Introducing PhoneGnome

32 Comments

Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) has been a common sight when it comes to VoIP services. The do-hickey that connects to your broadband connection on one end and an old fashioned phone handset on the other, has been the only constant in the fast changing voice over the internet business. I have often said that we will soon see the end of ATA whose functionality will be subsumed either into new fangled WiFi Phone handsets or in other devices such as the set-top boxes. Well, San Francisco-based TelEvolution, might have on its hands the next evolution of ATA, (I like to call super ATA) PhoneGnome.

phonegnomeThe device, which is expected to sell for about $120-a-pop, is creation of David Beckemeyer, aka Mr. Blog. The former CTO and co-founder of Earthlink has created a device that marries the PSTN comfort with VoIP goodness. Let me explain. The box that is twice the size of a Dunhill packet, has two input ports – one that connections to your LAN (and broadband) while the other connects to the PSTN network. On the out side you have a port that connects to a traditional phone handset (including a wireless phone unit.) It is actually a clever idea.

Since most of us are forced to keep a PSTN line (either for DSL or for 911) purposes, the device lets us leverage a connection we are already paying for. But the masterstroke of the device is that it allows you to connect to SIP enabled networks. You can go a web-page and create a list of your SIP contacts, and using the web-page you can do one click calls to others who use SIP clients such as The Gizmo Project or FWD. David explained to me that this is an adjunct (VoIP) service to your PSTN.

phonegnomeUnlike ordinary broadband phone services, PhoneGnome is an appliance that one buys and owns, with no monthly fees, no subscription, and no activation. Even though there is no subscription or sign-up process required at all, PhoneGnome is fully plug and play. You go to PhoneGnome website, and there select a long distance provider or providers. At the same time you can enter the information for all your contacts that have SIP addresses. You can simply click and call these folks, regardless of what SIP service/client/device they use.

But the best part about the gizmo is that, when you try and outgoing call, it basically uses your selection of service provider to place that outgoing call. For someone else with a PhoneGnome to call you for free. They would not have to dial any different number or address. For instance, if my # is 415-555-1212, (and I have PhoneGnome), as a PhoneGnome user, you call 415.555.1212. In case I don’t have PhoneGnome, your call will get routed over the PSTN. On this website, my.phonegnome.com website, PhoneGnome can select a provider for national long-distance, international calls, or both, and select separate providers and plans for each.

David points out that Vonage made it easy to make calls using real phones and regular phone numbers. Skype allowed users to make really FREE calls, but using a computer instead of phones. After Skype, VoIP products could be divided into two kinds: Vonage and Vonage-like services and Skype or Skype-like services. PhoneGnome in many ways takes best of both, and combines it with real world (PSTN).

32 Comments

Indianight

David,
The comments that I posted in this forum have been tweaked. I don’t think it is a great product and I am not setting up the device in India. The device was set up in US.

PhoneGnome

We’re pretty sure that ‘Indianight’ is a particular customer trying to setup units in India, something most of our competitors can’t support at all.

It’s a long story, but sufffice to say that India has the highest density of PhoneGnome boxes of any single country after the US/Canada and those customers are thrilled with how much they are saving thorugh 100% free calls with no monthly fees to US, UK, and elsewhere. If ‘Indianight’ simply follwed the instructions we have provided (over and over) he could be doing the same now too.

Indianight

Hey David,
We bought 5 phonegnome instruments and only 2 are working. We have contacted your customer service department numerous time and every time we have got a rude and blunt reply. We have had such a negative experience with your company and product. I think it is a great product but what good is it if you have such horrible support for it.
Thanks

Steve Davies

Striking that the Phonegnome pitch is all about how you buy and own the device, and so its not just about sending your monthly payment to a new address. The promise of openness and so forth.

But in these comments suddenly its full of protected, proprietary and patent pending technology, with accompanying threats of legal action.

To make sure we understand correctly: you buy and own the Phonegnome. But you’re still locked into the service – presumably because Phonegnome wants to make margin on the pstn minutes, and build a customer base for future monetization.

Nothing wrong with that, but good to understand clearly.

Thanks,
Steve

Kanti Purohit

Aswath’s comments on how such device can help the PSTN incumbents (at least in the foreseable future) are right on the mark!

David, can you please clarify if your use ENUM and is your “service” P2P – similar to Peerio’s?

I think you have a winner here!!!

Jake

How you possibly create a product for Bitsy with Gnome in the name?

Hahahahahaha

David Beckemeyer

Jasbir, I think you hit the nail on the head, pointing out some key benefits of PhoneGnome.

Don Richards-Boeff, those are good ideas for other options for packaging PhoneGnome. We will be looking at such things for those that prefer a monthly payment model. There are all-you-can eat plans you could add to PhoneGnome now, but there are no providers offering to subsidize the PhoneGnome cost as part of a subscription (yet). PhoneGnome already offers prepaid minutes a la Skype/Gizmo (except through partners), so I might be missing the question on that one.

Carl, the patents are filed, but aren’t on the USPTO website yet (USPTO is so slow).

