Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yahoo! and Jajah: Match Made in Heaven or Been There Done That?

This week's announcements about Yahoo! marrying Jajah – maybe they're just cohabitating – and AIM Open Voice APIs have everyone going gaga, racing to be first in the blogosphere with the news, and singing the industry-disruption Hallelujah Chorus.

Pardon me for being the one suggesting the emperor just might not be wearing pants.

If you think I'm being missing the boat here (and I'm fair enough to admit that's possible), take a walk with me down memory lane: Yahoo! buys Dialpad. AOL announces VoIP rollout. eBay buys Skype. Google buys GrandCentral. All of them earthshaking news at the time, or so it seemed from the laudatory tone the press took:

"Skype chief executive Niklas Zennstrom, who will join eBay's senior management team, said the deal would help 'revolutionise the ease with which people can communicate through the internet'." -- BBC News September 12, 2005

"Google's buy of the small Unified Communications (UC) tech company GrandCentral is a sign that voice communications will soon become a big part of Gmail." – PC World, July 3, 2007

"We're very excited that we'll be scaling our IP-based technology for the benefit of millions of Yahoo users," he [Dialpad CEO Vincent Paquet] said. "It will bring the ability to bring IP-to-PSTN connectivity for current and future Yahoo services." – June 5, 2005

And the industry-disrupting results were…?

I'm waiting.

When was the last time you made a phone call with AIM? Or Google Talk? Or clicked-to-Skype an eBay seller to ask if those hot red Steve Madden pumps were new or worn?

And even if you did those things, making a phone call isn't exactly industry disruption – we've been doing it for 100 years.

While I'll 'fess up to a cat-like contrarian streak -- I'm still not much impressed by anything about the iPhone except its design – I think there's a serious question here: Why can't Internet companies do anything much with voice? It's not like they haven't had time or resources.

It's not a technical problem – if it were, Silicon Valley's bright boys and girls would have solved it. No, it's a paradigm problem.

Internet companies are all about helping people do things on the…Internet. They're about clicking, not calling. They're more about searching than finding.

Looking up "Italian restaurant" on Google gives you 5,730,000 search results, including Luigi's in Spokane, WA, Orlando's in Lubbock, TX and House of Kebabs in Sunnyvale, CA.

ATT, on the other hand, gives you the Yellow Pages -- with a list of under 100 close-by Italian restaurants and their phone numbers.

Local online search tools just add more steps to something that's pretty simple with a phone book. For example, Google Maps gives me 45,827 results for "Italian restaurant near Santa Clara, CA."

So I'm not going to start having hot flashes over Yahoo! and Jajah until I see something that's actually new. They might start by putting click-to-order-a-pizza in the search results.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Get Smarter About Smartphones

OK, this isn't about VoIP. But it is about phones. Sort of.

Last week, driven by desperation at the ever-increasing entropy of my life, I took People On-the-Go's Accomplishing More workshop. The brainchild of software engineer and e-marketing pioneer Pierre Khawand, People On-the-Go looks at personal organization and productivity with a view to first, keeping it simple and, second, using technology in a way that makes your life simpler, instead of more complicated.

One of those technologies is, of course, the smartphone.

A few years ago Khawand decided that he would try nine leading smartphones for nine days each. Last year he published a book, The Smartphone Experiment, a day-by-day report on his nine-by-nine experience. What makes Khawand's review more valuable than others is that his perspective is from a business user's POV. He even covers usability while driving -- not something that teen-targeting marketing considers.

The jury is still out on whether I'm more productive. But at least I'm less worried. Then again, I'm not sure that's a good sign. 

Monday, April 21, 2008

Truphone Poised for World Domination?

While others in the VoIP-sphere are speculating about whether Google will buy Skype, Dameon Welch-Abernathy at the VoIP Weblog has several interesting posts about Truphone's "plans for world domination" enabled by its purchase of SIM4Travel and US$32 million in new investment.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Asterisk Ideal for Small Biz? Not Without Help

Beware of journalists bearing glad tidings about the Next Big Thing.

Today I happened on another pitcher of open source kool-aid promoting Asterisk for small businesses. In a post on yesterday, Matthew Mckenzie says that Asterisk is one of the "truly exceptional [open source] success stories." I started to write a comment and it turned into an essay, so I'm taking the liberty to post an expanded version here.

