Sounder’s Push-to-talk Instant Chat App Debuts Privacy Controls

New startup Sounder wants to make it easy to connect with your inner circle, even simpler than picking up the phone to call them. Their iOS app allows users to talk instantly with the people they’re close to, quicker than calling them, chatting on Skype, or connecting with any voice or VoIP service. The company recently introduced a brand new version, which brings a new privacy slider to the app so that users have full control over who can reach them and how easily they can connect.

Sounder works a lot like the walkie talkie-like push-to-talk (PTT) systems popular in the earlier days of cellular communication: users select a few key Facebook friends, and then they can connect directly with those contacts via VoIP with the tap of a button. There are no numbers to remember, no need to track down user names, and not even any dialing. Sounder isn’t the first to try this kind of thing; HeyTell is an alternative that’s been around for quite a while, and has significant traction on Android, as well as a Windows Phone app. Sounder aims for even more simplicity, however, going lightweight on signup, UI, settings and features to keep the focus on connections.

“Sounder let’s you speak directly to someone, as if they’re in the same room – anytime, at the press of a button,” Sounder co-founder Michael Fortson explained. “It’s more like an extension of physical presence; they don’t call you, they just talk to you.”

It’s a concept that cuts through the clutter of most modern forms of communication, which essentially depend on adding gates and putting up fences to keep communication largely asynchronous (email and text), or else something that requires pins, usernames, logins and various forms of authentication and even software downloads (conference calls, Google Voice, etc.). But the power of making people directly available for instant communication comes with considerable downsides; for instance, how do you manage who can and can’t reach you at any given time?

“It sounds cheesy, but with great access comes great responsibility,” Fortson said, talking about the new privacy slider feature designed to address that question directly. “If we let people speak directly through your phone, anytime, we had better give you an incredibly easy way of managing your accessibility among your friends and family. That’s what the Slider provides: with a simple gesture, you can instantly redefine who can speak to you.”

The slider provides an analog solution to what’s traditionally been a very digital experience. Setting privacy controls on most web-based social services involves ticking boxes, and arduous process that tends to lead to lower usage.

“So we take something that would take sometimes many, many clicks of checkboxes and drop-down lists for groups of contacts – which usually just results in those contact- and group-management features not being used (just ask Facebook), we get much closer to a contact management solution that is easy and fast enough that people will actually use it,” Fortson said. He shared that Sounder wants to help solve the problem of both lowering friction for communication services, while also sorting out the mess that is contact management in its current form, which actually requires quite a bit of friction to be effective.

Sounder is a new take on an old idea, connecting people with the push of a button, but the ways that it’s helping solve problems around how we control how and when we can be reached might ultimately be its greatest contribution to online communication. But while Sounder aims to provide users with an easier way to connect, many would argue that phone calls, text messages and Skype chats are low-friction to begin with, so it will be interesting to see whether consumers see a need for the service.

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