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Silos Are For Grain, Not VoIP

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Wall Street Journal has a long piece about new VoIP phones, but misses the point about lack of interoperability between various issues. I wrote about this last week, here and also for CNN Money. Its appropriate that we address the issue one more time, though instead of me writing, I invited Erik Lagerway to share his thoughts in this guest post. Erik was the COO and Founder of VoIP software maker XTen (now called Counterpath) and currently is living the consultant life. You can read his blog at SIPthat.

Guest Post by Erik Lagerway

We humans tend to have short memories and sometimes that works to our advantage. Maybe it’s all that cortisol flowing through our brains zapping our memories. Whatever it is we tend to forget things we swore we never would.

The telcos of yesterday are the recipient of many long faces and fowl curses by mostly all consumers who used long distance, voice mail, caller id etc. Those pesky bills sure seem bigger than maybe they should have been and even worse there were few if any alternative service providers. The ones we did have to choose from were not much better and sometimes worse than what we had to begin with. Well, it seems we have forgotten those days in lieu of VoIP … the biggest show on the Internet is VoIP.

Same road apples, different pile. The consumer is being bombarded with features – mostly shiny little phones – and with that the VoIP industry is missing the most important virtue of this technology, the ability to interoperate with many devices, which ultimately means fair choice to the consumer.

The ability to lose is also ours according to Microsoft, Skype, Vonage and many others in the mix. In many ways its worse than it was in the old days. I can’t use many of these proprietary devices to call into another service using the same technology. These new age telephone companies will tell you that they can’t make enough money by openly peering with other networks, they need to hold us captive in order to make ends meet. Hmm, it doesn’t seem like we have come very far at all does it.

Open network peering can and will work. If I have a network of subscribers and you have a network of subscribers and we both use the same underlying technology, as most VoIP providers do these days, why is it that we can’t share traffic and generate even more revenue than before? We can. The problem is that each provider is trying so hard to outdo each other they forget what the consumer really wants, the ability to choose for themselves what device they want to use and then pick a service to use it with.

Maybe an open communications federation needs to be constructed. An organization that is collectively owned and operated by all communications service providers involved. A federation that builds and maintains core open standards networks under a set of guidelines that the operators agree to and more importantly what the consumers want and deserve. This may not be entirely feasible today but I think you get the idea. There is no reason to step back into the dark ages we have built this technology to be open for a reason!

Photo courtesy of Flickr by Toshio1

13 Responses to “Silos Are For Grain, Not VoIP”

  1. Call me contrarian, but…

    Assume Jeff’s purple minutes are the way forward. My violet and your indigo innovations should be incompatible. We grope around for what unrealised innovations IP enables that are actually valued by users.

    The lowest-common-denominator duplex voice is competing against a PSTN that increasingly offers such features at either flat rates or rates too low to care about. VoIP interop is a badly-framed non-problem.

  2. Jesse: both friendster and myspace are web-based. i’m not sure you can draw meaningful analogies between web-based communities and communications platform.

    Compare VoIP to SMTP e-mail. Back in the early AOL and Compuserve days, you had those independent online communities, with proprietary messaging platforms. Internet standards eventually caught-on, and people finally learned about domain names, and sending messages to other people through a [email protected] address. AOL and Compuserve adapted. Their members could be reached with their own @ address.

    The exact same thing can be accomplished in the VoIP world, through SIP and “@” SIP addresses.

    E-mail is just one of many available applications of the Internet Protocol, for Asynchronous Communications. Real-Time Communications ought to be seen similarly as just another application powered by the Internet Protocol, that can have its own user interface paradigms, that can be more efficient than past user interface paradigms we humans have gotten accustomed to with our Telco-sanctioned phones, and the almighty “phone number”.

    VoIP users today stand to lose as much benefits from not being able to seamlessly call users from disparate providers, as if e-mail users were only given a “username” and messages could only be sent within the confines of a given ISP.

    P.S.: i have several typos in my earlier post, the first line should say “STOP relying on PSTN-style numbers” instead of “start relying on PSTN-style numbers”

  3. Jesse Kopelman

    I feel like there is a bit of a double standard here. Why aren’t Friendster and MySpace being called to task for not being compatible with each other? Is it a matter of marketing? What if Skype started saying it was a social network instead of a communications tool? Another incongrous thing; Om, where is your cirticism of Apple for not releasing OS X for non-Apple computers? If this is a good idea for Apple, why is it bad for “phone” makers?

    P.S. I’m not saying that the Skype way is the better way (in fact, I think it is not), just asking why it is only a bad thing in telecom and not in other things.

  4. we need to start relying on PSTN-style numbers.

    we need smarter devices that allow us to think about the people we’re attempting to get in touch with, versus the means by which we’re trying to reach them. Get rid of those silly numbered keypads.

    Give me a scroll-wheel. A display with faces and people’s names as i scroll. With the option to speak names for the visually impaired.

    Let me forget about somebody’s number. Numbers are so 1849.

    Once my device allows me to forget about numbers, i don’t have to think about SIP addresses either. But what we’re storing are indeed SIP addresses, on-top of PSTN numbers for a given person. Once i have a full-blown SIP address (sip:[email protected]) for somebody, i don’t need to rely on kludgy numbering rules for routing calls.

    How do i get someone’s “contact info” in the first place, if they’re not just “giving me” their phone number? vCard. hCard. IR. Bluetooth. IP. e-mail. web. vCard.

    Devices need to get smarter:

    • they need to interoperate to facilitate the exchange of contact information.
    • they need to support multiple routing options to save end-users money.
  5. I couldn’t agree more. Brian McConnell just penned a long post on VoIP Peering over on our new ETel site (, noting that VoIP peering is easy to implement with services that support SIP or IAX2 protocols. Let’s hope this does pick up steam and some organization or federation emerges to support VoIP peering and help keep us from going back down this road of silos..

  6. Amen brother. Even the IM clients with voice and video capabilities should get in on this. i Use iChat because I have a Mac and its the easiest. This should be able to call Skype and the rest of the others. I am all for the open comm federation, sign me up!