IP Telephony: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
by Ed Stephenson
Come to ETel and discover what VoIP can do for you
A recent blog entitled All aboard the bandwagon! greeted the news about Yahoo Messenger's new voice features with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "Skype is getting some company," began the post on Ars Technica. "I mean, some more company; Vonage has been around for a while. Come to think of it, MSN Messenger has had voice capabilities since v7.0. Oh, and there's AOL TotalTalk, and Sony IVE, and GoogleTalk, and... Sorry, I see you're yawning already."
To many people, Voice over IP is an extension of the familiar, either as a cool instant-messaging feature or as a cheap way to make phone calls. But there's a lot more to VoIP just beneath the surface--especially the potential for a host of amazing new services that weren't possible five years ago. It's like finding a harmless snake protruding from the rocks, only to discover that the snake is actually the tip of the tail of something massive buried in the hillside.
"What's really happening with IP telephony is the antithesis of what companies like Vonage are saying to consumers," says Surj Patel, program cochair of O'Reilly's upcoming Emerging Telephony Conference (ETel) in San Francisco from January 24 to 26. "Through its massive marketing blitz, Vonage has served as an entrée to IP telephony for many, but at the same time they try to hammer home the idea that this is just the same as a normal phone, except that it uses a different transmission protocol. In fact, IP telephony is a whole new ball game."
That ball game is just reaching critical mass. Developers now have the right tools and the right motivation to build a wide range of new desktop applications, telephone services, and corporate phone systems that integrate voice with the Web, IM, WiFi, and more. In the past century, the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has given us call waiting, caller ID, and a handful of other services. With VoIP, the number and type of services available to people by phone is about to explode. Already, there are great new applications that allow people to:
- Use voice to compose or respond to email through either a wireless or enterprise voice mail system (w2.trekmail.com)
- Pay for parking spaces by phone, without the need for coins, tickets, or stickers (Spark Parking)
- Provide hospital personnel with voice-controlled communications badges using VoIP over WiFi (Vocera Communications)
- Connect to Amazon.com by cell phone to get comparative prices and reviews for items available in the stores they browse (Ringfo)
That's only the beginning. Many more applications for both consumers and the enterprise are in the hopper and edging toward their launch dates, while other developers and entrepreneurs are looking for those underserved market niches where they can make an immediate impact. Yahoo, Google, eBay, and others are already upping the ante by acquiring VoIP-related companies, whose products may well mix with existing applications to create something greater than the sum of its parts. This is extremely fertile ground for developers, whether they're in-house or in a garage.
"It's like a Wild West frontier," explains Patel, a freelance mobile and media technologist who once worked in the R&D lab at Orange, a Boston-based wireless operator, and at the MIT Media Lab. He's now involved with a VoIP startup of his own. "It's now as easy to create a voice application as it is to create a web application, and many of the same technologies are used in both areas. This creates tremendous opportunities for developers, enterprise users, and even the telcos--telephone companies--though most of them are loath to believe it at the moment."
In an attempt to put a face on this telephony revolution, our ETel conference will bring together the people, ideas, products, concerns, and questions that constitute this new technology space. Through a series of sessions and workshops conducted by business leaders and alpha geeks already deeply immersed in the technology, and through quick show-and-tell presentations by garage entrepreneurs with unique applications, ETel will both showcase and examine the spirit of innovation behind VoIP communications. The purpose is not to offer products to buy, but to demonstrate what's possible, explain the technologies behind it, and show how communication--and the telephone as we know it--will irrevocably change. ETel is aimed specifically at developers, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople who want to know how to get in on this telephony gold rush and stake their claim.
IP Telephony Offers Greater Access
The VoIP family of technologies has been around for more than 20 years, but it wasn't until 2000, when the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) provided call-processing functions similar to those of the traditional phone system--such as dialing and causing another phone to ring--that things started to roll. Applications such as Skype, the first IM application with voice that was able to work in any networking environment, took off as acceptance of broadband internet connections increased. Asterisk, an open source IP PBX application, gave organizations not only an alternative to traditional phone exchanges, but also an easier and cheaper alternative to costly commercial VoIP solutions. Skype and Asterisk, along with sipX, the Gizmo Project, and others, have provided the basic building blocks for what will soon be an avalanche of VoIP-related services.
"It's similar to the years 1993 to 1996 with web innovation," Patel says. "People suddenly realize they can do things with IP telephony. Think about how many people are on the internet--nearly a billion. There are over 1.5 billion people connected by phone, many owned by those who can't afford internet connections in their countries. With new VoIP technologies, you suddenly have access to a much larger audience. These emerging voice technologies allow you to build bridges between the networks, between the internet and telephones so that it becomes a single converged network. You will soon be able to do by phone what you now can do on the Web."
The industry's big players certainly recognize the opportunity. Last September, eBay agreed to buy Skype for $2.6 billion (with another $1.5 billion in bonuses if Skype hits certain targets by 2008). Was it just to get a piece of the action? Or does eBay have something more specific in mind? The company built an incredible market, and then bought PayPal to give people an ideal way to pay for the items they buy online. A peer-to-peer network that enables eBay's buyers and sellers to instantly establish voice contact with one another via PC (or mobile device) makes perfect sense. And it might not stop there. PayPal is also looking to initiate micropayment structures that will enable buyers of IP telephony services to pay the providers. "That's a powerful enabler," Patel says.
Google, in addition to its push to establish citywide WiFi networks, bought a startup called Android, a company that's working on an open platform for developers to create applications for mobile phones. The founder of Android is the one who came up with the T-Mobile-powered Sidekick II smart phone. Google also acquired a social-networking application called Dodgeball.com. This service allows users to initiate impromptu gatherings in an urban setting by sending out message alerts to all the friends on their list (and any friends of those friends) within a ten-block radius. The application automatically sends directions to the location (for instance, a bar), along with a photo of the messenger, so that new people know whom to look for. What else is Google up to? The company recently launched its Click-to-Call Service, which lets customers click on an icon in an online ad and be connected by voice to the advertiser for free. How will these pieces fit together?
Yahoo also has been busy. Months before the company introduced its IM voice features, Yahoo bought Dialpad, which markets a web application similar to Skype that enables users to make PC-to-PC or PC-to-PSTN calls. Dialpad gives Yahoo a proven platform (with 14 million users) for IP voice applications. A short time later, Yahoo launched Yahoo Research Berkeley, a new research partnership between the company and the University of California at Berkeley, "to explore and invent social media and mobile media technology and applications that will enable people to create, describe, find, share, and remix media on the Web." Just recently, Yahoo added del.icio.us, the social bookmark service that allows its 300,000 users to compile and share their favorite web content with others.
Exactly what is Yahoo and its research team cooking up? The team's founding director, UC Berkeley professor Marc Davis, says that he's focused on creating technology that will "enable daily media consumers to become daily media producers." You can find out more about Yahoo's new consumer voice initiatives--and the development opportunities that come with them--at ETel with Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo's senior director of voice product management. You may yawn at Yahoo's belated entry into the field of voice-enabled IM products, but perhaps it's wiser to ask, "What's next? Where do they plan to go with all of this?"
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