With Twilio’s help, AT&T opens up SMS, voice to developers

In the past carriers haven’t exactly made the best development partners, but AT&T(s t) is hoping to change that perception. Working with cloud communications provider Twilio, AT&T is opening up its SMS and voice application programming interfaces (APIs) to enterprise developers, allowing them to design business and productivity apps with built-in calling and messaging over Ma Bell’s network.

Called Advanced Communications Suite (ACS), the platform is both a developer tool as well as an enterprise app store of sorts. AT&T is populating ACS with bunch of business communications apps already built by Twilio customers. They range from appointment reminder services; mobile polling and surveying software; ad hoc workgroup communications clients and geo-tagged messaging apps. What they all have in common is they tap into AT&T’s network APIs.

AT&T business customers can buy those apps through the ACS portal, but more tech-savvy customers can build their own using Twilio’s tools. For instance a large enterprise developing its own internal sales force collaboration tool could use the APIs to allow work group members to immediately initiate voice calls to each other with a touch of a button. Or a corporate calendar app could generate automated company-wide SMS alerts for important events.

The biggest problem with these carrier network API programs is fragmentation. AT&T’s APIs and policies could be completely different than Verizon’s, making cross-carrier development difficult if not impossible. By targeting the enterprise, AT&T greases the wheels a bit for developers since many businesses select a single or small subset of carriers to work with.

AT&T also solves the cross-carrier problem in part by working with Twilio, which has built its business model on developing a common development platform bridging all carriers’ networks. To get its SMS services to work, Twilio hooked into the SMS APIs of more 1000 operators in 150 different countries.

AT&T claims ACS will be network neutral. “ACS will offer cross-carrier enablement, meaning apps from the ACS portfolio are free to run on virtually any network,” AT&T said in its announcement. It didn’t offer more details, but that could mean Ma Bell and Twilio are striking up deals with other operators. Or it could have a far more revolutionary implication: AT&T could become an over-the-top provider on its competitors’ networks. There’s certainly a precedent for this. T-Mobile offers its own VoIP service, Bobsled, to anyone with a smartphone.

AT&T also plans to make more APIs available through ACS, starting with video. It’s already started offering access to its Watson voice recognition APIs through a separate program. If voice commands and natural language understanding become part of the ACS toolkit, developers could build some very powerful apps.

The company has been promoting Watson’s capabilities heavily in recent months as it tries to draw interest away from speech-recognition titan Nuance Communications(s nuan). On Wednesday AT&T also launched its iPhone and iPad(s aapl) remote control app, which uses voice commands to search for programs and channels as well control basic set-top box and DVR functions.

Image courtesy Flickr user Horia Varlan.