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Industry Insight
August 2002

Jim Machi

What It�s All About


You hold in your hands the 50th issue of Internet Telephony� magazine. In anticipation of this milestone, I found myself wondering whether the cover would change from yellow to gold, at least for this �golden� issue. As any reader of the previous 49 issues of this magazine knows, one of the most distinctive features of Internet Telephony is its yellow cover. In fact, people who meet me often ask if I�m the columnist in �that magazine with the yellow cover.� I say, �Yes, that�s Internet Telephony.�

So as we celebrate this golden issue, I think it�s appropriate to explore these questions: Just what is Internet telephony? (I don�t mean the magazine � I mean the industry.) And has the definition of Internet telephony changed since the magazine was launched in 1998, what sometimes seems like an eternity ago?

To help answer that question, I dug out some of my presentations from 1998. As I perused these early presentations, which reflected what audiences wanted to hear, I remembered the questions and comments I would hear: �What is it? Talking over the Internet for free? It�s weird...cool...scary!�

It was scary indeed, especially if you were an incumbent. This new stuff was a threat, but it was also an opportunity. And today, an industry born in the late, great, booming �90s is still here � and it continues to grow.

For most of us, the early definition of IP telephony was really a PSTN/IP gateway using the H.323 protocol, using wireline technology, and, to a large extent, using the Internet. Also embedded in this definition (but somewhat lost in all the talk about the PSTN/IP gateway) was the origin of IP telephony � that is, one computer talking back and forth with another computer that knew its IP address. It didn�t really sound too exciting, but when you heard the words �IP telephony� in 1998, that�s what went through your head.

Today if you ask someone what IP telephony is, you may still get the same response. But, increasingly, you�re likely to get a more informed response � in part due to much media coverage, in part due to Internet Telephony itself. One result of this increased information may be some chatter about standards like SIP, MGCP, or Megaco. That�s fine, but to me it doesn�t much change the definition of IP telephony unless you�re focused on the standards angle. The need to deal with different standards largely spurred the first softswitches, since there was a need for a product to translate protocols from one type of network to another. Certainly this didn�t exist in the first definition.

So how has the definition of IP telephony changed? Today the �quality doesn�t sound too good� comment has also gone away. The industry has worked hard make this happen. Part of the effort was working on the technology; part was using managed networks, instead of the public Internet, for routing.

Today someone may point out that you can send fax over IP. (Yes, I remember writing an article about T.38 real-time fax over IP.) That changes the definition. And there is wireless IP which, by its very nature, also changes the definition. The classic call center has largely embraced IP telephony technology as it integrates self-help Web with e-mail � to the point where call centers now have a new name, �contact� or �interaction� centers. Another new term created by IP telephony! Adding speech changes the definition again. And I don�t remember the concept of �voice portals� � which combine an interactive voice response (IVR) system and your Web pages � being considered when the first PSTN/IP gateway was developed.

That last point is important � and says a lot about IP telephony. As an industry, we have seen tremendous innovation in a very short time. The industry has used IP telephony technology to build products that only true innovators could have envisioned. For instance, I remember customers asking if we could make our boards handle conferencing, voice recognition, and play-and-record, all on IP streams. We were taken aback: �On a pure IP stream? No TDM bus involved at all?� We�d hear, �Yep, can you do that? I don�t care about the TDM bus. And, by the way, we need it now.� These customers were asking for the first IP media servers � before that term was even invented.

In fact, the whole process of creating IP telephony products was a real-time experiment in seeing how open, modular systems could spur creativity, innovation, and time to market benefits. Guess what? It works � and works well. We�ve seen incredible industry progress in the years since Internet Telephony launched. And, if you�re a long-time reader of this column, you know I�ve always supported open systems for this very reason.

Has the industry really changed? Yes and no. Yes, in that it�s very sophisticated now. The industry speaks in terms of market segmentation, killer applications, and business models. The government has taken notice � asking, for instance, whether universal service fees should be applied. There are numerous products and capabilities we hadn�t even imagined in 1998. Today if you ask someone what Internet telephony is, you may get a response far beyond, �It�s a weird-sounding phone call over the Internet� or �It�s that yellow magazine.� But when all�s said and done, IP telephony is still the technology of telephony over IP. And that�s what it�s all about.

Jim Machi is director, product management for the Network Processing Division of the Intel Communications Group. Intel, the world�s largest chip maker, is also a leading manufacturer of computer, networking, and communications products. For more information, visit www.intel.com.

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