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The Next Battleground for VoIP

by Andrew Sheppard, author of Skype Hacks
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. - Winston Churchill

When the ground upon which we stand moves, it is the result of a tremor, an earthquake, or a tectonic shift. Internet telephony started as a tremor only a few short years ago. It is now an earthquake. And within a decade, or perhaps less, it will have resulted in a tectonic shift in how phone calls are made the world over. Indeed, it will radically alter how people communicate in all manner of ways, not just by voice. Clearly, the future of telephony is the internet, for which geographic location and distance don't matter.

To borrow some words from Churchill: the battle between VoIP and PSTN/POTS is over, and I expect the battle for mobile telephony is about to begin. That is, telephony in its broadest sense: voice calls, video calls, instant messaging, podcasting of every sort, and a whole host of as-yet-unimagined ways for people to communicate and interact.

There is no doubt that the PSTN telcos will gasp a few last breaths before succumbing to the inevitable; aided, abetted and propped up for a time by their regulators and their governments who fear a dwindling base upon which to tax telephony; but their cause is lost and their demise is only a matter of time. I take the radical position that the telcos can now simply be ignored as irrelevant to the future of telephony. They belong in history books, alongside such quaint technologies as the telegraph.

Can the Telcos Really Fail?

Surely, today's telephone companies are too big to fail? How can the $1.44 trillion (2004 global revenue) worldwide telephone services industry be irrelevant? These are the sorts of questions I get when I say established telcos are irrelevant to the future of telephony.

My answer? Look to history.

In Great Britain, there are man-made water canals everywhere. Most are no longer used. Those that are in good repair are used only for recreation. Yet these same canals were once the main arteries along which the life blood of the industrial revolution flowed. The water canals of Great Britain were the great capital projects of their time and represented, perhaps, a greater investment of capital in proportion to that then available, than do telephone services in the world of today.

Canals were, of course, superseded by the railroads. But the railroads weren't built by the canal companies; they were instead built by new upstarts that were unencumbered by the old infrastructure, old technologies, and the old mindset. Perhaps I should also clarify the point by saying that this article is forward-looking and that from a history-book perspective, at some point in the future looking back, today's telcos will be our modern-day equivalent of the canal companies.

The Battle for Mobile VoIP

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In my opinion, the start of the tectonic shift to universal internet telephony will be signaled when VoIP becomes ubiquitous, in the sense of "connect from anywhere and at any time." Mobility is the next battleground. Although some of the combatants are easy to list (Skype, Google, Microsoft, and a whole host of lesser players), it is by no means clear who will emerge victorious. Skype has non-mobile VoIP more or less to itself, and will remain dominant in that space for the foreseeable future, provided it doesn't fumble things badly. However, mobile VoIP is up for grabs.

Already we're seeing the tentative opening salvos in the battle for mobile VoIP. Google has announced a deal with Research In Motion to bundle Google Talk with their popular BlackBerry devices. Skype has partnered with several mobile phone manufacturers for Skype-enabled Wi-Fi phones. No doubt similar pairings between VoIP software vendors and hardware vendors will come thick and fast. Initially, we can expect that one brand of mobile VoIP phone will not work with another; Skype won't talk with Google, and vice versa. But that cannot last. The convergence towards one standard will be inevitable and rapid. Unlike cellular telephony, for which the cost of switching technologies (from GSM to PCS, say) is very real; changing from one VoIP protocol to another is a software -only sort of thing. And, whomever's VoIP protocol and network becomes the standard, wins the battle; and, most likely, the war.

It would be nice to think that mobile VoIP will be built upon open standards and interoperability, but that is far from inevitable; perhaps even unlikely. At the very least, the lamentable state of the world in the form of software patents [2,3] stands in the way. (See "Google Sued for VoIP Patent Violation" or search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on "mobile" and "VoIP" to see U.S. Patent Application 20050286466 for a "System for providing mobile VoIP" and a host of other patent applications, all of which seem to me to propose obvious solutions to obvious problems.) There are those who believe that software patents are the work of the devil, and I do not disassociate myself from them, but the sad reality is that the land-grab for intellectual ownership of the mobile VoIP space has already begun. It is even questionable as to whether a viable set of open standards and protocols can now be built for mobile VoIP without the whole thing sinking into a morass of patent litigation. (For mobile VoIP, there are still a lot of technical challenges still to be ironed out. In this category I would include such things as how to seamlessly hand off a live VoIP call when switching from one Wi-Fi access point to another overlapping Wi-Fi access point while on the move. No open standards exist in these areas yet, but they are effectively being cordoned off by software patents.) That is why current VoIP providers and companies with very deep pockets indeed seem to me the only likely combatants on this new battleground.

The stakes are high, because what we're talking about here is nothing less than the technological foundation upon which we, as a species, will conduct a good deal--perhaps most--of our verbal, and much of our non-verbal, communication.

By combining VoIP with ever more ubiquitous Wi-Fi, particularly with free city-wide and metro-wide Wi-Fi networks that are springing up everywhere, people will be able to "connect from anywhere and at any time." Mobility is the killer app for VoIP. That is the tectonic shift we are about to experience, and that is what's still up for grabs!

Andrew Sheppard could have avoided a lot of heartache and financial anguish had he become what is clearly the optimal career choice for anyone anywhere: a master plumber. Too late to correct past follies, Andrew now makes his living writing software, books, and magazine articles.

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