Jasbir Kular

I agree with Martin from Telepocalyse that there is definitely a market for PhoneGnome. Many users out there are interested in the cost savings of VoIP but don’t want to give up their regular phone line and definitely don’t want to get another telephone number to add to their already growing list of numbers. The PhoneGnome product complements a user’s regular phone service in two ways:

1) By offering the user the ability to use a phone plugged into the SPA-3000 to be routed over various low-cost VoIP carriers. Hopefully this feature will soon or does already have least-cost-routing.

2) Allows the user’s incoming calls over their regular phone line to be intercepted by the SPA-3000 so that value-added-services such as telemarketer blocking can be provided. Maybe even blocking some unwanted people or sending them directly to your PhoneGnome voicemail.

David, if I have incorrectly stated any features of PhoneGnome please clarify.

Carl

Does your pending patent have a publication number? Are you listed as one of the inventors? (Didn’t find anything at the USPTO under the inventor name Beckemeyer)

David Beckemeyer

PhoneGnome needs directory services to function (it cannot store all the numbers in the world), so I will not argue the “applicance” point. If those directory services go away, PhoneGnome won’t be fully functional. Also there is a web server for the my.phoengnome.com site and if that went away, PhoneGnome owners could no longer benefit from those web-based capabilities. Some say tomato…

PhoneGnome goes far beyond the “shunting to the PSTN” capability described above that is part of Sipura’s standard hardware/firmware load. Our technology is patent pending.

PhoneGnome’s automatic self-configuration and phone number binding likewise goes beyond simply pointing at a provisioning server and likewise is protected and proprietary.

These technologies are unique and novel. If one were to attempt to replicate them, TelEvolution will pursue all disciplinary and legal remedies to protect its property and rights.

The CPE hardware is not any diffferent than a stock SPA-3000. They way we use that base feature set is, and certainly the out of the box user experience between a stock SPA-3000 and PhoneGnome is dramatically different.

I will simply conclude that (a) telEvolution has invented some things here. It’s not the chips, or the plastic. I will defend that, sorry, because it’s true. (b) PhoneGnome is what it is, and it probably isn’t right for everyone. That’s okay. (c) Hopefully it will expand SIP addresses to a new audience, making all of our SIP/VoIP systems more useful, and bring the benefits of VoIP to a lot of new people.

Don Richards-Boeff

David – Is PhoneGnome looking to offer all-you-can eat pricing plans to position itself as a more traditional VOIP player? Nice hardware and all, but the potential per minute charges to non-PhoneGnome (or name your SIP provider) users could add up quickly.

Initially, I’m calling… myself? Or any of the other people who move to purchase a PhoneGnome in the first couple of months?

I understand the benefits as you spell them out on the site, but again, until everyone has a PhoneGnome (or other *open-standards* based SIP ata/address), I’m looking at paying a per min. charge. How about doing both — hardware only for $XX, or hardware + plan for $XX/month, or even pre-paid minutes (ala Skype/Gizmo, et al).

Yossi Reynard

OK, I’m _still_ confused here as to how this device is different than an SPA-3000.

This sounds like an SPA-3000 that fetches it’s configurations from some central database. Easy enough; everyone who deploys Sipura products can do that with a programmer who can grok Perl.

The failover nonsense is not revolutionary; it’s part of Sipura’s standard hardware/firmware load, and several other vendors do the same thing. If the remote server is unreachable, then the call gets shunted out the PSTN port, or if it matches “911” or other special call sequences. See the press releases on this “new” technology elsewhere (http://www.fiercevoip.com/archives/voip060204.asp)

So, what is new here? The newness seems to be something that is almost impossible to extract from the “ease-of-use” fluff surrounding the product, but which is totally non-obvious on the website: you can choose what SIP termination provider you want, and shift between vendors without changing hardware. However, it’s extremely unclear how this works from looking at the site, so I am uncertain if this is the case.

PhoneGnome is what Sipura should have done when they launched the product: create a good user interface for the initial configuration (optionally) to allow consumers to choose between multiple PSTN termination providers in an unbiased manner (and to take a cut of the subscription fees!)

As to the question of “is this really an appliance”: NO. It’s functions will cease on failure of PhoneGnome’s service platform, and it will become simply a passthrough to your PSTN carrier.

I’m willing to be proven wrong, if a more detailed explanation can be linked here or given, but this is nothing but clever marketing and a simple interface – no special technology sauce here. That may be all that’s required, though. David should be less defensive of how the CPE is so different than a Sipura, though, since that takes away his credibility to those of us who know better. Everyone who thinks that the VoIP market has a high barrier to entry should look behind the curtain of what is being touted as the next greatest thing. This system could be replicated in not too much time by a very small group of motivated Perl wranglers in Ukraine who knew what SIP was.

Jasbir Kular

To add to my comment. I guess PhoneGnome is considered an Internet Appliance. Tivo is also considered an appliance, you buy it plug it in and it works. But Tivo service relies on connecting to the Tivo servers. The common theme here is that all these “appliances” are client-server and if the server is not there the client has problems. P2P solves this problem kinda. If the Skype login/authentication server goes down what happens to Skype? As a customer, I like plug an play and as a customer buying the appliance I want to know that my appliance will not working if the servers go down.

