November 29, 2007

Fascination with the Middle

I posted the following entry in my other blog that is focused on EnThinnai. As in Telephony, people are recognizing the importance of not ceding control in social networking to third parties. It is surprising that in Netheads are introducing “Intelligent Middles”, just as they take pleasure in poking Bellheads for the same. All my friends in the VoIP industry will, even in their sleep, instinctively recognize intrusion of the Middle; but they are walking into one in the form of social networks. It is a bit disheartening.

Facebook Backlash

We read more and more stories of users expressing concern about Facebook’s recent ad program called Beacon that monitors users’ activities at partners’ sites and report the friends in Facebook. Some are concerned that friends are notified indiscriminately and others do not want even Facebook to be notified by the partner sites in the first place. People expressing concern spans the full spectrum of technical capability and or disposition.

Martin Geddes wonders how to balance the need of his privacy sensitive mother to stay in touch with former colleagues, with the fact that Facebook is a “serial privacy violator”. Business Week states that “Some threatened to move to other social networks or start their own blogs if Facebook takes that decision out of their hands.” As an example, it quotes Matt Flaschen, a Georgia Tech sophomore as saying, "I will set up my own blog. It is a little less convenient, but if [Facebook] can't understand the privacy implications of what they are doing then it's not worth it."

Then there is Matt Mower, who goes to the heart of the matter. In a recent post he states: “I think Facebook and the rest have gotten an overinflated view of their importance to us. What, after all, do they actually do? They run a website with some gadgets on it. … Nothing about their site is particularly rocket science or even innovative. … But, as with blogging, I believe we don’t need large corporations to do social networking and, in bringing the network back under our control, we gain benefits and protection from interests other than our own.”

Right on Matt. We are in agreement. Indeed EnThinnai is an example how it can be done without ceding control to an external party. But we need encouragement and support.

Posted by aswath at 03:55 PM | Comments (0)

November 25, 2007

A Bellhead’s Dream

Andy Abramson points out a review of Netgear’s DECT cordless phone that can interface to both PSTN and Skype. It is an old news really, but Australia seems to be getting review units only now. But the device is a disappointment in more ways than one.

  1. The price has a big premium built into it. The suggested retail price is $180, so one could expect that retailers will be marketing it around $120. As a comparison, a multi-handset DECT cordless phones can be had for $20 per unit. In other words, the Netgear set must be around $40. Assuming that adding the “ATA” function will add about $20, the unit has $60 Skype premium.
  2. The screen is not big enough to provide an enhanced user experience. Let us say that you are on a Skype call and you get a call on the landline. Now how do you place the Skype call on hold and attend to the landline call? Do you have to resort to the “flash” button or is the screen used to simplify the procedure? It is not clear from the available material. But I would expect them to trumpet that fact if it were available.
  3. We know that Skype uses wideband codec. So one would expect that the handset samples the voice over wider frequency. But here also, it is not clear whether they do that.

And one can add a few more items to this list. But I am not interested in this device. I want to build a PSTN phone that adds features at the end (yes, contrary to the widely held view, PSTN is dumb and we can add features at the end). How will I go about doing this?

  1. I will take a multi-handset DECT cordless phone, enhance the handsets with a bigger screen (inspired by Apple’s iPhone).
  2. Add an Ethernet/WiFi interface to the base station. This way a user can get Availability status and specific Contact detail of the other user before dialing that user. (By the way, we do not have to dial numbers anymore, an often heard refrain at the recent VON; and you don't need GrandCentral to issue a number for life).

And I can keep adding to this list as well. But why bear it all in the open here; need something to pay the bills. So if you are a cordless phone vendor, want to move away from commodity phones and add jazz to your product lines, you know where to go.

Posted by aswath at 01:34 PM | Comments (0)

Questions Raised by VoxCall

Recently VoxCall introduced as an application for Facebook and it has received wide accolade. Now I have not used that application. Still the reviews I have read challenges my understanding of both PSTN and IP networking. So this post has nothing to do with VoxCall, but to elicit some discussion to clarify my understanding.

First some background information on VoxCall based on my understanding: users register their SIP URI with VoxCall; when a user wants to initiate a session with another, VoxCall originates calls to the SIP URIs of both the users and bridging the calls. Both Dan York and Alec Saunders comment on the fact that call routing can be very involved. But what I do not follow is why the call quality need to be affected. After all, the media path can be redirected to the most direct route between the end-points, independent of the path taken by SIP messages. Now here is something we can not do in the PSTN domain. Yes, Voxcall could allow PSTN numbers as well, but then they have to have their resources involved in the call for the duration of the call and the “convoluted routing” could affect the quality of the call.

In this context Alec observes that find-me/follow-me service is not special in IP world, but telcos charge big money (presumably in the PSTN world, as VoIP providers include this in their list of free services). I am of the opinon that this is more to do with the fact that VoxCall has ever so slightly changed the call routine – one calls “VoxCall number”. What happens if a user wants to change the “carrier” from VoxCall to somebody else? Don’t GrandCentrals offer a similar capability in the PSTN domain?

Posted by aswath at 12:35 AM | Comments (2)

November 18, 2007

Want a free IPod Touch?

A friend and a fellow blogger Alec Saunders just sent me an email informing me that his company ioutum has a holiday promotion for their Facebook application, Free Conference calls. Under this promotion, every person who participates in a call lasting longer than 5 minutes, between now and midnight November 26th, will be entered into a drawing for one of Apple’s new 8G iPod Touch devices. So if you are a Facebook user, then you should up signup for this service, talk with your friends and family during the holiday period and try to win this prize (gravy?).

