A recent blog entitled All aboard the bandwagon! greeted the news about Yahoo Messenger's new voice features with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "Skype is getting some company," began the post on Ars Technica. "I mean, some more company; Vonage has been around for a while. Come to think of it, MSN Messenger has had voice capabilities since v7.0. Oh, and there's AOL TotalTalk, and Sony IVE, and GoogleTalk, and... Sorry, I see you're yawning already."
To many people, Voice over IP is an extension of the familiar, either as a cool instant-messaging feature or as a cheap way to make phone calls. But there's a lot more to VoIP just beneath the surface--especially the potential for a host of amazing new services that weren't possible five years ago. It's like finding a harmless snake protruding from the rocks, only to discover that the snake is actually the tip of the tail of something massive buried in the hillside.
"What's really happening with IP telephony is the antithesis of what companies like Vonage are saying to consumers," says Surj Patel, program cochair of O'Reilly's upcoming Emerging Telephony Conference (ETel) in San Francisco from January 24 to 26. "Through its massive marketing blitz, Vonage has served as an entrée to IP telephony for many, but at the same time they try to hammer home the idea that this is just the same as a normal phone, except that it uses a different transmission protocol. In fact, IP telephony is a whole new ball game."
That ball game is just reaching critical mass. Developers now have the right tools and the right motivation to build a wide range of new desktop applications, telephone services, and corporate phone systems that integrate voice with the Web, IM, WiFi, and more. In the past century, the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has given us call waiting, caller ID, and a handful of other services. With VoIP, the number and type of services available to people by phone is about to explode. Already, there are great new applications that allow people to:
That's only the beginning. Many more applications for both consumers and the enterprise are in the hopper and edging toward their launch dates, while other developers and entrepreneurs are looking for those underserved market niches where they can make an immediate impact. Yahoo, Google, eBay, and others are already upping the ante by acquiring VoIP-related companies, whose products may well mix with existing applications to create something greater than the sum of its parts. This is extremely fertile ground for developers, whether they're in-house or in a garage.
"It's like a Wild West frontier," explains Patel, a freelance mobile and media technologist who once worked in the R&D lab at Orange, a Boston-based wireless operator, and at the MIT Media Lab. He's now involved with a VoIP startup of his own. "It's now as easy to create a voice application as it is to create a web application, and many of the same technologies are used in both areas. This creates tremendous opportunities for developers, enterprise users, and even the telcos--telephone companies--though most of them are loath to believe it at the moment."
In an attempt to put a face on this telephony revolution, our ETel conference will bring together the people, ideas, products, concerns, and questions that constitute this new technology space. Through a series of sessions and workshops conducted by business leaders and alpha geeks already deeply immersed in the technology, and through quick show-and-tell presentations by garage entrepreneurs with unique applications, ETel will both showcase and examine the spirit of innovation behind VoIP communications. The purpose is not to offer products to buy, but to demonstrate what's possible, explain the technologies behind it, and show how communication--and the telephone as we know it--will irrevocably change. ETel is aimed specifically at developers, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople who want to know how to get in on this telephony gold rush and stake their claim.
The VoIP family of technologies has been around for more than 20 years, but it wasn't until 2000, when the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) provided call-processing functions similar to those of the traditional phone system--such as dialing and causing another phone to ring--that things started to roll. Applications such as Skype, the first IM application with voice that was able to work in any networking environment, took off as acceptance of broadband internet connections increased. Asterisk, an open source IP PBX application, gave organizations not only an alternative to traditional phone exchanges, but also an easier and cheaper alternative to costly commercial VoIP solutions. Skype and Asterisk, along with sipX, the Gizmo Project, and others, have provided the basic building blocks for what will soon be an avalanche of VoIP-related services.
"It's similar to the years 1993 to 1996 with web innovation," Patel says. "People suddenly realize they can do things with IP telephony. Think about how many people are on the internet--nearly a billion. There are over 1.5 billion people connected by phone, many owned by those who can't afford internet connections in their countries. With new VoIP technologies, you suddenly have access to a much larger audience. These emerging voice technologies allow you to build bridges between the networks, between the internet and telephones so that it becomes a single converged network. You will soon be able to do by phone what you now can do on the Web."
