After three days of hard conferencing, all of it spent tired and only
part of it spent sober, I got an insight into where the computer field
is heading. In his keynote on the last day of the
O’Reilly Open Source Convention
one of the developers of the IBM PC, Dave Bradley, showed a photo of
an IBM machine from the 1970s. This state-of-the-art system offered,
as a user interface, a five-inch screen next to a removable disk
drive. And I realized at that moment how far our computer use has
advanced beyond our terminology.
The early screens, keyboards, disk drives, and other devices were
truly computer interfaces. They were a shared ground where
the human being and the raw computational power of the machine met.
While programmers still have to develop interfaces (there’s no way
around it) we now have to reach toward the much more difficult goal of
providing a meeting ground for human being. The computer has to get
out of the way as much as possible.
The most talked-about technology at the conference–the new ways of
programming the Web introduced by Ajax–give us an opening toward that
goal. Ajax is based on a small enhancement to HTTP, even smaller than
the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) that led to dynamic websites and
the whole dot-com revolution of online ordering. In Ajax’s turn, it
combines the quick feedback and rich interactions of desktop
applications with direct lines to the data being thrust out by servers
and by other people throughout the Internet.One could argue that Ajax
wasn’t necessary (and I’ll explore that later in the article),
but at this moment in computing history, it’s driving the recognition
that people are here to interact with each other, not with computers.
I’ve read (and written) a lot about the ongoing plummeting of telephone rates as VoIP becomes more widespread and voice becomes just another application on the network. Usually we’re talking about in-country calling, or client-to-client VoIP calling, but I’ve noticed a couple of items recently that point to a similar free-fall in calling rates for international calls as well.
First, Russell Shaw had an interesting post the other day noting that Skype had applied for a trademark on the phrase “The Whole World Can Talk For Free.” Now that very well may be just a normal business practice for a tagline they have been using for over a year, but Russell thinks its more than that and predicts Skype will open up global free outbound calling:
I envision a scenario in which Skype provides totally free outbound calling to those users who sign on for the revenue-generating SkypeIn service. Free world calling could, then be an incentive that would drive registration for Skype’s paid services.
Sweden-based Rebtel have launched a product that will allow users to dial any international number at the cost of a local call. It works by having the two ends of the call use local connections (over low-cost local calls) to a VoIP point and then bridge the call to the recipient at the other end over the net.
And just take a look at Brian McConnell’s recent post on this site about how easy it was for him to set up a global PBX using Gizmo and Asterisk, and you start getting the sense that international calling is really ripe for disruption.
I’m pretty sure that the high international calling rates we’ve experienced for years have been one of the incumbent carriers’ biggest gravy trains, but I think that train is slowing down fast. Just like local and in-country calling, I expect the cost of international voice calls to rapidly approach zero, forcing the telcos to come up with new business models or die trying.
When it comes to open source telecom projects, Asterisk is by far the dominant player, but it isn’t the only kid on the team and FreeSWITCH is considered by many to be one of the up and comers. Read my recent interview with Anthony Minessale–the developer behind the FreeSWITCH open source telephony project–about the status of FreeSWITCH, how it compares to Asterisk, and Minessale’s future plans for FreeSWITCH.
As I write this, I am in South America setting up an engineering office. I have been traveling globally for about 12 years now, and remember just ten years ago, when doing business here was very difficult, and very expensive. Now, it took me a matter of days to set up shop, and will take less than a month to have an office up and running. With Asterisk and Gizmo, we were able to build a truly global PBX, and to completely axe the requirement to buy an office phone system of any sort. We now have a business phone system that is accessible via a local call in 30+ countries, and that costs virtually nothing to operate and maintain.