Jasbir Kular

I like the concept of a VoIP appliance, but is it really an appliance? My GE stove is an appliance, if GE goes out of business my stove keeps working. If PhoneGnome went out of business and turned off their SIP server would my PhoneGnome appliance keep working? Would my other friends that have PhoneGnome be able to reach me?

Andy Abramson

Put it this way. Over a year ago I bought a Sipura 3000 and it’s still back in the box, unconfigured. I got the review box from David and within 10 minutes the PhoneGnome was working. I’m not Aunt Betsy, but I sure liked the fact that it worked after only being plugged in.

Does the Sipura work that way? I don’t think so. That’s what makes me a fan of this very “consumer friendly” not geek/tech/nerd oriented product.

David Beckemeyer

Fair enough Carl. I probably deserved that.

I developed PhoneGnome exactly for the Aunt Betsy’s in my life. It’s for my wife, my sister, my brother-in-law, and such. They are all smart people, but they don’t have time or the desire to configure an SPA-3000, setup an Asterisk box, and such. I knew about the kinds of benefits I was getting by doing these things, but there was no way I could talk Aunt Betsy into doing it. It was a lot like what drove me to join EarthLink in 1994/1995. A lot of us techies had been enjoying the Internet for a long time, but it was still too hard for most people. There was AOL, but if they wanted the “real” Internet, it was pretty challenging (getting PPP passords, dial-in numbers, lot’s of confusing manual settings). So we wanted to bring the real Internet to the masses and so we invented $19.95 all-you-can eat nationwide, with an easy-to-install client, and the rest is history.

The SPA-3000 and other existing VoIP products already serve people like me and you. It’s a great product. Don’t get me wrong. For those of us that have made the SPA-3000 do nifty things, maybe PhoneGnome isn’t for us. We might be better off with SER or Asterisk, or something more techie. For me personally, I use many kinds of VoIP gear beyond PhoneGnome for business purposes, and I thought I’d want to use all that cool stuff for my home line too, and I did for a while. But now at home I have gone all PhoneGnome – it’s more reliable, less costly to operate, less heat, less power, lower mantienence etc. and still gives me everything I want. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

As to Aunt Betsy. I can give Aunt Betsy a PhoneGnome, and she will be able to use it. I can help her follow the four simple setup steps (connect it and power it on): http://www.phonegnome.com/setup.html and she will be placing and receiving phone calls in a few minutes. I won’t have to train her how to use it. She already knows how to use it because she knows how to dial a phone (normal phone numbers without pins, or “switch codes” etc) and she knows to pick up a phone when it rings. I can tell the Aunt Betsy’s of my life to go to a store and buy a PhoneGnome and I won’t have to spend hours getting it ready for them. They take it off the self, take it home, and plug it in. That’s quite unlike the experience they will have buying and trying to setup a generic SPA-3000.

Carl

Yes, David, when you get your free publicity from Om, you also get Om’s audience.

My Aunt Betsy may not know much about VOIP or ATAs, but she does know second-coming shinola. So please explain how you’re different from an SPA-3000.

Aswath

David:

Can you please give us at least hints as to what Aunt Betsy will find dissimilar between the two?

Jazzy

It would be cool if PhoneGnome product allows you to connected to your PhoneGnome via your regular Bell land line and make VoIP based LD calls. So if I am away from my PhoneGnome and need to call my cousin in India I can call my home phone and it would connect to my PhoneGnome to place calls of the VoIP LD provider I have chosen, it would be like you own personal calling card service. This concept is very similar to what Motorola has done with their Motorola Messenger Modem (M3) http://www.motorola.com/softmodem/

David Beckemeyer

You have to love the experts that know everything. The PhoneGnome is based on the SPA-3000 hardware platform, but trust me it is nothing like the same product. They serve totally different purposes. I will give Aunt Betsy an SPA-3000 and a PhoneGnome and she will find nothing similar about the two other than they both are in similar plastic cases.

Om Malik

Folks since I don’t know about Sipura 3000 and its functions, I cannot talk about that. Thanks for the heads up – will totally look into it and will try and get back to david with clarifications as well.

Espen Fjogstad

The Phonegnome looks to me like nothing but a Sipura SPA 3000 ( http://www.sipura.com/products/spa3000.htm )with a Phonegnome label on. Credit should be given where credit is due :-).

That being said, the SPA3000 is an interesting device with lots of “toll bypass” opportunitites for those who are anyway forced to keep their PSTN line.

marc

om – the sipura 3000 has been doing this since last year!

John Liang

I don’t quite get it. Isn’t this basically a sipura SPA3k packaged with a sip to sip provider, or am I missing something?

John Liang

I don’t quite get it. Isn’t this basically the sipura SPA-3000 packaged with a sip to sip provider? I’ve been using mine with fwd and a few pstn terminators for a while now..

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