September 29, 2005

Perspectives from VON Fall 2005

Last week I was invited to participate in the VoIP Bloggers Roundtable in VON Fall 2005 in Boston. It was a great 90 minutes of discussion. This also afforded me an opportunity to attend other sessions. The Conference had multiple parallel sessions and so I had to pick and choose the sessions that I will attend. Each of the sessions provided me some insight into what is happening in the market place and how others are viewing the industry. In this post, I will summarize my perspectives on what I saw and heard during the three days I was at VON.

Naturally, the most important aspect was meeting face-to-face fellow VoIP travelers and exchanging thoughts and ideas with them. I met for the first time many fellow bloggers of whom I read regularly. Some of us also spent an evening over steak and wine (I feasted on potato and cola). But the price of admission was worth the conversation. David Isenberg also joined us and all of us paid due homage to the “Stupid network” paper. I was expecting that there will be some lamenting of the fact that the whole industry is talking exclusively about the service provider model and there was talk of IMS everywhere in the VON. But alas, there was no time for it. Many people encouraged me to post more often. I take this as a compliment. I will try, but I failed this time, as I am posting it more than a week later.

The bloggers panel was an interesting discussion lasting about 90 minutes. The topics were varied touching on regulation in different countries; use of technology during national emergencies and the influence bloggers have over the industry. Pulver was visibly frustrated with the current regulatory direction in US. It is rather unfortunate. In my opinion, he was alone when he was educating the lawmakers and regulators about how voice in an IP network is different from voice in PSTN. And he largely succeeded in that phase. But for whatever reason, as VoIP is becoming more mainstream, some of his points are not being recognized. It would be easy to attribute all this to the change in the leadership at FCC. I have a differing opinion. I will elaborate it in a subsequent post.

I attended many general and breakout sessions. I will list some of the noteworthy comments (with my editorial interpretations):

  • Brad Glaringhouse of Yahoo indicated that Yahoo is big on working with the incumbents (of course with all the partnerships, it has to be). Some of the future things they are looking at is convergence, intelligent call handling (same as Simply relevant?) and voice triggered applications. He suggested that one never knows which will develop a huge market, based on the fact that nobody anticipated the way ring tone service caught on. I am puzzled with that specific example. Both ring tone and ring-back tone can be realized by the end-points in the IP domain. But the industry is expecting an equivalent payoff for VoIP providers as well. Where have netheads gone?
  • You must have heard of the misstep before Zennstrom came on. There were some technical difficulties – nobody will own up the exact failure. But suffice it to say that the session was an audio only session with video missing. I feel this is minor compared to what he said. Nothing. It was a rehash of what was already said – synergy between eBay, Paypal and Skype. The revolutionary aura was missing. Many got up and left during the presentation. It could be as simple as they rushed for the delayed lunch appointment. But the imagery was that of the home team fans leaving the stadium at thend of a losing game, just so they can avoid the traffic rush. Oh well. Some questions were not asked: Now that serious commercial transactions are involved (after all it will be used for autos and houses), will the “partner” eBay require the use of internal supernodes and not public ones? Does Pay per call model violate the claim that Skype-to-Skype calls will be free forever?
  • I learnt that VCs may not be interested in end-points. They are more focused on services. But I am sure they have heard of “Stupid network”; but I suppose the lure of ARPU is not easy to forego. The catch phrase was: “VoIP is free; but it is going to be more free.” I guess users will be rewarded for listening to some form of ad. Why it hasn’t happened in the regular web is not clear.
  • Patrick Fitzgerald of Siemens thinks that the next generation ATA will bring the third screen to the home – the first screen being the TV and the second being the PC. I fully resonate with his thinking. With this screen, one can think of many neat features that can be offerd by the terminal (not the service provider). By the way nothing prevents one to develop such a terminal for PSTN as well. This is how the Empire can strike back. (Details for a later post.) He also suggested that the industry should focus on better design elements like user interface and displays. Amen!
  • During a discussion on developing products for the mainstream, Jeff Bonforte of Yahoo was asked why new features are not being added in a speedy manner. He replied that big companies like his have competing priorities and need to allocate resources judiciously. Sometime long-term goals need to give way to short-term objectives. It is interesting for me to hear a complaint usually aimed at PSTN being replied in a similar fashion. What happened to the legion of software developers who can roll out features from their “garage” (why not their bedroom, I do not know).
  • Posted by aswath at 11:35 AM | Comments (0)

