February 11, 2007

VoIP Hardware Need Note Be Boring

A couple of days back Phoneboy bemoaned the fact that he does not excited with VoIP hardware because there has not been much innovation taking place. He also told us that the last cool thing he saw was SPA-3000. Apparently one can do nifty things once “you understand how it works and, furthermore, how to configure it.” In a related post, Andy points out that this once again confirms his thesis that poor marketing is the main reason. I would like to add that there is another reason – not being true to the technology.

In my opinion, the promise of VoIP was/is that:

  1. the end users can signal to each other directly, without any intermediaries;
  2. multi-modal communication and picking the appropriate mode facilitated by the direct signaling connection;
  3. adjust the mode of communication in reaction to the changing network connection and/or the nature of communication.

To my knowledge, no VoIP hardware has even tried to deliver on these promises. To a large extent, the hardware manufacturers have focused on aping the PSTN service model by slightly modifying the architecture. They have catered to VoIP service providers, by miniaturizing the traditional Class 5 switch (calling it ATA, a dreaded term from the ISDN era). Otherwise nothing has changed. Added to this, the VoIP service providers, in their quest to increase the ARPU, have preferred to keep the cost of ATA at a low level. Of course, an implication of this is the ATAs are boring devices. This is the reason that I am not in full agreement with Luca’s analysis that VoIP has been successful, let alone the reasons.

There was a time when people have claimed that VoIP is a product and not a service. But we have not been true to the technology. Instead, the whole industry has worked on developing a service. Once we return to the real promises of this technology, VoIP hardware will become exciting.

Posted by aswath at February 11, 2007 07:03 PM
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Aswath - also being a VoIP veteran (no longer an oxymoron I suppose), I can guess where you are going with your three point list, but also suspect the reaction of many people would be how do those three items make my user experience better, cheaper, simpler, and/or more reliable? Perhaps you can expand or point us to an earlier post in which you've already done so?

Posted by: gzino at February 11, 2007 07:37 PM


I agree with you 100%. ATA based architecture has not taken into account enormous potential of underlying VoIP technology and have tried to adapt a shortest route to market.

Indeed there are several features and enhancement possible to enhance and provide best user expereince using little bit of innovative thinking and stepping away from PSTN call flow model.

Posted by: aNISH at February 11, 2007 08:03 PM

You're absolutely right.

I'm not sure that the reason service providers haven't pushed for more ATA features is due to cost. I think it's more like service providers (at least most of them) actually want a telco model, a service-provider centric model, and the matter of driving the cost down on the ATA comes out of that (if all we need is a dumb ATA, we want it as cheap as possible). I think you and I have both spent time fighting this battle, trying to show why edge-based (smart CPE) makes more sense, but for the most part it has fallen on deaf ears.

This creates a vicious circle, where manufacturers say "nobody else is asking for that" if you complain to the device maker about bugs or if you ask the vendor to produce devices that do more (something like the ability to "signal to each other directly" for example).

This traditional telco "smart network, stupid devices" world-view permeates the industry, and certainly is loud and strong among the most prominent players.

Posted by: David Beckemeyer at February 11, 2007 08:19 PM


The following are some of my thoughts. If the user signaling can be presented to the human user, then it will be possible to inform the called of the Subject of the session. If I know the subject of the session, I can decide a) whether to respond to the session invitation, b) if I could support multiple modes, then I could decide on the preferred mode. If I could change the mode in the middle, then we could add/change the mode. For example, to offset my accent I prefer to have an IM session going when I am on a call. I would think a properly constructed end device can make this happen seamlessly.

PSTN offers two forms of Transfer - blind and consultative. But in VoIP, we could offer different forms of transfer. I could do the consulting phase over an IM, share a document and whatever.

People talk all the time about directory based dialing. How many ATA's offer this capability? Another unfulfilled feature is click to dial. Why should I depend on Google or Skype. Why can't I click on my browser, which communicates to the ATA that in turn establishes a third party call setup?

As a group, we celebrated the breakthrough Apple made on the user interface front on iPhone. But I pitched for the VoIP industry to build a device with rich user interface around the same time Apple started that project. But the VoIP industry was content with the 12+1 button phone because it was focused only on PSTN replacement.

Posted by: Aswath at February 12, 2007 03:58 PM

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