In the VoIP industry we pride ourselves on innovation, but over the past decade our impact has been less than stellar. The real revolution has been the advent of mobile phones.
Mobile phones are highly personal devices, associated with individuals, not places. The user interface is vastly improved over traditional black phones. At a minimum, you call by name or by directly selecting people with whom you’ve recently spoken. Everyone has voice mail, not just businesses. Everyone has text messaging, even if Americans make less use of it than the rest of the world. Indeed, picture messaging is widespread, while video messaging and video telephony have emerged in Asia and Europe. But at least so far, the mobile phone revolution has been based on traditional circuit switching and Intelligent Network concepts. Even 3G video telephony is based on circuit-switch data rather than video-over-IP.
Meanwhile, the biggest impact of VoIP has been to drive down rates for long distance and international calls, as VoIP technology enabled new competitors with arbitrage plays. More recently, VoIP has begun to reach consumers who have broadband Internet access through the efforts of Vonage, services like Wanadoo, BroadVoice and AT&T (News - Alert) CallVantage, and VoIP packages from major cable TV operators. These services are beginning to take noticeable fixed-line market share, but they are relatively low in innovation. As residential replacement services, they focus on replicating plain old telephone service (POTS) with, at most, a few new features. I call that “digital POTS”! I’m all in favor of low-cost communications but, with VoIP, we can do better than digital POTS.
Skype (News - Alert) (news - alert) is the most successful of those trying to change the actual communications experience. In part, their initial success came from the “it just works nature” of their system, but they also provided significant new value with a coordination function, based on presence and instant messaging, that helps parties decide, in advance, when and how they will communicate. Of course similar services are now available from AOL (News - Alert), Yahoo, MSN and Google, but Skype gets the credit for pioneering the coordination function, for offering better than telephone quality audio and for supporting alternate forms of communications (voice, text and now video) in the actual communication session.
Indeed Skype may end up a serious competitor to Vonage (News - Alert), AT&T CallVantage and the cable VoIP operators as Skype, more than any of the others, has fostered a third-party software and hardware products program. As a result, Skype handsets are emerging that look to the consumer like ordinary cordless phones. So Skype will get into the fixed-line consumer space and end up head-to-head with digital POTS vendors like Vonage, AT&T CallVantage and the cable operators. That’s progress, but it’s still nothing like the global personal telephony revolution that mobile has created.
Of course, each successive Internet Telephony Expo is replete with innovative ideas for new VoIP capabilities — both new ways to coordinate communications and new ways to communicate. Indeed at some point, maybe less than ten years from now, we will see 3-D holographic virtual presence conferences, but they will be just as dull as today’s business video conference. But what’s missing with VoIP services today is the personal mobile VoIP communications device and the service innovations that a personal mobile interface could allow.
There’s hope. The past year has seen actual shipments of diverse WiFi (News - Alert)/mobile handsets, including products from majors like Nokia. Adoption in the U.S. has been limited, as U.S. mobile operators control the handsets available for their services. However, in Europe, the existence of these handsets has spawned numerous startups. Many are seeking to provide fixed mobile converged services for enterprises. Others, like Truphone (News - Alert) are directly targeting consumer communications.
The remaining impediments are walled gardens or expensive data plans, and handset diversity that means most applications won’t run on most handsets. Mobile competition, WiFi hotspots and ever increasing 3G capabilities should put an end to walled gardens within two to five years. Handset diversity will be with us, perhaps indefinitely, but a few powerful frameworks are gaining ground at different levels of abstraction, e.g. Symbian (News - Alert) and Windows Mobile at a base level, J2ME as middleware and Flash Lite and Opera & Safari browsers with AJAX. There won’t be a single API to write to (like Windows for the PC), but it should be possible to produce slick user interfaces across a wide variety of phones with a proxy server and five or six downloadable modules.
VoIP and mobile — now there’s an opportunity for 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.