone else. And they work tirelessly to stay ahead as all of their competitors try to copy and innovate their own designs. What is it like in your industry? Are you a customer experience innovator and leader or will you have to play catch-up to someone else who disrupts your business, leveraging mobility and apps as a tool? Taking leadership of how your customers experience your products end-to-end is your most critical business mission--as industries being disrupted by Uber, Airbnb and others are finding out.

Ensure Communications Quality of Experience

Tony Zhao, CEO of Agora.io, who provides the global communications network for applications like HelloTalk says, "The big problem for easy hassle-free embedding of real-time communications within Internet-based applications is the lack of Quality of Experience (QoE). If connections are unreliable, voices keep cutting out and video images break up, then people will not use these embedded real-time capabilities."

The reason that traditional telecommunications has been an expensive, isolated silo is that its technologies were proprietary and managing real-time needs can be hard. Over the past four years Google, joined by Cisco, Mozilla, Microsoft and others, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in bringing together state-of-the-art real-time technologies and then making them free and open-source for everyone through the WebRTC technology initiative.

The big guys, like Amazon and Facebook, are already using WebRTC technologies, and a new industry of companies providing communications toolkits, platforms and assistance has emerged to help every company embed real-time communications into their own apps, without having to be as big as Facebook.

On top of these open capabilities, Communications as a Service (CaaS) platforms package these technologies so all you need to do is drop an Apple or Android SDK into your app, or a JavaScript library into your browser, and everything else will be taken care of. Tony Zhao says "CaaS platforms take the headache out of managing back-end software services that ensure global Quality of Experience for voice and video. Most app and web developers are not real-time experts, and with a good CaaS network they don't need to be."

The tools are there--so start thinking about the role software-integrated global communications should play in your market before someone else does this for you!

Published on: Dec 21, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.