    September 18, 2005

    VoIP is Not Just Another Application

    No, I am not saying that; but many of the fellow bloggers’ analysis of the recent eBay/Skype deal seem to suggest that. I am sure that by now you have read the original news item and many of the subsequent analysis. eBay itself suggested one of the ways it will benefit from the acquisition – lead generation – with a iwdespread chrous of agreement. I, on the other hand, fail to see how eBay will make it happen.

    Currently, eBay allows for email communication between their customers. I do not think they charge extra for this service. If they charge extra for real-time voice communication, aren’t they suggesting that voice is not just another application, but somehow it is more valuable? Apart from that, it is not clear to me how will they enforce it? Since any link in a browser can be turned into a lauchpad for Skype (and any other IM client), they have to maintain uniform charging scheme for all the applications. Since it is zero for email, it has to be the same for Skype connection.

    I tried to raise this point at different times. Since I have not received any further explanation, I have to assume that my reasoning is transparently faulty. Probably this point will come up during Bloggers’ session on Tuesday in NON Fall 2005 in Boston. I hope you have made plans on being there.

    PS: As a comment in one of Jeff’s posts suggest that a division of eBay in Netherlands already allows a free “Skype me” link (my translation based on the word “gratis” appearing in their blurb on Skype).

    Posted by aswath at 07:46 PM | Comments (6)

    September 11, 2005

    Voice Services without Intermediaries

    Last week Skype announced partnership agreement with three VoiceXML technology providers so that third parties can offer voice services to Skype users. This announcement has been widely commented on with some observing that the fee is exorbitantly high – almost a third is taken by Skype and another third by the technology partner. Skype claims that they bring in the audience. I leave the third parties to decide on their own whether they require Skype or not to bring in the audience. They also take the responsibility to collect fees, even though alternate mechanisms are available that charge much less. But the focus of this post is to suggest that there is an alternate way to offer content without the need of these VoiceXML technology providers and that this can be done with other clients as well.

    First, we should note that these technology platforms have two components: playout the content stored in a website and recognizing the user’s speech to decide what needs to be played next.

    The former requires a media player and a text-to-speech conversion (TTS) utility. Inexpensive TTS utility and good quality voice engines are available in the market. But let me caution you that voice engines require licensing fees. The lowest I have seen is $200 per year.

    The latter requires an automatic speech recognition (ASR) utility. You need this to be of high quality. This where companies like Tellme excel. This is required if the medium of interaction is the standard telephone. But IM clients like Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger et al. do not require this utility. The customer can easily type in the preferences via the text window rather than speak it and then later interpreted by an ASR.

    In other words, I visualize the following method of interaction when a customer wants to access a speech based content. The user initiates an IM session to the content provider and indicates the preference via the text window. The content provider plays out speech, possibly listing some choices. The user in turn can select an item and indicating the choice again in the text window and so on. In this way, the user sends information on the “text channel” and the content provider delivers information on the “speech channel”. This is another way of using the multimode communication system.

    By the way, this scheme does not work for the current crop of ATAs as they bring down the user experience to the POTS phone. This one my long standing gripe about the ATAs.

    If the network is truly “stupid” and the intelligence has really moved to the end, then let us resist inserting intermediaries as much as possible. Let us not turn into Bellheads!

    Posted by aswath at 10:17 AM | Comments (3)

    September 10, 2005

    Don't tell me

    The following screen shot of the Tellme home page (taken this morning) is worth noting.

    Posted by aswath at 11:33 AM | Comments (2)

    September 08, 2005

    Skype, a Free World Dialup twin?

    It hit the blogosphere that Skype has introduced Voice Services Program along with three initial partners. All these partners use VoiceXML technology to deliver content. Some have reacted positively while there have been notable naysayer. But I am puzzled. To date Skype is mostly a softclient. In that case why would I access the content through the Skype client instead of a browser? Isn’t Skype inserting itself artificially? Or, is Skype morphing itself into a micro payment system?

