Sidecar Puts a Fresh Spin on Voice Calls

In the mobile world, innovation has become something that consumers expect, and the ability to, for instance, send photos and videos using cell phones is now a given, where it was once a cutting edge addition to the basics of text messaging. In fact, almost nothing about using phones nowadays resembles what it was like to do the same 20 years ago – with the exception of voice calling, and that’s what Sidecar, which is officially launching its iPhone and Android apps today, hopes to change.

Sidecar CEO Rob Williams told BetaKit in an interview that he felt it was time for voice calling to have its own transformative moment and become something more useful to users, better in line with the way they currently use their devices. And since smartphones make it possible to do a lot of things at once, that seemed like a logical area to explore; after all, why not put commonly used smartphone features right into a voice call situation, so that people can seamlessly communicate via more than one channel at once? To answer that question, Williams and his team pivoted away from their original startup concept, SocialEyes (a video calling service) to provide something more focused on boosting the voice experience.

The Sidecar app provides that, by offering users the ability not only to call each other free anywhere in the world, or to call out to mobile and landline phones directly in the U.S. and Canada for free, but also to quickly share video, maps, contacts and photos all without having to switch apps, open emails, be on a Wi-Fi connection (cellular or Wi-Fi works), etc.

“When we looked at the phone, obviously there’s a massive opportunity in mobile right now, and there’s a huge demand for new services,” Williams explained about the genesis of the product. “We looked at the phone and said ‘What about the phone hasn’t changed much; where is there an opportunity to create innovation?’, and so we built Sidecar.”

And while Williams and team were aiming for innovation, they also didn’t want to mess too much with a formula that already works. People still make voice calls because they’re easy, after all, and it’s often simpler to convey your meaning when talking to someone than when texting or emailing them. That’s why Sidecar is selective in what it enables a user to do, and focuses a lot on making its services work in as few steps as possible.

“We tried to make those sharing experiences as simple as possible, because after all you’re on a call,” Williams told us. “We think basically if you reach the point where you have to take both hands away and put them on the phone [to accomplish what you need to do], basically you’ve lost. We wanted to make everything ‘thumbable.’”

In addition to services listed above, Sidecar also lets you “Whisper,” or basically text while you’re also on a Sidecar call. It may seem redundant, but Williams pointed out that it’s actually ideal in specific scenarios, like when you’re at a concert for instance and sharing the audio but you also want to add your own running commentary.

Sidecar will be an attractive app for consumers, since it offers what Google does on the desktop (web to phone calling) and what Skype provides, but both for free and from a user’s mobile phone. Even without the core products of media sharing that Sidecar is based on, that would help it quickly gain popularity. But as providing those services free of charge to a growing userbase will obviously eventually cost Sidecar more than it’s raised in funding, and that’s where Sidecar’s potential revenue options kick in.

Williams shared that he thinks Sidecar will be valuable for businesses, who can use it to help customers with guided tech support calls, and also unique sales opportunities not available over the phone alone. And while he said the company intends to offer its basic services for free, it also hopes to introduce international calling to landline and mobile phones at competitive rates, as well as other premium paid features.

Sidecar raised $5.1 million in total as SocialEyes pre-pivot, from investors including co-founder Rob Glaser, Ignition Partners and The Webb Investment Network. By offering a highly desirable free web-to-phone mobile calling service, it should be able to attract a strong userbase and grow that aspect of the business quickly, which will go a long way toward attracting further investment. The real test will be whether users see lasting value in a service that adds additional layers of interactivity on top of mobile voice calls, and whether those tweaks can tempt users back from using text-based tools like cross-platform messengers as a dominant mode of communication.

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