A shameless plug for Cluecon - if you’re an active programmer / developer on voip systems you need to go to this conference ( And Etel of course! ) . First week of August this year in Chicago and its affordable. It’s organized by open source telephony developers and activists. The Asterisk, Freeswitch, Bayonne, Open H323 crowd will be there. Quite literally that some of the smartest and brightest of the Voip developer world will be there and I can attest they love to share their code and their thoughts. I think roughly 80% of the worlds open source telephony projects will have their core teams all there. Last year was exciting with people from all parts of the world there (New Zealand, Turkey, Korea etc). This year will be better still. Etel and OReily is proud to be a media sponsor for them and support their dedication and passion. We’ll be in attendance and hope to see you there as well.
A few weeks ago I got a call from Gina Blaber, the head of OReilly conferences telling me, ahem, instructing me, that the time had come to start the truffle hunt for speakers and ideas for the next ETel. So I poured a cup of tea and started to scribble the napkin sketches of topics and workshops that will make up ETel 07. I still have scribbles but shortly structure will emerge one hopes.
A good place to start I’ve always found is to look back at some of what we did last year and find what has happened since.
One of the big bang events that helped to kick off the conference was the huge success of and the immense community behind Asterisk. Without a doubt Asterisk has been one of the greatest things to happen to telephony ever. An open source PBX that made phone calls and call routing accessible to external program control. And it will run on cheap PC hardware with a telephony card. What happened next was that the lower cost first helped those who were excluded from having a PBX phone system and saved money for those who were looking to upgrade their current setup. All low hanging easy fruit. What was more exciting was seeing startups like free 411 companies, social entrepreneurs like Tad Hirsch do challenging, wild and clever things (Speakeasy) with something as normally mundane and established as a phone line. They saw that Asterisk allowed them to use calls and telephony as a program controllable channel just as email is. I met someone at Cluecon last year who had built a training system for Army sergeants using Asterisk that connected 300 lines in a matrix. The aim was to teach them “speaking skills and pleasantries” apparently. Other applications have ranged from least cost routing (sort of like ja-jah and iskoot) to combining Ruby on Rails with Asterisk to create a fast way to make applications. The variety is great.
Now Asterisk is doing really well and the hardware companies that support it like Sangoma and Digium flourish with it.
Undoubtedly Asterisk is king, but I do want to throw some of my support behind Freeswitchhttp://www.freeswitch.org/. Think of it as Asterisk++. For any gene pool to succeed you need variety and competition and Freeswitch , whilst still getting there, is a lean mean and Olympian competitor to Asterisk. last year at Etel we saw the glimmer of code and some very enthusiastic hackers.Note, thatI didn’t say better(yet), just one to watch. I haven’t got the performance specs to hand but its apparently kicking ass while still in its nappy. It’s a non monolithic code base as well so it supports modules and plugins that don’t have to be worked in with the main program code. Not as mature or as big a developer base as Asterisk but its pedigree is solid with Brian West and Tony Minnesale developing it.
It’s that spirit of disruptive innovation that makes Etel what it is. People and projects re-thinking telephony as being open, refreshing and inventive.
From now till ETel I’ll be your chef and next week I will dig up another truffle and prepare it for your delight.
Don Jackson, Tellme’s VP of Advanced Telephony, wrote in to tell me about a new, free hosting service being offered by Tellme Studio that sounds like a great deal. (Lets face it, it doesn’t get much better than “free”.) Tellme will now support up to four simultaneous free SIP calls to VoiceXML applications that are developed on Tellme Studio. Unlike some other deals like this, it doesn’t sound like its limited to prototype applications — if you have a low-volume app that won’t use more than four simultaneous SIP calls, sign up for the program and the calls are on Tellme.
I’ve heard a lot of good things about Tellme Studio, and if you’ve been wanting to give it a spin this offer makes it especially attractive. Don points out that there is great potential for developers to wire up Asterisk extentions to VoiceXML apps on Tellme Studio.
