It’s great to see SightSpeed getting such rave reviews and picking up some new and exciting (and high-profile) customers. In the past couple of weeks I’ve read the glowing PC Magazine review that rates SightSpeed at the top of the video calling category, an item on IP Democracy about how John Garamendi (a democrat running for Lieutenant Governor in California) is using SightSpeed to send video email messages to supporters, and Andy Abramson pointing out that MTV is starting to use SightSpeed to incorporate home viewers on a huge video display wall they have on one of their most popular shows. I think MTV must have realized what many of us in the VoIP blogosphere have been saying for some time now — SightSpeed’s video quality rocks! I’m not surprised that PC Magazine rated SightSpeed so highly, that matches my experiences testing the various video calling products.
I’ve gotten a little behind in my RSS feeds the past couple of days, and am just now getting to the very interesting discussion that has been happening across many VoIP-related blogs about a few new ventures that are currently making headlines (Rebtel, Jahjah, Grand Central) and in some cases attracting attention at this year’s prestigious DEMO show. In general, I tend to agree with what I think Luca, Ken, Phoneboy, and Ted are saying about the value proposition that is being offered up by these new companies - none of them seem very compelling to me. (To be fair, some people who I respect a lot like Andy Abramson and Alec Saunders are much more bullish on some of these ventures, so there may be more to them than first meets the eye. And I understand how Jahjah’s Mobile service could save Alec some serious coin, but I don’t think Alec’s calling patterns are very representative of most cell users.)
But rather that add more to the pile-on, I would rather just call attention to Ted’s especially excellent post that gets to what I think is the root of what many of us are looking for in the new generation of telecom applications, (Voice 2.0 if we must.) Here is a potent passage from Ted’s post ,but I highly recommend clicking over and reading the whole thing. (I notice that Luca feels much the same as I do about this one).
We need to focus on increasing ACTUAL functionality and lose the obsession with placing band-aids on the infrastructure of yesterday in order to save a half-cent a minute, which is the basis of these firms’ business models. When clients ask me about VoIP, they always bring up carrier cost savings. That may’ve been the case in 2001, but it’s getting tougher and tougher to make that case. So I switch them off of cost savings and turn them on to new ways of thinking about communications.
We need to think 2.0. We need to worry about freeing the potential uses of the global network for effective human interaction, not inserting ourselves into the domain of carriers whose days we already know are numbered, by nature of their insensitivity to consumers and their inability to deliver the applications people want.
We have software now. The IP world is a world of software. We can do whatever we want with global telecom by virtue of the software nature of this convergence movement we’re all so excited about. So why are we using software to least-cost-route cellular minutes, seriously? What’s the point in trying to sell to a mass-market solutions that (a) require aquiescence to the existing walled-garden of the cell phone business and (b) cater to only the smallest percentage of cell-phone device users–those that frequently roam internationally and those that happen to own one of the phones supported by these band aid solutions. Aren’t today’s consumers smarter than this? Tomorrow’s consumers certainly will be.
As promised, the Disposable Phone Numbers™ project is now available as open source via Sourceforge.
To answer some other questions that have been asked: The equipment you need to run DPN is actually quite minimal. The demo box you reach when you call the demo telephone number (+1 312 967 6568) is a nice Wiindows XP machine, but nothing truly extraordinary. The Voxeo “Prophecy” server requires Windows XP (for now; Linux is coming “soon”) and if you use pre-recorded announcements instead of text-to-speech, you don’t really need much in the way of horsepower.
The demo box itself isn’t connected to the telephone network directly. The telephone number is supplied by Voxeo (again, as a freebie to developers) and the demo box uses SIP to accept the incoming call. I don’t bother routing the call to an actual telephone handset, so this demo box doesn’t even have an ATA.
In other words: if you’ve got a desktop machine with some spare disk space, you can set it up as a speech recognition/text-to-speech/web server/PHP/servlet/SIP server and run the DPN demo without any additional equipment.
Voxeo, BeVocal, and some other companies also have free developer accounts; you can run your application on their hosts, and connect to them via Free World Dialup or the regular phone network.
A few days ago Microsoft recently released a long overdue version of Microsoft Messenger for Mac 6.0. After a few days poking around with it I gotta say it feels like a checkbox in a product matrix and not a quality release.