Yes, Asterisk is one of the VoIP industry's greatest success stories, but before you elevate it to paradigm-shifting status I suggest asking the insurance company down the street about it. Dollars to donuts they never heard of it.

But even if a massive publicity campaign was mounted, there is a good reason why small businesses should be careful before jumping on the Asterisk bandwagon: Asterisk is notoriously difficult to use and implement. The Asterisk eco-system had its genesis in that fact (see my 2005 article Asterisk Breeds a Cottage Industry).

Enter the Asterisk-in-a-box solution. But the problem with many packaged Asterisk systems is that the only player who gets the open source benefit is the vendor, because many systems are as closed as the old style proprietary PBX.

Once you install them, you're locked into the vendor for upgrades, enhancements and equipment. Plus, typically users don't get access to the full Asterisk feature set -- which is what makes the open source PBX so attractive in the first place. So customers end up with the same old siloed communications problem when they want to do something that's not "in the box."

The argument for this limitation is simplicity. But the ultimate simplicity is not to have an on-premises system at all -- which is likely to be the preference of many small businesses. And here's the place where Asterisk may be most likely to play in the small and home office space.

Of course, that moves the Asterisk usability problem to the service provider -- who has other things on his plate besides becoming an Asterisk authority. And if Asterisk-in-a-box solutions are limiting for end users, they're doubly so for service providers.

One system that does deliver for service providers is Thirdlane Technology's PBX Manager. One of the first Asterisk management systems, PBX Manager is also the only one that supports multi-tenant installations. Further, Thirdlane uses standard Asterisk and Linux formats and tools so that it's extendable for unified communications. Plus it can be used with any IP phones so customers don't have to replace perfectly good equipment when they want to upgrade.

Bottom line: Don't believe all the snake oil you hear about open source. Check under the hood.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

XO Beats the Phone Tag Game

How much of your productive time disappears into the black hole of phone tag? I can tell you, for me it's too much. That's why I was interested in Paul Korzeniowski's writeup in bMighty today about XO Communication's new XO Anywhere. It builds on unified communications to turn any phone into a "desk phone" -- ideal for those of us that don't work in "the office." Feature highlights:

- One number
- Simultaneous ring as many as 10 different devices
- Remote office functions
- "Click to dial" integration with Microsoft Outlook and Web browers
- Browser-based user interface

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

HelloSoft Converges on Nokia E-Series

Given that all I really care about is making a phone call, I like HelloSoft because they're greasing the skids for making phone calls without worrying about where the call actually happens. So even though I don't have a smartphone running Symbian -- at least, not yet -- I was excited by the company's news tonight about its HelloMobileCommunicator-FMC for Nokia’s E-Series handsets. HelloSoft's technology delivers seamless handoff between any access network -- Wi-Fi, WiMAX, WCDMA, EVDO and HSDPA/HSUPA. I know because I've used it.

With Nokia owning the largest single market share -- about 40 percent - of the mobile handest market, this promises a huge advance for end users. "We've leveraged Nokia's E-series to give the market more choices for Fixed Mobile Convergence," says Ron Victor, HelloSoft Vice President and General Manager for Business Development.

Expect to hear more from HelloSoft in coming months.

Earth to Digium....

It was interesting to read today that Digium is partnering up with to "improve and commercialize the embedded Java softphone created by Digium engineers."

I confess that as a writer I'm fascinated with this press release, which is one of the finest examples of obfuscation that has come my way in a long time. It will surely find a well-deserved place in a writing class as a 'how not to do it' example.

OK, back to business. Here's the explanation of what precisely "improve and commercialize" means here:

" gives Web users the opportunity to leverage person-to-person (or person-to-group) speech within the context of a Website" – commonly known as a conversation -- "increasing its traffic and stickiness by delivering worry-free, live voice chat opportunities."

But wait, there's more: "What makes different is that Web users are not required to download any software, surrender personal information, or even use a phone."

Duh? Exactly how do you make a phone call without a phone? Oh, with your headset! When was the last time your 85 year-old grandmother made a phone call with a headset? I thought so.

Clearly the PhoneFromHere team, UK-based Westhawk Ltd., is made up of visitors from the planet Remulak. If you think I'm being facetious, consider this from the corporate website: "Our research has shown that the web is evolving into a social environment. People like to talk." Really? Let's consume vast quantities…

However, we must take note when the company that gave birth to Asterisk decides that something is important – regardless of how badly they write. And the message here is that integrating the phone call into the website – or any other -- interaction is where the action is now.

