Today, most major Internet applications provide public programming interfaces. Mapquest introduced an API in 2004. Then when Google introduced their Maps API in June 2005, there was an explosion in applications, called Mashups, integrating data from other sources into Google maps, or integrating Google maps into other web services. Today it’s hard to surf the web without running into third party applications that leverage map services. But maps are just one highly visible example of the burgeoning field of mashups based on web services APIs. Amazon, Flickr, eBay, YouTube, Facebook — all offer APIs. These APIs benefit consumers by allowing entirely new services to be easily concocted while helping service providers grow their communities of users (and their ad revenue!).
But parallels in the telephony world are extremely limited. Indeed, using Google (quote - news - alert) to search for the phrase “telephony web services” finds only one of the companies discussed later in this article. This is a nascent field. Traditional fixed and mobile operators still run highly constrained voice networks. Yes, you can have your computer place and receive calls, but if you want to overlay a private numbering scheme for use between phones in your far-flung offices (a voice VPN) — such services are only available from your operator. Likewise, if you want to integrate your customer care software with call center functionality, you start with PBX technology, as public networks are not open. Even access to your own call history requires scraping data from itemized bills.
Does the new world of VoIP do any better? Not much. Major VoIP operators, like Vonage, use VoIP to reproduce traditional fixed-line services — basically “digital POTS” — no open APIs there. Skype offers PC-based APIs for the Skype client and you could argue that’s all that makes sense for a peer-to-peer service. There are no central services to expose through web service APIs. But the test is what can you do with their APIs and the answer is client extensions. Since Skype clients run as a single instance per PC, you can’t easily implement a multi-channel back-to-back user agent (B2BUA) and a VPN.
Telephony Web Services Technology
The good news is a number of companies are developing telephony web services technology and a few offer hosted services directly or through partners. None of this is free and no service is widespread, but it’s a sign of things to come.
LignUp Corporation, Abbeynet S.p.A., Ubiquity Software and Angel.com offer SIP-based VoIP service platforms that can be controlled via web services APIs and they each allow access at several levels including some fairly high-level functionality. For example, LignUp offers basic media server and call control functionality but also complete PBX and messaging systems that are configured and controllable via web APIs. Angel.com is more focused on call center applications while Ubiquity offers conferencing and a complete residential VoIP (define - news - alert) service package. Abbeynet also focuses on VoIP services, with an optional pre-paid billing platform and a presence server.
As an example of what’s possible, LignUp did a mashup using their telephony services API and the popular hosted sales management system, Salesforce.com. A significant problem with any sales force automation system is getting field sales folks to actually input data. The Salesforce.com-telephony mashup took two days to implement and the result is slick, handling everything you’d expect, including, calling customers, capturing telephony information and filling in Salesforce.com forms for both incoming and outgoing calls.
Each of the platform vendors has companies providing hosted services on their platform. For example, Streamdoor Ltd. provides hosted contact center services on a LignUp platform. It’s configured and controlled via web service APIs, but the work is principally by Streamdoor on a customerspecific basis.
The closest I’ve found to customers doing their own mashups is with hosted service provider M1 Global. They focus on business process automation for enterprise customer care, i.e. the intersection of business policies and procedures with call centers and front line employees, and they provide not only web service APIs, but a set of business process modeling and application development tools based on the Eclipse open source development platform.
Telephony web services technology is in place today. What’s lacking is the widespread low cost access that web services from Google or Amazon offer. The problem is business models — PSTN calls still involve per-minute charges. But that won’t last. Costs are falling and other funding models will appear. Then we can expect telephony to join the word of web services mashups, with an accompanying burst of services innovation.
Brough Turner is Senior VP of Technology, CTO and Co-Founder of NMS Communications. (news - alert) For more information, please visit the company online at http://www.nmscommunications.com.