The Contact List:
The IM Window:
• It’s a Universal application
• Supports Yahoo/MSFT IM interop
• Has “conversation history” aka archiving
• Allows conversations to be saved as MSFT Entourage Project notes
• Lets you setup MSN alerts (large list of configurable alerts)
• Status messages work across Yahoo/MSFT
• Support for Live Communication Server
• Can’t sign in with a Yahoo ID
• No spotlight support for conversation history
• Tacky interface
• No webcam support
• No support for IM encryption
• No voice
• No group IM chat option
• Member services preference link option doesn’t work
• Confusing Mobile/Pager references (and preferences)
• Strange hybrid corporate/personal consumer product play
• Can’t send files to Yahoo users
• Lack of common Mac Keyboard shortcuts for things like Fonts, etc
• No support for custom alert sounds
• No support for Yahoo display images
• No obvious way to signout from the client and then automatically into a Mobile device
A few rhetorical questions:
• How can a IM client not support a webcam?
• How can a major Release Candidate client not support Voice?
• Why does this client have two seperate contact lists depending on the signed in user name (Passport/LIve ID vs LCS)?
• Was this throughly bug tested? Too many odd interactions, for instance, why does closing the LCS contact list window (when a LCS username is not even signed in) *and* when the Personal Contact list window is open cause a dialogue window to popup complaining that the application will continue to run?
Bottomline: To take this project seriously major improvements are necessary. This really should be labeled as a beta.
UPDATED 3/19/2007: The Microsoft Mac client team sent me a link to a blog entry on the Microsoft Mac Office Blog. They feel it explains (in a transparent way) how they make decisions and further add that they promise to have webcam support available to Microsoft Messenger Mac users in future versions of the software.
The MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) business has seen a lot of challengers but no real winners beyond niche markets, at least here in the U.S. And now one of the bigger efforts is giving up on the MVNO model as ESPN Mobile will shut off its services as of the end of the year and is halting all sales immediately.
After one year in business and an extensive marketing campaign, Wireless Week cites rumors that ESPN Mobile had only drummed up a mere 10,000 subscribers. Realizing that the model of running a mobile operator without owning the infrastructure is a tricky one (especially with $500 handsets), ESPN will instead try to license its mobile application and content to other wireless carriers. Which probably would have made a lot more sense for a content provider like ESPN in the first place.
I checked out the
Embedded Systems Conference in Boston
this week, talking mostly to vendors whom conference organizers had
highlighted in what they call the Disruption Zone. Both the companies
and the presentations at the show were too varied for easy
classification; I’ll present a few here.
After a quick perusal of my VoIP-related RSS feeds this morning it was clear that something interesting was going on over at Adobe. Om broke the story last night that Adobe is working on adding VoIP functionality to its ubiquitous Flash media player:
And now Adobe Systems wants to replicate its success in video space in the Voice over the Internet (VoIP) arena, making it easy to embed voice into web applications. GigaOM has learnt of a secret start-up project currently being incubated by the $1.9 billion in annual sales software giant. Some members of this startup come from the Macromedia Breeze (now called Acrobat Connect Professional) conferencing group. (Breeze is a Flash based web-conferencing system, much like WebEx.) Though less than a year old, the start-up has started to attract some serious VoIP talent.
The charter for the start-up is to enhance “Flash” and add support for various voice-over-IP protocols including SIP. They have to come up with ways to make Flash-based-voice work with some of the commonly used signaling systems. These are huge challenges, but if they can overcome all these issues, they could be onto something big. For starters, they could enable web based calling, and prevent the technical hell that comes with many soft phones of today.
VoIP bloggers rightly jumped on this story, as it could be a very big deal. Om points out that just one of the possible killer apps here is if mobile Flash starts supporting VoIP, this could be an end-run around all the companies working on adding VoIP and wifi capabilities for mobile phone users. Tom Keating whipped out an interview he did with an unnamed developer at Adobe about this project, and looks at the possibilities this could lead to in the social networking space. Alec Saunders thinks it’s a great idea though points out that there are some serious technical hurdles to get over before Adobe could truly create a standardized VoIP platform. Ken Camp sees it as more proof that VoIP is rapidly evolveing into the unified communications tool we often talk about in these circles and that Adobe is showing some real foresight and leadership in this area.
While I may not get up as early as some of my fellow VoIP bloggers, I share their excitement at this development.
O’Reilly’s Linux DevCenter has an interesting post today by Carla Schroder about her experiences putting together homemade wireless access points.
Building your own wireless access point, or router, or firewall using Linux and a single-board computer is fun, with the usual bonus of having complete control over your stuff. There are kazillions of tiny Linuxes- which one should you try?
My latest fun has been replacing those little blue consumer boxes with real homegrown wireless access points and routers. Yes, cheap n quick is nice, but reliability and configurability are even nicer.