One of the big news items this week in the VoIP world was the new calling plan that Project Gizmo announced that will allow completely free calls to anyone that is signed up with Gizmo in 60 different countries and on your buddy list, regardless of whether it ends up on the PSTN. Yet another example of the cost of voice calling rapidly approaching zero. The Gizmo “All Calls Free” plan is permanent (unlike the recent Skype free calling plan that has an end date in sight) and is clearly modeled after the old MCI Friends and Family plan. It should help boost the Gizmo user base since your contacts have to sign up for a free Gizmo account to be able to be called as part of the plan.
The news was met with excitement in the blogosphere: Andy Abramson broke the story and thinks it’s a “major move that has proven that the cost of calls has really dropped to zero”, Om agrees that we are “seeing the price of plain vanilla voice collapse to almost zero”, Russell Shaw predicts we’ll soon see “short-term free world calling to any phone (member or not) as a loss-leader sign-up incentive”, Engadget notes how the new Gizmo plan easily trumps Skypes recent temporary free calling within the U.S. and Canada, TechCrunch said Gizmo punches standard VOIP business model, Alec Saunders thinks it’s an interesting chess move, and Jon Arnold notes this is “yet another example of what happens when voice becomes a total commodity, and at this stage of the game isn’t really much different than email.”
I guess AT&T has decided if it can’t beat them, it might as well join them when it comes to the municipal WiFi projects that seem to be rapidly picking up steam all across the country. The scuttlebutt according to Om today (he sure is breaking a lot of stories recently!) is that AT&T will partner with MetroFi to design, build and operate muni WiFi networks, and that they will put in a bid soon for a WiFI network for Riverside, California.
As Om points out, this deal is a big win for both MetroFi and muni WiFi in general. It helps validate the idea of municipal WiFI, which up until this point AT&T and the other telcos have been fighting strongly against (and losing). Andy Abramson has a thoughtful post on the deal and its ramifications, calling it the Mother of All Fixed Mobile Convergence Plays, and pointing out that companies like BridgePort Networks that are building combined mobile/WiFi technology and devices are going to be poised to take advantage of the new services that these municipal WiFi networks are going to spur.
I’m thrilled to announce that the Call For Participation for next year’s O’Reilly Emerging Telephony conference is now open. If you were lucky enough to be at the first ETel conference earlier this year then you know that this is not your typical telecom show, and one not to be missed. Mingle with and learn from leading edge developers, savvy business leaders, hackers, entrepreneurs and the alpha-geeks who are shaping the future of telecommunications.
Technologists, CTOs, chief scientists, researchers, programmers, hackers, business developers, entrepreneurs, and other interested parties are invited to lead conference plenary sessions and workshops at ETel 2007. Topics will be centered around the innovations and projects occurring in open source telephony, wireless mobility, mobile telephony, wi-fi VoIP, telephone networks as platforms, and the intersection of VoIP telephony with web services. Also, left-of-field and disruptive ideas that don’t fit in these categories but are telephony and real time communications related are welcome.
If you’ve got something to share with this audience, now’s the time to get your proposal in. And mark your calendars, ETel 2007 happens February 28 to March 1, 2007 at the San Francisco Airport Marriott in Burlingame, California.
Business Week is running an interesting piece this week titled The Phone Companies Still Don’t Get It which takes the telcos to task for their inability to innovate while supposedly being technology companies. The reporter was unimpressed with a demo of the AT&T Lightspeed/U-verse IPTV trial in San Antonio, and notes that the telcos are playing catch-up with their rival cablecos for the prized killer triple-play offering (voice, data, and TV), have largely abandoned their own research divisions, and regularly attempt to thwart new technologies like they have done with Muni WiFI.
Welcome to Telco Land, a strange country where the biggest players talk more and more about innovation yet approach new ideas with baby steps, build little themselves, and when they think about technology are apt to believe it’s a threat they have to fight.