    Also, have you noticed that lately, Skype seems to be playing from Pulver’s FWD playbook. One by one, a feature or a marketing campaign that FWD deployed sometime back is sprouting in the Skypeland. A couple of months back, (ironically a few days after Pulver whimsically nominated Skype CEO for Nobel Peace Prize) Skype announced Free SkypeOut days. (Has there been one lately?) If you recall, FWD used to give free call out days to a specific country to celebrate that country’s holiday. Similarly, FWD also had partnership agreement with Tellme. Could Pulver be a coach for Skype? I seriously doubt it.

    Posted by aswath at 11:33 PM | Comments (1)

    September 05, 2005

    Google Constant

    I had read about Google’s secondary offering for about $4 billion. But I didn’t know the specific number of stocks that will be offered. Yesterday I read that that specific number is 14,159,265 and Russell Buckley points out that it is the first eight digits of the fractional part of pi. It is so predictable. All of their clever numbers are some how related to the digits of pi.

    I am reminded of an old joke mathematicians share. This young grad student challenged a professor with a complicated puzzle. After thinking for a second, the prof replied the answer is e. The prof went off to explain to the baffled student that it is easy to guess the answer is between 2 and 3 and so it reasons that the answer to be e.

    Since Google has repeatedly uses pi for its clever numbering, it is time it starts to use “modern” numbers like e, Euler’s constant and Zeta constant. Don’t you think?

    Posted by aswath at 03:24 PM | Comments (2)

    September 03, 2005

    This is America!

    The quotable quote of the day is from the NBC photographer (sorry I didn't note down his name) who took the initial pictures of the conditions inside the Superdome: "What a difference a day makes!" It was so reassuring to see the initial convoy of humvees wading through the water and approaching the city. Finally the fabled generosity of America reaches its own people.. It is time to keep organizations like Red Cross busy with our contributions.

    Posted by aswath at 10:56 PM | Comments (0)

    September 02, 2005

    Pay for Call

    Om suggests in his recent entry that “pay-per-call model … could be the “VoIP” play for Google.” A week back, I had suggested the same thing when I said, “Let me also speculate the real business plan behind GT. Once users become comfortable wearing a headset and talking over them, the ads can not only be linked to web pages but also to GT, thereby more effectively realize the objectives of thinkingVoice.”

    The links in his post talk about Ingenio. Interestingly, the two business models are different. In the Ingenio model, the advertiser bids the price for a call against other competitor. In contrast, thinkingVoice charges are based on the length of the call. But both suffer from a basic drawback: the reader has to take some specific steps to initiate the call. In the case of thinkingVoice, the reader has to fill out a form; in the case of Ingenio, the reader has to dial out the number. Another link suggests that the reason Microsoft acquired Teleo for this same reason. You see, Teleo has the capability to convert any phone number on a web page or Outlook into a clickable string and when a user clicks on the phone number, the local Teleo client initiates a call to that number. So in a way, Teleo avoids the drawback I identified for the other two schemes.

    But alas, there are no revenue opportunities in PPC. I want to bring to your attention that Skype already offers Teleo like capability. If an advertiser includes a phone number in an AdSense, a reader who has installed Skype can click on that number and initiate a Skype session. So the best Google Talk, MSN IM et al. can do is to join this by enabling the “callto” method just as Skype has done it. By the way, Microsoft’s NetMeeting had this capability for ever. So I am not sure that they have to acquire Teleo for this.

    This method is not restricted only to soft clients running on the same machine as the browser. I have a patent pending scheme whereby a click on a browser will tickle an external VoIP client to initiate a call to the appropriate destination.


    Posted by aswath at 01:28 AM | Comments (1)

    September 01, 2005

    Is this America?

    After seeing a full day's worth of various TV news, I wonder how this could be happening in America. How could this happen, in the world's sophisticated democracy and the richest nation on the earth? It looks like the Asian countries handled their recent calamity much better. I really hope that there is widespread outrage at the way the whole thing is being managed and it gets channeled in a constructive manner.

    Posted by aswath at 10:55 PM | Comments (1)

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