If you like to put things like this together or have been wondering abut the trade-off’s of the various “tiny” Linux distos, you should definitely go give Carla’s post a read.
A friend recently asked me how many email addresses I had; her family thought she was a geek because she had six. I guess I’m a little more geeky: I have over one hundred eighty email addresses. Every time a company asks me for an email address, I generate a new one just for that company and arrange for incoming mail to show up in my normal inbox (I’ve automated this to a single command line in Linux). If the company abuses my email address by sending me spam, I disable the email address. Disposable email addresses guard my privacy.
I’d certainly like the same system for telephone numbers, because sometimes a company will get hold of my phone number and never let go. (Horror stories deleted; fill in your own.) Internet Telephony provides a solution. One reason Internet Telephony is a revolutionary innovation is that IT takes the ability to establish telephone numbers away from a central authority and gives it into the hands of anyone who wants to terminate calls. Telephone numbers become an unlimited commodity instead of a precious — and lucrative — resource.
Until IT becomes ubiquitous and all telephones can dial using the “sip:email@example.com” syntax, I’ve devised an alternative scheme to achieve disposable telephone numbers: use a single telephone line, but assign each company its own extension.
I’ve written a demo Disposable Phone Numbers application in CCXML, VoiceXML, and Java, running on Voxeo’s free Prophecy server. As each call comes in, the caller is asked for an extension number, which the caller provides using spoken words or touch tones. The extension goes to local Java servlet, which does a check of the extension number (it should be a database lookup, but my prototype just checks against a short internal list). If the extension is valid, the call goes through; if the extension is invalid, the application drops the call. If anyone is interested in hearing the pre-alpha — and the user interface is just barely good enough at the moment — they can try it by calling the demo number at +1 312 957 6568, which terminates at a computer on my desktop. At the moment, the only two valid extensions are 3350 and 8932, and all calls are dropped. If there’s enough interest I’ll release the application as open source.
In his latest ETel article, Matthew Gast explains how he set up his home Asterisk system to handle his out-of-office call processing needs. This detailed article includes the code Matthew used to allow and validate user input of the time and date for when out-of-office processing should be used.
One of my primary motivations for setting up my own Asterisk system was my travel schedule. I had an impossibly complex series of rules that I wanted people calling me to follow about when to use my home phone, when to use my cell phone, and how to avoid disturbing me when I was far from home. With Asterisk, I could set those rules down in code and allow callers to use one number to reach me. My initial project was to enable remote SIP extensions to keep track of the local time at my remote site and avoid bothering me at inappropriate times.
Finally there’s an official beta version of Skype’s 2.0 client software that includes video calling available for Mac users. (There was a “preview” version before and some unauthorized beta versions made their way out into the wild). I’ve just given it a quick spin, and while the interface is clear and friendly and the standard Skype functionality all works as expected, I wasn’t very impressed with the video quality I experienced. It definitely wasn’t as crisp or clear as video calls I’ve made recently using SightSpeed 5.0 on this same platform and connection. There’s been other rumblings recently about Skype service quality issues, I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come for many people’s favorite VoIP service.
Om has pulled out the two most impressive statistics from a recent study by Cable Data News about VoIP adoption: North American cablecos now have almost 4.7 million VoIP customers, and are signing up new ones at the very impressive rate of 11,000 per day. According to the study the cable companies have signed up over a million new VoIP customers in the second quarter alone.
Its long been widely recognized that the cable companies were the best poised to pull off the fabled “triple play” and study after study lately is confirming that they’re making the most headway in getting customers to buy bundles of voice, data, and tv. I know that in my neck of the woods Comcast has started aggressively marketing their VoIP services and triple play bundles. As Om notes, the pressure is really heating up on the telcos. It’s going to be interesting to see if they’re going to survive in this climate and be able to hang on to their telephone customers amidst growing competition and pricing pressure.
Voice over IP suddenly had to mature and take on responsibilities over
the past few months, as the FCC decided suddenly to impose a host of
regulations on it. Governments (urged on by traditional phone
companies) have been talking for years about making VoIP obey the same
rules as the public switched telephone network (PSTN). When I attended
Voice Over Network conference
in Boston last Fall, such discussions were still in the exploratory
and “What if…” stage. FCC chair Michael Powell’s enthusiasm for the
disruptive potention of VoIP seemed to keep such regulations at bay.
But Powell resigned in January 2005.