Posted by aswath at 03:07 PM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2007

Uncola Nuts in EnThinnai

In case you did not notice, I am also maintaining another blog where I write about my new venture EnThinnai. This application has lots of many interesting twists and new features. I would appreciate if you add that blog to your list. Today, I posted the following entry there.

In a whimsical mood, I had tagged EnThinnai to be an un-social networking application, in the spirit of uncola campaign from the 70’s. Many didn’t react positively to this tag line as they were equating to “anti-social”. So we have decided to disuse that tag line, even though it has been a conversation starter. Since the original commercial is a personal favorite of mine, I want to share it with you and explain why I first thought of that tag line.

You see, EnThinnai has many of the features people associate with social networks – social graph, Presence information, sharing digital life like photos and videos. So it is “wet, wild … and all that.”

But it has lots of uncola nuts. For one thing it uses OpenID exclusively for identification. This means, users do not have to go to a third party for assigning user name and be dependent on them for ever. Your friends do not have to be registered with that third party to be declared your “friend”. There is no walled garden anymore. Or rather, any wall that is there, it is erected by you and not an external party.

Second, your network is under your control. All the data – your social graph, the data you have uploaded to be shared with your friends and the Attention Data are all yours. You do not worry about losing control of the data or ways of porting to another place and all that.

Like this there are lots of marvelous little things. Try and explore the features of EnThinnai. You will say, “Marvelous! Absolutely marvelous!”

Posted by aswath at 06:43 PM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2007

Notes from VON Boston 2007

Two weeks back I attended VON Boston 2007 thanks to the gracious invitation by Jeff Pulver and Carl Ford. My main objective was to meet people to show off EnThinnai and also to establish contact with people for my consulting business. As usual the exhibition show floor was very informative and the few sessions I attended were interesting. Due to schedule conflict, I had to miss the keynote speeches from Tom Evslin and Jeff Pulver. But luckily for me both the talks are available for playback. Tom recreated his recorded speech live and spoke about the three stages of VoIP evolution. He observed that the time is ripe for the third stage, given the widespread availability of broadband and adoption of social networks. Of course, my own opinion is that the fuel for the third stage will be availability of multi-modal end devices that is closer to a phone form factor as opposed to a PC. Jeff talked about the Facebook phenomenon and how such social networks are facilitating both asynchronous and synchronous communication. He calls this IP Communications continuum. In my opinion both of them were telegraphing the plans of their newly focused venture, FWD International.

I spent a quiet a bit of time on Innovators’ Track and the Unconference. A memorable Unconference session was the session that was nominally titled, “Can VoIP be sold as a product?” Many years back, a thought leader had declared that VoIP is a product and not a service, by using Vonage as an example. Later on he changed his mind about Vonage, but then he used Skype to insist on his claim. Of course, now it is widely accepted that even Skype is a service and not a product. The title of this session is a tacit admission that such a categorical claim that VoIP IS a product is not valid. It turns out that the session was not scheduled to address this academic question. Instead it was a session where people can vent about Ooma and an opportunity for that company to respond to questions. The usual questions were raised – delivery of caller id, ability to tap a call and so on. These questions were fielded with the usual answers – caller id is not delivered, taps will be detected and will be handled etc. Carl Ford asked about revenue growth and possible escalation of support cost. At that time, the company representative indicated that they are planning to introduce new services that will bring in recurring revenue. As I recall, he made the point that PSTN interconnect is just the hook for consumers to buy “an expensive phone”. For me this is a clear admission that Ooma is not being viewed as a product, but it is indeed a service. Of course we never discussed that point. Will a business plan that is truly offering a product ever see the light of the day in this industry?

Alec Saunders led an Unconferece session on Social Networking. He pointed out that Facebook is slowly becoming a business tool as it is now dominated by middle aged professionals and not time wasting students. He also moderated a session on Social Networking as part of Innovators’ Track. In that session I spoke about the need for a new way of realizing the services usually offered by social networking sites, like maintaining social graph, data sharing and real-time communications. I called this “User-centric Social Network” and remarked that EnThinnai is a realization of this model. Other speakers talked about their (mostly voice based services) that utilize social graph of their users.

For me the most memorable session took place on the last day. It was titled, “Old Suns, New Stars” and was ably moderated by my friend Robert Logan. I wish that session was recorded and is made available to everyone. It was such a treat to hear Scott Bradner and Jon “maddog” Hall. I especially liked Scott’s dig at ENUM.

All in all good three days. Thanks Jeff.

Posted by aswath at 03:26 AM | Comments (0)

November 03, 2007

EnThinnai and OpenSocial

For the past couple of days, there has been a lot of chatter about OpenSocial from Google. People have focused on how developers can write applications once and run it in multiple social networks ("containers"). Some have suggested that this falls short, because the ultimate goal is to knock down the vertical silos created by each of the social networks. What is required is for the development of an open container that pulls data from all the individual social networks and present list of friends, feeds etc and displays in this container. At the same time, this container must allow for one to post to one or more social networks. This way one does not have to visit multiple social networks. This can be achieved by properly using OpenSocial API and OAuth.

EnThinnai addresses this problem in a different way. It will allow a user to maintain her "social graph" in her server; will notify new information to the affected friends; will retrieve information from friends from their servers. This way we truly knock down vertical silos and allow users to take the ownership back from social network providers. Of course the current version of EnThinnai does not provide distributed servers; but otherwise realizes other objectives. Please register for EnThinnai and explore its features and services.

Posted by aswath at 04:07 PM | Comments (0)

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