The industry's big players certainly recognize the opportunity. Last September, eBay agreed to buy Skype for $2.6 billion (with another $1.5 billion in bonuses if Skype hits certain targets by 2008). Was it just to get a piece of the action? Or does eBay have something more specific in mind? The company built an incredible market, and then bought PayPal to give people an ideal way to pay for the items they buy online. A peer-to-peer network that enables eBay's buyers and sellers to instantly establish voice contact with one another via PC (or mobile device) makes perfect sense. And it might not stop there. PayPal is also looking to initiate micropayment structures that will enable buyers of IP telephony services to pay the providers. "That's a powerful enabler," Patel says.
Google, in addition to its push to establish citywide WiFi networks, bought a startup called Android, a company that's working on an open platform for developers to create applications for mobile phones. The founder of Android is the one who came up with the T-Mobile-powered Sidekick II smart phone. Google also acquired a social-networking application called Dodgeball.com. This service allows users to initiate impromptu gatherings in an urban setting by sending out message alerts to all the friends on their list (and any friends of those friends) within a ten-block radius. The application automatically sends directions to the location (for instance, a bar), along with a photo of the messenger, so that new people know whom to look for. What else is Google up to? The company recently launched its Click-to-Call Service, which lets customers click on an icon in an online ad and be connected by voice to the advertiser for free. How will these pieces fit together?
Yahoo also has been busy. Months before the company introduced its IM voice features, Yahoo bought Dialpad, which markets a web application similar to Skype that enables users to make PC-to-PC or PC-to-PSTN calls. Dialpad gives Yahoo a proven platform (with 14 million users) for IP voice applications. A short time later, Yahoo launched Yahoo Research Berkeley, a new research partnership between the company and the University of California at Berkeley, "to explore and invent social media and mobile media technology and applications that will enable people to create, describe, find, share, and remix media on the Web." Just recently, Yahoo added del.icio.us, the social bookmark service that allows its 300,000 users to compile and share their favorite web content with others.
Exactly what is Yahoo and its research team cooking up? The team's founding director, UC Berkeley professor Marc Davis, says that he's focused on creating technology that will "enable daily media consumers to become daily media producers." You can find out more about Yahoo's new consumer voice initiatives--and the development opportunities that come with them--at ETel with Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo's senior director of voice product management. You may yawn at Yahoo's belated entry into the field of voice-enabled IM products, but perhaps it's wiser to ask, "What's next? Where do they plan to go with all of this?"
Of course, the big players may have a blue-sky view of where they're headed, but innovation in the VoIP space is just picking up steam. In all probability, new applications will emerge a year from now that will force them to make some kind of course correction. Take a quick look at this small sample of recently launched product and service innovations that will be demonstrated and discussed at ETel:
PhoneGnome--This $99 box from TelEvolution lets buyers make an unlimited number of free calls without ever spending another dime. You simply plug PhoneGnome into a home phone jack and a broadband router, and it automatically configures itself. You can use PhoneGnome with any touch-tone phone, and all calls you make to anyone in the world who has an IP phone connection are free. There is no monthly service fee and no vendor lock-in. PhoneGnome is the brainchild of David Beckemeyer, one of the founders of EarthLink, who will tell people at ETel how this box will provide an important platform for helping developers get their VoIP-based applications to consumers. (phonegnome.com)
Office 12--Microsoft's purchase of Groove Networks gives Microsoft Office new voice capabilities. While Microsoft servers and products like SharePoint foster collaboration within the enterprise, Groove Virtual Office enables collaboration outside of an IT network. With Groove, Microsoft Office 12 (now in beta release) offers users the ability to communicate with colleagues, customers, and partners in real time through several modes of communication--email, phone, IM, short message service (SMS), videoconferencing, and web conferencing. Each Office application now has "presence awareness" built into it, so that a user can determine another person's availability before initiating communication. A group of people in different places and on different networks will be able to collaborate on a project and literally be on the same page. Gurdeep Singh Pall and Amritansh Raghav from Microsoft will be on hand to demonstrate. (http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2005/mar05/03-10GrooveQA.mspx)
FON--This new network from Argentine entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky invites users to share their broadband WiFi connection in return for WiFi access elsewhere. By installing FON software, your node becomes part of the greater FON network to which other FON subscribers have access--without diminishing the bandwidth you need for your own use. As a member of FON, you get free access to a FON wireless network node anywhere in the world. FON is adding VoIP capabilities in the near future. Varsavsky, who founded five other companies over the past two decades, will be at ETel to talk about what he calls "a WiFi revolution for universal wireless communication." (en.fon.com)
iotum--This new VoIP-based service for mobile professionals features an intelligent "Relevance Engine" that automatically filters calls and ranks them by relevance, according to a user's preferences. Some are put through immediately, others put on hold, and still others sent to voice mail or to a colleague. iotum also provides a platform that enables service providers to build applications to help their "ultraconnected" customers manage all of their digital communications, including cell phones, landlines, VoIP systems, and IM. The service is designed to let users have simplicity and control over who reaches them and how and when. Alec Saunders, who spearheaded the technology, will be available. (iotum.com)
"VoIP is suddenly like a new toy," Patel remarks. "People are coming out with all sorts of ideas. How about an application that gives customers the ability to call ahead to their favorite restaurant and see if it's busy through live video? Or even the ability to look at the take-out dish you're about to buy? The point is, people couldn't even approach this kind of thing five years ago. Now, the possibilities are endless."