Over the past year, the FCC has quickly ruled that any VoIP calls
attached to the PSTN have to:
Allow wiretapping on their systems
Support emergency 911 calls
Pay hefty fees into the Universal Service Fund to support poor and
These requirements don’t apply to pure VoIP, computer-to-computer
calls, which stay off the PSTN. But most companies still depend on the
PSTN, partly because most phones are still traditional ones, and
partly because two VoIP phones may not be able to find each other on
I came to VON this year to find out how companies are reacting to the
new regulatory requirements, as well as what they’re doing to grow up
in other ways: offer better security, allow vendors to measure
performance and quality, and so on. VON is an increasingly popular
show, expecting between 9,000 and 10,000 attendees this year. There
was plenty for them to look at.
It used to be that building advanced telecom applications required a minimum investment of several million dollars, a barrier which kept small entrepreneurs from experimenting with telecom services in the way that web services developers have for years. With the development of open standards telephony, VoIP, and hosted on-demand computing services, it is finally possible to use a low-cost development track to create next generation telecom services. Brian McConnell examines this new landscape for telecom development in his latest ETel article Building Advanced Telecom Apps on a Shoestring.
Andy Abramson has a good post
this morning tracking some of the rumors and announcements coming out of VON this week. I’m not sure what has me wishing I was there more in Boston, Andy’s list of interesting announcements or the wine list for his blogger dinner last night. OK, it’s really not that hard, it’s a pretty impressive wine list.
In a week sure to be chock full of product announcements coming out of Fall VON, the first one that caught my eye is from the folks at Voxlib who just released a tool for using Skype from any mobile phone.
Vox for Skype is unique among the products vying to get Skype tied into your mobile phone in that it doesn’t require any software to be downloaded or installed onto the mobile handset. You do need to install the Vox for Skype app on your PC, but it interfaces with your mobile phone with SMS and voice prompts via an IVR. Use of Vox for Skype is free for now, but I would expect that to change once they’ve attracted a decent amount of users.
As Voxlib president and CEO Stéphane Marceau explained to me, they decided to go this route so they could make the service work for the largest possible audience. Considering that most mobile users already have some familiarity with IVRs, Vox for Skype is a tool that can practically instantly allow any Skype user to extend their service to their mobile phone. While I would probably prefer a phone-driven application to handle this kind of thing, it’s hard to argue with Voxlib’s plan for launching with the largest audience reach possible.
I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to fit the Fall VON conference into my schedule this year, it’s already sounding like a great show. Om has a nice preview of what to expect, and Alec Saunders already appears to be blogging up a storm from the conference. Even though I can’t be in Boston, I’ll be dressing in solidarity with my VoIP peers tomorrow anyway - I have a closet full of hawaiian shirts.
Luca Filigheddu has just posted Mac and Linux versions of his popular Firefox and Thunderbird VoIP extensions and I’m happy to report that the Mac Firefox version seems to work great on my MacBook Pro running OS X 10.4.7. I’m having some slight issues with it not automatically recognizing U.S.-style phone number formats on random web pages, but I expect that will get ironed out before the final release. The extension allows users to easily click on any number in the browser window and dial it, presents a simple but elegant phone menu in the browser’s chrome, and offers a browser sidebar with address book info — all features that are powerful and simple to use.
Not surprisingly, Ken Camp has the first post with analysis of this that I’ve seen, and I completely agree with Ken’s take:
The larger issue…the really important point…the forward-thinking key here, is that Abbeynet is steadily moving forward with what I believe is the real future of VoIP. Softphones are dead. They don’t add value. Not really. The value, and the evolution to unified communications is toward softphones as plug-ins, widgets and imbedded tools. The next-generation softphone won’t be a client you install at all. It will be a component of the web page, a component of the application. It will be where you need it to be.
Softphones are not nearly as convenient or useful as integrated systems like these AbbeyNet VoIP plugins, which is the direction that I expect VoIP software to continue in. The ability to click on any phone number on any web page to launch a call is a powerful one, and I can understand why AbbeyNet’s initial release of their VoIP Firefox and Thunderbird plug-ins generated so much interest. If, like me, you’re a Mac or Linux user and you’ve been dying to give these plug-ins a try, now’s the time. Click on over to Luca’s blog for the download links.
Ken Camp has the skinny on my friend and colleague Brian McConnell’s latest improvements to his innovative Radio Handi service - the addition of a Stream Code directory service.
Brian and I have talked a bit about this new Stream Codes Directory Service over the past couple of months. Here’s an example of how unifying communications gives more freedom to users. This service can take Internet broadcasting to a new level. And audio streams really provide just an introduction. I expect to see other media streams in the directory in the future.