I’m pretty sure this is one instance where the adage “no press is bad press” doesn’t hold. Vonage is now in the news for being tied to multiple spyware campaigns. According to spyware researcher Ben Edelman’s latest paper, How Vonage Funds Spyware, Vonage is a major advertiser on just about every large spyware product. Vonage’s large advertising budget is legendary and the focus of many analyst’s concerns about the company that just can’t seem to get a break. But I don’t think the realization that they’re spending a significant chunk of that advertising money on these unscroupulous spyware scourges is going to do anything but further the negative image Vonage is rapidly achieving, regardless of how effective that kind of advertising is.
Could spyware possibly be an effective advertising channel? It’s hard to imagine that it could be, but with the amount of placements Vonage seems to be buying in these programs one would think they must be seeing some kind of decent return.
This is slightly old news now as I’ve been battling some hardware problems which caused me to get behind in my posting, but as someone who has spent far too much time battling spyware I couldn’t let this one slip by.
O’Reilly online editorial director Derrick Story has just posted a detailed review of his new Sony Ericsson W810i multi-function handset. His overall impression is very positive, noting that the W810i does a good job of combining the functions of a normal cell phone, PIM, camera, MP3 player and FM radio in a small and attractive package. Being a Mac aficionado, Derrick is also pleased with how the W810i “just works” with iSync to keep track of his OS X contacts and calendar. Derrick does find a couple of minor irritations like not being able to send SMS via his OS X Address book and wishing the handset had a stereo mini-jack, but overall he seems very happy with the purchase.
It’s a feat of engineering to squeeze all of these features into a phone that is essentially the same size as the one it replaces. Sound quality is great on all fronts, screen is bright and saturated, design and construction are top notch.
Brian’s Book (formally known as the McConnell Telephone & Telegraph Co. Local Encyclopedia & Social Register), seeks to remedy this situation somewhat by creating a wiki for people to document the places, people and history of greater San Francisco. Think of it as a scrapbook for a metropolis. I decided to put this out there and see if the idea resonates with people. I am doing this as a hobby and have no intention of turning this into a business. So if you like the idea, pass the word along to people who’d enjoy contributing to it, especially people who have some interesting history to share (whether its a dissertation about the history of a structure, or some anecdotes about a band that was once big here).
Microsoft and Nortel held a “virtual press conference” today (didn’t we used to call those conference calls?) to announce a new partnership to develop unified communications systems (read IP PBXs). Both company’s CEOs were on the call, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Nortel’s Mike Zafirovski, to promote their shared vision for future business communications, and they seem to be uninterested in any consumer plays in this space.
Tom Keating has posted a good summary of the call and analysis of the partnership, explaining that they hope to “combine Nortel’s network quality and reliability with Microsoft software’s ease of use and to accelerate the availability of unified communications.” And to make more than a billion in revenue over the next 4 years by doing that.
Katie Fehrenbacher, the excellent new staff writer over on GigaOM, notes that both companies have been struggling lately and could use some good PR from this partnership:
Beleaguered Nortel has far more troubles than even Microsoft and its EU fine-I spoke with Mike Zafirovski earlier this year and he described his mental state as “forceful optimism.” Nortel’s stock is just above $2 today, but rose in recent trading this morning. Nortel will likely benefit from the team, as the company needs more business software deals. But we’ll just have to wait and see how much of an upside Microsoft will get.
Katie also takes a little jab at the ugly PR-speak in the joint press release, which I have to completely agree with. Let’s just start with the headline: “Nortel and Microsoft Form Strategic Alliance to Accelerate Transformation of Business Communications”. Ugh. Wake me when there’s a product.
In yet another blow across Vonage’s bow, SunRocket announced an interesting new global calling plan this week that includes unlimited calls to major cities in 41 countries for about the same amount as Vonage’s standard monthly U.S. calling plan. For a flat fee of $299 a year (just under $25 a month) SunRocket customers can now have unlimited calling within 41 different countries using the new SunSpots calling plan, which includes coverage of most of Europe, and Far East destinations like China, Japan and South Korea.