But there are many players in this space, with a better command of earthling-speak than BoldCall, eStara, IfByPhone, LivePerson, Mexuar, RingCentral…And that's just for starters.

The important point is: What's your business objective?

Letting online gamers chat with each other (although, as the parent of one, I can tell you that if 17 year-old gamers wanted to actually talk to each other they would call each other up on their cell phones) is a different goal than making it a no-brainer for people who need an electrician now to schedule a service call.

In other words, it’s the goal, not the journey.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Carl Ford at Pulvermedia is right on in his recent post describing Voice 2.0 as Communications as a Service -- CaaS. It's all about 'what' instead of 'how' and it's what The Phone Company has been doing for a century.

Admittedly, being on the 'how' side of the product curve makes for more exciting conferences. But the 'what' end of of the continuum is where the money is made because most people only spend money on end results, not methods for getting the result.

A while back when I was talking to HelloSoft's Ron Victor about the company's dual-mode handset technology, he talked about why WiFi phones never really caught on. No one cares how the call is carried, they just want to connect. So why would you want a $200 phone that can essentially only accomplish the same result as a $40 landline?

Bottom line: VoIP is now where telephony was a hundred years ago and that's a good thing.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Reflections in VON's VoIP Eye

By now everyone has heard the buzz about VoIP's pioneering conference may be joining Webvan and in the dustbin of tech history. If you missed it, here are the reports from Marc Robbins and Om Malik

However, as of this writing PulverMedia still appears to be in business and the buzz looks more like the same two stories repeated hundreds of times across the VoIP blogosphere. But then, think of all those links pushing them to the top of the Google list. It's profitable as well as easy for facts to become casualties.

In the meantime I've been reflecting on Spring VON. Yes, it was very much a VoIP trade show – I think it was the "bottle blondes" in hot pants that set the Shriners Convention tone.

But as exciting at the early VON conferences were, most of us wouldn't settle for the VoIP call quality of ten -- or even five--years ago. There's something to be said for a business that's solved the basic problem. Good sound quality on phone calls isn't a bad thing.

Driven by my compulsive need to find narrative – as well as avoid honest work – I picked up on several everything-in-a-box products designed with the very small office in mind.

First up is British Columbia-based Sutus' office-in-a-black-box, Business Central. According to the company, the 12 x 12 x 3 box replaces your PBX, firewall, router, file server, wired and wireless LAN, email Server, VPN remote access support, PSTN and VoIP gateways, automated backup and even office collaboration tools. Quite a mouthful.

In a quick demo, I was able to set up a company very quickly with the GUI and make a phone call. However, some people I spoke with are skeptical that you can really put all that in a box and have it all perform at business-class levels. However, if you're operating a small office with a phone system from the 1980s and a consumer-grade Internet connection, it seems like this would have to be an improvement and a quick way to transition to VoIP.

A Business Central box costs $4,000 for 1 to 9 users and $5,500 for 10+ users, with no annual subscription fee. It runs on Windows and Mac and supports any standard Polycom IP phone.

Linksys continues to evolve their VoIP devices, packing more and more functionality into what's, literally, at hand. The $115 WRP400 broadband wireless router includes a high performance processor to handle data, voice and video; builds in the ATAs and security; and lets you run two networks. All in a package not much larger or heavier than my four year-old Palm Treo.

In the cute department, the SPA 962 includes a photo album display, which, when you're not looking at pictures of the grandkids, can be used for RSS feeds, IM chat and SIP text messages -- handy for those of us who find ourselves cooking dinner with the laptop at hand to IM our kids when dinner's ready.

For the more serious, the $160 WIP310 wireless phone comes with Linux and the SIP stack built in, and operates seamlessly with all Linksys routers.

Communigate has been busy as a clan of beavers erasing the distinction between the desktop and the Internet with the new release of its Pronto unified communications dashboard. Pronto is based on Adobe technologies and the new release adds Adobe AIR for unified multimedia and highly interactive – Web 2.0 -- applications.

Last but not least, I finally found a reason for a Skype phone to exist. IPEVO's $170 SOLO Skype desk phone is ideal for your grandparents. It comes with the Skype VoIP client built in – no computer required – and plugs directly into a broadband Internet connection. IPEVO also offers a $30 Skype USB handset.