MP3 players are so common they’re built into our phones today, but other consumer electronics devices can easily support streaming media. We’ve seen talk about place-shifting television with Slingbox and the like. This simple service can take the pain out of listening to podcasts and make it as simple as a radio. And it leads quickly to imbedded Internet radio. Or you can listen via the phone if you like…any phone.
Ken is really out in front with the VoIP news these days, whenever a new interesting announcement is made I can count on Ken having some insightful and practically instant coverage. I hope to get Brian to post more details about the Stream Code directory service and Radio Handi here on ETel in the near future.
Very interesting news coming out of Dulles, VA this morning. AOL has announced a new developer initiative centered on its AIM Phoneline service which includes releasing APIs that will allow developers to personalize AIM Phoneline by adding unique ring and ringback tones, enable a wide variety of USB devices to work with the service, and most importantly build new call management functionality into the service.
AOL has been interesting to watch lately as it struggles with the reality that its old business model is toast, and moves like this to open up its platforms to encourage a stronger and healthier developer eco-system are certainly encouraging. A lot of analysts have noted that AOL has not done much to capitalize on its dominant position in the IM market. Time will tell if positive moves like this are going to help shape a turn-around or are simply too little too late.
One of the things that jumps out from this morning’s press release is that iotum is one of the companies that will be showcased at next week’s VON roll-out of AOL’s new initiative and are already plugged in to what AOL is doing. This isn’t surprising to me, the very smart folks at iotum have been aggressively pursuing various means of getting their intelligent call-filtering technology out there to consumers, and this is a great way to expand their reach and gain exposure for their relevance engine. We’ve written quite a bit about iotum before on ETel and I remain impressed and convinced that they will go far. Deals like this and things like the work they’ve been doing in creating an iotum Asterisk module demonstrate that they “get it”. And iotum co-founder Alec Saunders regularly writes some of the most thoughtful posts on developer programs I’ve seen in the telecom space.
I believe this is not only a coup for iotum, but for AOL as well. They wisely chose a very relevant (sorry!) player in this space to showcase their developer launch. Jeff Pulver and Mark Evans both have some interesting analysis of iotum’s role in the announcement. I’ll definitely be watching closely to see how this one plays out.
Update: Ken Camp just blogged about this also, with some added insight from the players at iotum, MyNuMO and AOL, and now Alec Saunders has weighed in with the iotum perspective.
There’s been quite an uproar in the blogosphere over a recent article on AppleInsider that quotes analysts from American Technology Research saying that the release of the long-rumored Apple-designed cell phone is imminent and that it “is likely to revolutionize the handset industry.”
“Our research indicates that an Apple-designed smart phone has moved from concept to prototype and recently has progressed to near completion as a production unit,” analyst Shaw Wu told clients in a research note on Tuesday. “We believe this smart phone has been in development for over 12 months and has overcome substantial challenges including design, interference, battery life and other technical glitches.”
Now taking into account the fact that Apple has scheduled one of its famous big press conferences for Sept. 12, and has just made a bunch of system upgrade announcements (so Steve clearly won’t be talking about those), lots of people are expecting him to announce the mysterious iPhone next week. If AppleInsider’s right we can expect the Apple phone to have “an iPod nano-like candy bar form factor and come in three colors.”
I have to confess that this is one rumor I hope is true. If anyone can design an exciting handset it’s Apple.
Our friends at Make just found a great detailed description for creating your own custom USB phone using an old Western Electric 2600 headset telephone, by Noelix over on the Instructables site. (If you haven’t visited Instructables yet, prepare to spend some serious time browsing around this fascinating DIY site). Warning, soldering will be required.
Matthew Hamrick is the co-founder of the Silicon Valley Homebrew Mobile Phone Club, and while he appreciates the strides we’re seeing in openness in telecom with devices like Trolltech’s QTopia Greenphone, he makes a plea for a truly open mobile phone platform in this ETel op ed piece.
Let me pitch you on the idea I’m calling “the complete open phone.” The goal of the complete open phone is to provide developers a complete platform for innovation. Starting with the mobile phone hardware and ending with the wireless network services. I think we all know that a nice open source operating system is a key component. How ’bout Linux? Add to that the GNU tools and we’re well on our way. Just add a good idea and some talented software engineers and you’re half-way to changing the world, one handset at a time.
I recently saw a demo of a home-made Linux-based cell phone that was put together with inexpensive off-the-shelf parts at an O’Reilly planning session for our upcoming Emerging Telephony Conference, and I’d like to think this future that Matthew is hoping for is just about upon us. One thing that I know for sure is that the people who are pushing this envelope the hardest will be at next February’s ETel conference, and I’m already looking forward to it.