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January 2000

rich.gif (5262 bytes) Interoperability, Taking Wing,
And A Prayer


From this business traveler’s perspective, the most painful travel is international travel. But before you send me a flood of e-mail about how nice it is to visit the Eiffel tower or Big Ben, please hear me out. I spend a great deal of my time on the road. Maybe even as much as 90 percent of my time is spent traveling to some near or far-off destination. These last months have seen me driving through toll plazas and touching down at airports in northern New England, New York, New Jersey, Washington State, Texas, California, Nevada, and Canada. And as if international travel wasn’t bad enough, with the proliferation of flight delays and cancellations, domestic traveling is becoming more difficult than ever.

Now, when traveling outside the borders of the U.S., we must not only endure the hassles of domestic plane travel, but upon reaching our destination, the rigorous questioning and potential for searches that is known as customs awaits us. Having successfully negotiated customs, you must exchange your good old American greenbacks to the local currency of the country you happen to be in. Moreover, your electrical equipment, cell phone, and modem may not work properly in foreign lands. One of my worst experiences was a layover in Canada where the local ISP number would not recognize my Netcom account. Once I got onto the Netcom Canada network, my outgoing mail server (ix.netcom.com) wouldn’t take e-mail. I wasted hours trying to send vital e-mails. At one point, I was dialing long-distance to Connecticut to an ISP number that I knew worked just so I could communicate. What a disaster!

Needless to say, I am not a big fan of international travel and try to stay stateside whenever possible. It is just so inefficient to leave our borders that I feel like I am wasting more time than it is worth when I leave the U.S. Of course, the situation is exactly the same for anyone who leaves their home country to go to any foreign land. There are so many different standards — telecom, electrical, monetary… that having to negotiate them all makes us inefficient.

While many travel and hospitality companies try to help us overcome the obstacles of multiple standards — and yes, there are occasional success stories, such as cell phones that can work in any international location, or hotels that offer electrical adapters for multiple global standards — disparate standards do continue to evolve. And it is the unfortunate consumer who usually loses out in the process.

A look at the datacom market can show you what happens when disparate standards evolve into a single one. The PC, Ethernet, TCP/IP, POP, HTML: these are a few good examples of standards that have truly allowed an industry to erupt with growth in an extremely short amount of time. You can’t argue the fact that single standards for things like e-mail and Web browsing are good. This concept has not been lost on Internet telephony vendors and the appropriate standards bodies. However, at last count, there were way too many standards in the Internet telephony market. Unfortunately this proliferation of standards has resulted in confusion for those looking to develop products in the market, not to mention those looking to purchase products. While I am happy to see all of this standards activity in the VoIP market, my biggest concern lies with whether or not these standards will actually gel into existing products rather than merely foster press releases that claim compatibility.

I wish I had the power to eliminate, or at least slow down, the invention of new VoIP standards until the existing ones were implemented into products. Among the goals of our market, we need to embrace a minimum of standards guaranteeing the least amount of choices and work for developers of Internet telephony products. I almost wish we could eliminate a few existing standards. It is crucial that we work together to stop the madness of standards proliferation and concentrate on adoption. This industry will not continue to enjoy incredible growth if it is splintered into many different factions and standards. And let’s face it, we have a long way to go to ensure interoperability becomes a reality.

We at TMC have put our heads together with the vendor community and tried to do our part to ensure that our industry has as much help as possible in achieving its lofty compatibility goals. To that end, at last October’s Internet Telephony Expo in San Diego, we launched TMC’s ConvergeNET, a multi-vendor VoIP network dedicated to showcasing interoperability.

Naturally, when it came time to find someone who could interface with the vendor community to help ensure that the various vendors in the industry would work together effectively, I turned to our own in-house TMC Labs engineers who have decades of experience testing and evaluating communications products and services. In fact, many members of the TMC team worked very closely with industry contacts to ensure that ConvergeNET would become a success.

When the Exhibit Hall opened, I couldn’t believe my eyes — lots of companies that have never worked together before were attempting to place calls to one another right on the show floor. Engineers were tweaking code and recompiling their products right before my eyes to get their products to work.

As soon as the show floor opened for example, I visited the booths of iFace.com  and Quicknet Technologies, where they had just gotten their disparate products to make and receive calls. I actually placed the first test call over ConvergeNET between these separate platforms. I was ecstatic! It was a great feeling to be part of the event that showcased companies like iFace.com and Quicknet working together.

When all was said and done, 12 companies demonstrated some sort of multi-vendor interoperability. elemedia was one of the driving forces behind ConvergeNET and for that the industry owes them a debt of gratitude. elemedia’s strong support was evidenced by the fact that their gateway interoperated with a wide variety of other products from Inter-Tel, Quicknet, Tundo, and iFace.com. Other success stories included VocalTec and Cisco interoperability, Dialogic and Motorola working flawlessly with NetMeeting, and dynamicsoft demonstrating SIP compatibility with Pingtel.

One of the more unique ConvergeNET participants was Nokia who was gracious enough to allow me use of their wireless LAN adapter cards during my keynote to demonstrate wireless VoIP video conferencing.

Needless to say, we are all very happy to see the industry working towards demonstrating full real world interoperability. TMC’s ConvergeNET was so successful that we will continue it at all TMC events, including the upcoming Communications Solutions™ EXPO (formerly CTI EXPO), April 26–28 in Washington, D.C.

And so, just a few years after the start of this great industry, it seems that we are off and running toward a future where disparate VoIP products will work seamlessly together. A few things that still need to be worked out are how to gauge different levels of interoperability for carrier class, SOHO, and enterprise applications. Complications notwithstanding, I predict that the year 2000 will be the year when we see widespread multi-vendor cooperation and full interoperability.

We are witnessing the development of an industry that will provide telecom users with enhanced services that will make them more productive and give them more control over how they communicate with others. As purchasers of Internet telephony products, it’s our job to make sure the vendors know that they must interoperate with one another if they plan on getting our business. If we can transmit the importance of standards compliance early on we will all soon enjoy the ability to put together best of breed solutions from a variety of manufacturers.

In the meantime, here I go again: Traveling all across this great country of ours (with the occasional foray into foreign lands) doing my share to promote common standards and interoperability. Now, if only all the airlines would work together to promote a higher standard of quality when it comes to airline food. Then we might really be on to something…

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