Analysis: How smartphone microphones are changing the game for business in security, customer services and employee processes.
Now that mobile phones are no longer simply large plastic status symbols, it is easy just to think of the smartphone as a portable computer: something which tries (and sometimes fails, as with virtual keyboards) to emulate the desktop experience as much as possible.
This ignores the many ways in which the unique features of the mobile platform are producing new applications not comparable to any on desktop.
One of these features is the smartphone’s microphone, which while obviously not a new technology, is accessible to applications in ways never possible before. Most desktop computers also have microphones, but it is not so easily activated as with a smartphone.
When a new application is installed, it will request permissions to access the device’s microphone, meaning that being able to use it as an input into the phone can be literally a single tap away.
"Smartphone mics have more versatile uses than people might expect," says Dr. Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and reader of Computer Science at Ulster University. "A standard smartphone has one microphone for recording voice and one for recording audio for videos."
Consumer applications such as Shazam have utilised this function in interesting new ways, using this direct feed of information to provide instant information. There are also the voice-activated assistants such as Siri and Google Now, which can provide information or functions such as setting the phone’s alarm simply through a vocal command.
The result is that we are closer to being able to have a ‘conversation’ with our computers than ever before.
Paul Swaddle, CEO of Pocket App, believes that the reason the PC microphone is not as popular as its smartphone counterpart is because a PC is used differently to a mobile.
"A PC is more commonly used than a smartphone for longer, more extended pieces of writing or internet searches, which would actually be less convenient to do by dictation.
"As a result of these different uses for smartphone and PC microphones, less time is dedicated to improving the PC’s microphone functionality than to developing smartphone programmes such as Google Now, Amazon Echo and Siri."
Curran of the IEEE agrees that desktop microphones are "limited in quality" and this is why the smartphone microphone is seeing so much more usage.
"The fact that more attention has been paid to the mic sound quality over time is due to a primary use of a smartphone which is voice," says Curran.
He adds that the settings on operating systems, including Windows, have also "not done the mic manufacturers any favours over the years."
So what are the ways that the enterprise could make use of a smartphone microphone. As Stephanie Baghdassarian, Research Director at Gartner, says that "VPAs or VPA-like apps could have extensive applications within business."
Paul Swaddle argues that the main function of smartphone microphones is to increase convenience.
"If we consider situations in which you would use the microphone on your smartphone instead of using your hands to physically interact with your device, it is almost always because it is more convenient to do so," he says.
Swaddle argues that the challenge facing developers is to make "the completion of these functions via a microphone seamless, therefore keeping the use of a microphone more convenient than it would be to physically interact with the phone."
Last year, Oracle released Oracle Voice, which aims to help field sales reps using the Oracle Sales Cloud to quickly accomplish frequent and repetitive tasks. This includes creating and viewing their notes, tasks, appointments and contacts.
A voice assistant might, for example, allow sales executives to record sales information through dictated notes immediately after a meeting and even while travelling.
Voice assistants can help businesses in another way, by better serving their customers. For example, U.S. Bank is using natural language voice assistant Nina to serve customers.
However, the microphone is not solely a boon for business. Unfortunately, the ease of activation of a smartphone microphone means that it is also a security liability.
In a basic physical sense, a potential eavesdropper now has a recording device to hand in any given situation.
"The smartphone mic is the same as carrying around a purpose-built recording device," says Curran. "A smartphone audio recording app allows a phone to record everything within earshot all day."
While it is a handy tool for an eavesdropper, it means any device owner can turn into an eavesdropper at a second’s notice, even without an overt display of starting a recorder.
And if the intent is not there, there is a danger that the microphone could be turned against its owner. Perhaps the Watergate Scandal of today would not involve a physical break-in, but a hacker remotely activating the microphone on a smartphone.
A phishing email, for example, might direct a user to download what seems to be a legitimate app, but actually provides a hacker with access to a phone. If the user installs the app and provides it with the appropriate permissions, possibly including the microphone, they can be deployed at the whim of the hacker.
The hacker, possibly sat hundreds of miles away, can then activate the microphone without you even realising. Why shouldn’t they – you have given them permission.
In some ways this can be solved by good app etiquette. Any smartphone user should firstly ensure that they can trust the credentials of an app before carefully examining the permissions that it asks for. If an app ostensibly designed to guide you around a shopping centre is asking to use your microphone, you need to find out why.
In addition, although it is not quite as nefarious as recording our audio, our microphones may be revealing more to other people than we hope.
Curran says that smartphone mics can be used by ad companies who use inaudible, high-frequency sounds to track people’s online behaviour across phones, TVs, tablets, and computers.
"These ultrasonic pitches can be embedded into TV commercials or played when a user encounters a website ad when surfing the web," says Curran.
"While the sound cannot be heard by the human ear, a nearby smartphone mic can detect it and corresponding browser cookies would be able to identify that person and keep track of what TV commercials they see and for how long they watch."
Of course, the microphone isn’t just a hazard from a security perspective. Recent years have seen the rise of voice biometrics as a type of authentication, as Brett Beranek, Senior Principal Solutions Marketing Manager, Enterprise at Nuance, says:
"Originally the only place you really had a microphone was on their landline. The only place you would be using voice biometrics would be calling into the organisation. The proliferation of microphones in devices expands this opportunity.
"Specifically on the smartphone, the quality of the microphone and the noise cancellation technology that is embedded gives us a fantastic biometric sensor and allows us to achieve even higher levels of accuracy than if someone was calling in with a landline."
However, Beranek says that it is important that organisation seek the consent of their customers to inform them that the technology is there.
As with all technology, the microphone has its upsides and downsides. But businesses need to be aware that it is there and begin to plan accordingly.