This lowers the bar even more in the ongoing VoIP price wars and will surely be a big cost-saver for some people who do a lot of international calling to areas covered by the SunSpots plan, though the annual payment scheme will likely not appeal to everyone. Russell Shaw thinks that could be a major stumbling point, and his point that the people that are most concerned with shaving money off of their phone bills are probably much less likely to be able to pay for their phone service in annual chunks is a good one.
I almost felt bad for Senator Stevens as we collectively slammed him in the blogosphere last week over his insipid comments about how the Internet works, but Jon Stewart took the Stevens-smashing to a whole new level with his Daily Show segment on the Senator’s comments. I’m a big fan of the Daily Show and as usual Stewart doesn’t pull any punches. Now I really almost feel bad for him.
It looks like Skype has been successfully reverse-engineered by a group in China according to a blog post by Charlie Paglee. Alec Saunders was the first one to point me to Charlie’s report of a demo (with screenshots) of a non-Skype client using the Skype network.
It was only a matter of a time, and with the cracked Skype software coming out of China there is next to no possibility of stopping it. As Charlie points out:
From a legal standpoint eBay is out of luck. First, Skype itself is not viewed as “legal” in China. Chinese regulatory authorities have even looked into ways to block Skype in various regions of China. The Chinese telecom giants are not at all pleased with Skype ’stealing’ IDD revenue from their pockets. They will enthusiastically support a domestic Chinese company with the engineering talent to reverse engineer Skype. I wouldn’t be surprised if a major Chinese telco ends up licensing this technology to produce a competing Skype client for use in China.
What’s more, there is nothing at all illegal or even morally wrong with what this group of engineers has accomplished, especially from the Chinese perspective. They reverse engineered a protocol that was not protected by patent. They will be seen as heroes in China and it is unlikely the government will ever take action against them.
The software isn’t ready for release yet, but it sounds like it will be available soon and this will pose some very interesting questions for eBay and Skype.Phil Wolff figures Skype’s options are opening, switching, quashing, ignoring, or investing:
Open. They’re already on the path to opening up more of their apps at the API level. Skype could embrace this at the protocol level too. This is the hardest thing to do, but may pay off in the long run. Exposing these protocols is the only way for the Skype network to become an industry standard. And it would put Skype in a position of leadership the way Microsoft is for dot net, Sun is for Java, and Adobe is for Flash.
Switch. Skype could change the protocols, breaking the new software. This is a costly and temporary solution; tricky but doable. Replacing Skype clients for updates is hard enough; getting everyone to migrate could kill the brand love. It won’t be long until the Chinese engineers figure out how to get in again.
Quash. Skype might try to blow out the startup’s fire. eBay has a powerful combination of PR, lobbyists, litigators, and business allies. Even in China. Skype could try to accuse the startup of piracy. My guess is Skype will tread litely. These tactics rarely work in China and often tarnish the reputation of the outsider applying the pressure.
Ignore. Skype has enough to do. Wait and see.
Invest. Buy the team, put them to work.
I’d have to agree with Alec that opening up is really the only good option there for Skype. In fact, I’d highly reccomend Alec’s Detente in IM’s Cold War? post where he analyzes the changes happening in the IM world and makes a darn good argument for Skype to take the open road.
Om has the scoop today on a very interesting twist that will be coming soon to SightSpeed - the ability to use it to place-shift your TV viewing with Slingbox-type functionality. I’ve been very impressed with SightSpeed, it’s the nicest and most robust video conferencing system I’ve tried, and I think this is a fascinating development. The basic idea is that you’ll be able to install SightSpeed on a Media Center PC at your home and then view your media and TV on any other computer via your SightSpeed account. No specifics yet on when this new functionality will be released, but for more details and pretty screenshots check out Om’s SightSpeed Shifting Places.
