IP Telephony: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
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A Small Sample of What's Ahead
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)
Resistance Is Futile
"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:
- African telcos fearing loss of revenue through increased competition are busy hindering VoIP's rollout with a strategy of "Deny, Delay, and Degrade."
- Roughly 20 percent of Costa Rica's international calls are made using VoIP, so a local telco pushes for stringent controls that could make IP telephony a crime.
- A Philippines telco calls VoIP its biggest threat, but at least the carrier plans to upgrade its aging network to support voice, data, and video.
"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.
Take the Next Step
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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