December 05, 2005

What is IP Communications?

On the heels of writing my previous entry where I claimed SlingBox is an IP Communications device, I read a story (registration required) in New York Times that discussed different tools that allow users to synchronize files between multiple computers. One of the applications they talk about is FolderShare. Om Malik and Alec Saunders have talked about it sometime back. In my opinion, this is another instance of IP Communications. Jeff Pulver has talked about it many times. But I don’t recall whether he has given a definition for this term. This entry is an attempt to capture the specific characteristics of IP Communications.

First a quick synopsis of FolderShare (as usual, I have not used it; it is based on the description available in their website): You establish an account with FolderShare and install their client in all the computers of interest. Then you identify the files that you would like to share among the computers. From then on these files will be synchronized between the computers. The synchronization works within a LAN or across the Internet. They use UPnP and port forwarding mechanisms for NAT/FW traversal. They even claim that it uses P2P technology. Originally there was a membership fee for enhanced service; but after the recent acquisition by Microsoft, the service is free.

SlingBox, FolderShare and countless other services seem to have the same pattern: basically they all transfer data from one device to another. Yes the specific application is different; they may differ in the performance requirement. But essentially they are all data transfer engines. The second common aspect is that they all have some sort of NAT/FW traversal technique. Finally they have some sort of authentication and authorization mechanism. This set of observations suggests the general characteristics of IP Communications. IP Communications is one where two are more end-points exchange data having the following properties:

  1. An identification mechanism which can be used to authenticate users and also can be used to authorize the set of other users who can be contacted. The authorization rule can be static or dynamic (Relevance Engine anyone?); it can be application specific.
  2. An efficient way to overcome the NAT/FW boundaries without violating the security policies in place.
  3. A set of application specific data generator that is used to encode/decode the data.

There is a benefit in developing this general definition. To date most of the examples of IP Communications have ad-hoc or proprietary way of realizing the first two functions. One consequence of this is the users are required to keep many ids. It is worse that the application providers use this to create an artificial “walled garden” in the hope that this will give them some economical benefit. Instead, it is preferable that the industry uses standard mechanism for these functions. For example, we could use SIP methods for authentication, authorization and the related directory services and we could use ICS for NAT/FW traversal.

Just imagine the possibilities. Currently many VoIP systems like FWD and SIPPhone offer the first two functions and they allow for federation with other systems. It is true that they offer “data generators” for voice, video, IM and Presence. But they could easily allow third parties like SlingBox and FolderShare to be “helper applications” that use their clients. There will not be appreciable increase in the demand for FWD/SIPPhone resources. But the user will experience the true benefits of IP Communications.

Of course, I used FWD/SIPPhone as examples. Instead I could have used Yahoo Messenger or GoogleTalk or MSN Messenger. I guess that explains why MSN recently acquired FolderShare.

Posted by aswath at December 5, 2005 05:54 PM
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You are on to something big with this line of thinking!
I concur.

Posted by: p2pvoice at December 6, 2005 10:55 AM

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