One speaker appearing at ETel is Tad Hirsch, a Ph.D. candidate in the Smart Cities Group at MIT's Media Lab, who developed a social/civic application with Asterisk called Speakeasy. This integrated internet and telephone service connects new immigrants with a network of multilingual volunteers who answer questions, give advice, and provide language interpretation over the phone.
"Where else can you go with that concept?" Patel muses. "Say you're involved in a corporate negotiation and you need to find the point of authority behind one of the technologies involved. The circumstances may not be right to go to a workstation, but you can use a cell phone to get the specs you need. The beauty is, developers can play around with these applications without having to worry about network testing to see if it will work with a carrier's billing system."
Developers are also discovering ways to build voice applications more efficiently. One is Ruby on Rails, an open source framework used to create code-light, feature-full applications for the Web. A workshop at ETel will show how this framework can be used with Asterisk. Another workshop will explore VXML, an XML format for specifying interactive voice dialogues between people and computers, and how it can voice-enable web sites. Macromedia will also be on hand to demonstrate how its products can be used to build voice apps.
Together, VoIP and all of the tools related to it constitute what geeks call a "disruptive technology"--something that unexpectedly displaces an established system. Amid all the activity and enthusiasm of the IP revolution, traditional telcos are feeling pretty disrupted. While tracking news items about VoIP, iotum's Alec Saunders tracked one day's worth of headlines that demonstrate just how disruptive it is:
"Having worked for these telcos in some of their most secret, darkest places, I'm taking the other approach with them," Patel says. "I say simply, 'Look, you shouldn't be worried. You should be celebrating the fact that developers are taking the hard part of creating products out of your hands. And since developers are going to have to transport this new spate of data packets anyway, you're going to get involved.' This is a point of opportunity for them, the same way the internet was. Email didn't kill telephone calls. It just created another layer of communication, and another revenue stream."
There is certainly no going back. The genie is out of the bottle, and the old, centralized paradigm won't work much longer. VoIP uses not only different technology to place calls, but also an opposing philosophy. The system that AT&T built is a "smart network": the intelligence is located in the central office and the endpoint devices are dumb. With IP telephony, the intelligence is located at the endpoints, and the network is dumb. As author James Gaskin points out in his book Talk Is Cheap, centralizing the intelligence made sense when AT&T started building the phone system. But, today, intelligence in the form of processing power is cheap and portable.
Aside from resistance from traditional telephone companies, there is one caveat that may act like cold water on the flames of innovation: last summer, several U.S. law enforcement agencies filed a petition with the FCC to extend the CALEA law--the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994--to allow wiretaps of VoIP systems. The fear is that voice app software coders will have to include wiretapping facilities in their applications. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) is suing to block the petition, and EFF's Brad Templeton will give the rundown on CALEA and VoIP at ETel.
"You saw rapid innovation on the Web because it was unpoliced to a large degree," Patel points out. "If the FCC grants the petition, it might kill small garage innovators. It's just like the early days of the Web when authorities bandied about the 'internet tax' to cover online transactions. That would have stifled e-commerce. IP telephony is a bottom-up technology, and CALEA could affect people in the trenches."
The question is, how do you hold back a wave of innovation as strong as IP telephony? There will be much to learn and think about at ETel, from demonstrations to discussions to workshops and brainstorming sessions. Security and identity management is a huge topic that will get an airing by Philip Zimmermann, the creator of the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) email encryption software package. There's plenty more.
It may be a lot to absorb, but a crash course of this kind is critical if you want to understand your options in this new frontier. "The move to converged networks is a crucial evolutionary step in business, no less important than the move from typewriters to word processors, or from file rooms to database systems," wrote Ted Wallingford in Switching to VoIP. Now is the time to wriggle out of the water and take that first step onto new land.
Ed Stephenson is a freelance writer who has worked with O’Reilly for more than four years.
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