Thoughts from VON

by Bruce Stewart

I spent last Thursday at the Spring VON conference at the San Jose Convention Center, and as many others have reported it was quite a happening event this year. This was my first VON, though the show has a celebrated history of being one of the VoIP industry's first and foremost conferences and is now in it's 10th year.

My overall impression was that this was a conference for an industry that is definitely in a growth mode. There was a large, active exhibit hall (over 300 booths); people seemed happy and excited about the various things they were selling, buying, and learning about; and there were a lot of serious hallway conversations and meetings going on. I've long felt that the quality of a conference can be measured as much by the quality of these hallway meetings as anything else, and I observed many good ad-hoc discussions taking place and saw lots of signs of deals being made. The exhibitors seemed busy, the attendees seemed serious, and there was a lot of money being spent on various promotions and marketing efforts. (Another widely used informal metric to measure an industry's health is the quality of the schwag being given away at conferences, and VON passed that one with flying colors too - there was a lot more than free pens being handed out). I heard several seasoned VON veterans claim that this was the biggest and best VON show so far. So overall it felt like a very upbeat gathering for an industry that is prospering.

While I didn't see any new technology that blew me away, there were still plenty of new products and services to learn about and some very thought-provoking speakers. One of the sessions I attended was a Hot New Apps panel that featured demos from iotum, Versatel Networks, and SightSpeed. I also made time to listen to the Industry Perspecitve talks from Verizon Business President John Killian, Microsoft Corporate VP of MSN Blake Irving, and Digium's Mark Spencer (the creator of Asterisk).

I've written about iotum before, and they continue to impress me. Their technology really is "bringing relevance to communication" as they try to solve the problem of having your phone only ring for calls that are important to you at that time. They've certainly gotten much closer to this holy grail than anything else I've seen. Setting up the iotum system is incredibly easy and they've recently added a neat conferencing feature that just makes a ton of sense and can greatly simplify the task of getting people together on a conference call.

Versatel Networks has developed a platform that includes a media gateway, a media server, and all the necessary software on a single card. They see growth in applications like vanity numbers and instant collaboration "IQPods" and customizable ringback tones. I'm a little skeptical that any of these apps will be big revenue generators in the U.S., but according to Versatel's Rich Birckbichler ringback tones are already generating a lot of cash in Asian markets.

SightSpeed provided a great live demo of their video-calling system, which impressed everyone I talked to about it. Using the network from the show floor, which naturally tended to get pretty busy and sluggish at times, SightSpeed president Scott Lomond demo'd a live video call to Chicago that worked flawlessly. Like iotum, setup of their system is about as simple as one could hope for, and it was nice to hear that they now support PC and Mac platforms. I very much agree with Andy Abramson's observation that the SightSpeed demo was more impressive than a similar Microsoft video call demo, where they just talked to someone backstage at the conference.

John Killian's keynote could pretty much be summarized by "the customer is always right." Giving what I thought was a pretty lackluster talk that didn't divulge anything of particular interest, the president of Verizon Business made obvious points like users won't accept new technologies like VoIP if they experience any degradation in quality or service, and if something breaks customers expect it to get fixed quickly. Duh.

Microsoft's Irving gave a more interesting talk and demo of Windows Live Voice and Video, and made a convincing case that voice is becoming an important element across all of Microsoft's product line. For instance, I was surprised to learn that right now 2-3 million Xbox Live customers use VoIP daily to voice chat with other gamers. Irving showed off the Windows Live Mail Desktop beta, which he described as "Outlook with services." You can easily do things like click on an address in an email message to make a call, send an IM, send an email, or start a video call with that person.

My favorite Industry Perspective talk was by Mark Spencer, a real hero to many in this field. His work leading the Asterisk effort is clearly one of the ground-breaking movements taking place in the world of Internet Telephony, and he comes across as an intelligent, insightful, and humble personality.

Spencer gave a fun talk based on a Letterman-style top 10 countdown of what he thinks are the most important transitions facing the industry this year. From "TDM to VoIP" to "Proprietary to open source" to "Audio to Rich Media," Spencer captured many of the important technological movements in telecom in short, easy to grasp chunks. Also included were trends like "Centralized to Peer-to-Peer," the "Commoditization of Voice," and his list culmintated in the perhaps subtle, but important transition of "ITU to IETF". Spencer noted that as the source of standardization for voice communications is changing, these crucual decisions are no longer being made solely by the old school telcos, and this is good for the industry.

Speaking of Asterisk, the Asterisk Pavillion was a very busy space in the exhibition hall. It was good to see players like LumenVox there partnering with Asterisk to provide affordable high-quality speech recognition technolgy to the Asterisk community. It was also good to meet Leif Madsen, a coauthor of O'Reilly's Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, and to see that his Asterisk-based training and consulting business is booming.

Because my schedule only allowed one day at VON this year, there were several keynoters I wish I could have seen but had to miss, inculding Lawrence Lessig and my boss, Tim O'Reilly. Like Jon Arnold, I think it's a very positive thing to see Jeff and Tim's worlds coming together. The VoIP folks can learn a lot from the Web 2.0 crowd and there's no one better than Tim at bridging those kind of gaps. And I think the facts that you're reading this blog on an O'Reilly site, we put on our first Emerging Telephony conference this year, and have recently released books on topics like Asterisk and Switching to VoIP make it clear that O'Reilly believes in and is investing in this technology space.

1 Comments

Rebecca
2007-05-17 07:05:34
thanks for really good website!