With the recent decision to require VoIP companies to contribute to the Universal Service Fund, Daniel Berninger has written a scathing letter to the Commerce Committee questioning the basic premises and implementation of the USF today that is well worth a read. If you’ve been wondering what exactly goes on with the USF, Daniel’s letter will not fill you with a warm fuzzy feeling. While I think most would agree that the goal of providing universal telecommunications service is a worthy one, it’s certainly worth investigating how this long-standing funding system is achieving that goal.
The FCC and Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) don’t appear concerned about the lack of results, because they don’t actually track the impact of the fund in terms of universal service metrics. The USF represents a bureaucrat’s dream, because there exists no accountability for results. Success gets judged purely in terms of collecting and spending money. (The USAC’s annual report) does not mention penetration rates or any other metric that might qualify as a measure of universal service (i.e. fund results) rather than money (i.e. fund input.) The fact that the telephone industry insiders dominating the USAC board remain silent about the lack of results further shows the program exists to serve telephone companies not the cause of universal service. The FCC’s 150 page NPRM that accompanied the order assessing VoIP companies does not include a single mention of how or whether the funds contributed to the USF actually further the cause of universal service.
Tracking the number of households participating in the USF’s Low Income Program is as close as the FCC comes to tracking results. The monies collected and distributed by the Low Income Program doubled from $400mn to $800mn since 1997, but the nature of local telephone monopoly keeps people disconnected. The program provides on average $8 per month subsidy for qualifying low income telephone customers, but the subsidy does not solve the affordability problem given an average telephone bill of $50 per month. Even aside from basic rates that increase year after year, setup charges, strict credit terms, and demand for deposits keep as many as 20% of households in low income areas without telephone service. Competition from VoIP companies recently led Verizon to advertise a price reduction of $17 per month (i.e. twice the USF Low Income subsidy) on its unlimited usage plan. VoIP companies serve less than 3% of access lines, so this represents only the beginning of the industry’s competitive potential. Yet, the new USF assessment helps defeat VoIP competition.
The lack of results deserves attention, but the lack of results coupled with rapid growth of the fund represents a crisis. The FCC’s plan to assess VoIP does not come near to solving the funding challenges. The USF grew from $1.5bn in the year before the changes implemented by the Telecom Act of 1996 to $6.5bn in 2005. The fund continues to grow 12% annually in recent years, so at this pace it will double again in the next six years. LD revenues have declined 50% from a peak in 1999, so the FCC mandated revenue assessment grew twice as fast as the fund (from 1.2% in 1997 to 10.7% in 2005.) It does not help matters the Bells find ways to minimize USF contributions even as they increase their share of LD revenues. In 2005, the Bell LD division USF contributions amounted to about 1/3 of those by the former LD pure plays (i.e. AT&T, MCI, and Sprint) even given about equal market share positions. Note that FCC removed USF obligations on Bell company DSL revenues at the same time it asserted them on VoIP companies.
There’s always been the sense here in the U.S. that our lawmakers do not really grasp all the technology that they attempt to regulate, but the latest comments being widely circulated online by Senator Ted Stevens about the Internet and Net Neutrality really hit that point home in an especially scary and depressing way. Keep in mind that Senator Stevens is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, in other words one of the most important and influential lawmakers when it comes to telecommunications policy. Senator Stevens’ latest remarks to draw the ire of technical folks across the country (and the world) are pretty dumbfounding:
I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially.
Kind of reminds one of President Bush’s quote about “the internets”. Do these guys have even a basic understanding of what the internet is? Well, in Senator Stevens case, I think not. He went on to say:
They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck.
It’s a series of tubes.
And if you don’t understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
Maybe there is a place for a commercial net but it’s not using what consumers use every day.
Huh?? Please someone tell me that this is just a bad dream and this guy isn’t really one of the most powerful people in charge of telecom policy in this country. Alec Saunders does a good job of discecting Stevens’ “tubes” theory, and Timothy Carr of MediaCitizen asks what seems like a crucial question here:
Are we ready to entrust the future of the Internet to a law written by someone who doesn’t know what the Internet is?