Tweeting by Phone with PhoneBlogger

By | March 20, 2011

In late 2002, I thought it would be cool to build an application that allowed you to blog by phone. Tools, libraries and hosted services were a bit more limited back then, but after a few months of learning, coding and debugging, I managed to release the first version of PhoneBlogger in January 2003. Along the way, I learned a lot about Python, VoiceXML, JavaScript, XML-RPC, audio encoding, shared web hosting and command line tools for Linux.

Fast forward nearly ten years and not only have the tools and libraries come a long way, but there are many more free or inexpensive hosted services that simplify building a tool/service like PhoneBlogger. Instead of hosting the application code on a shared hosting site, I can now build and deploy on Google App Engine. Though scalability is not an issue for my personal use of PhoneBlogger, if it were turned into a public service, App Engine would make scaling much simpler and more economical. App Engine also makes deployment a snap, though with a small amount of work, so would Fabric. For my PhoneBlogger rewrite, I decided to use App Engine.

In the original version of PhoneBlogger, I coded a bunch of static VoiceXML and JavaScript for managing the telephone interaction with a caller. At the time, three of the most prominent services for VoiceXML developers were Tellme (now owned by Microsoft), BeVocal (now owned by Nuance) and Voxeo (still independent). I had to write slightly different code for Tellme and BeVocal, but the differences weren’t that significant. I think it would have been pretty simple to port to Voxeo, as well. Improved support of VoiceXML 2 would now likely allow me to use the same code on each platform.

While VoiceXML is still a great option for building speech apps, a couple of new services bring you simple APIs for building speech or DTMF (touchtone) applications, at the cost of portability. This time around I’ve started with Twilio. I very quickly turned a Python/GAE example from the Twilio website into a DTMF app for tweeting by phone. Although speech recognition allows you to build much more complex and natural applications, many simple applications can be built quickly and easily with just support for pressing keys to provide input. PhoneBlogger falls into that category, for now.

One very convenient thing about Twilio is that I can use their platform to capture and host recordings in a format that is simple to play back in a web browser. If I were really concerned about longevity of the recordings I could easily retrieve them and store them elsewhere, but I’m okay with keeping them on Twilio servers for now. That’s an easy enhancement to add later. The biggest downside for tweeting the Twilio links is that the Twilio recording URLs are ginormous. Fortunately, the URL shortener made quick work of that problem.

I’m also going to take a look at porting my code to Tropo, which is a service offered by Voxeo. Tropo is built on Voxeo’s Prophecy platform and offers speech recognition as an option.

I decided to begin the rewrite by first supporting tweeting by phone. Twitter offers a great API, which is made even simpler by libraries like Tweepy. I highly recommend first checking out the OAuth support in any library for Twitter you might consider using. OAuth can be a complex beast, but libraries like Tweepy make it almost trivial.

The original PhoneBlogger source code and a couple iterations of it are available on SourceForge. I wasn’t particularly interested in learning about CVS at the time, so I just uploaded tarballs of all the code. While SourceForge has improved a lot, I’ve become more of a fan of GitHub. Google Code, LaunchPad and BitBucket are also great options. I started using LaunchPad when working on a Java library for Gearman, but then set up a couple of repos on GitHub when I started working on Log4mongo-Java. I’m much happier with Git, Bazaar and Mercurial than Subversion and CVS (Caveman Versioning System). I’ve already started posting code for the new phoneblogger project on GitHub.

As of now, the new version of PhoneBlogger supports tweeting by phone. All the code is on GitHub, along with a README file with the basic steps to set it up for yourself. In an upcoming blog post I’ll walk through those steps in a little more detail.

3 thoughts on “Tweeting by Phone with PhoneBlogger

  1. John Sheehan

    Hey Robert,
    Great story about how far telephony APIs have come! We’d love to send you or any of your readers a Twilio t-shirt. If you’re interested, email your size and address to [email protected] and we’ll get one sent out.


  2. mobibob

    This is a really intriguing approach. I was going to kick off a project on Android for mobile blogging. You have clearly thought it through better with a scalable architecture.


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