The technology industry is full of alternate histories, tales of what might have been had things unfolded just a bit differently. We all know about Skype (s ebay), but did you know that the likes of Skype could have emerged a decade sooner, and almost did, thanks to a scrappy little San Francisco company named Quicknet Technologies?
Stacey Reineccius founded Quicknet in the early 1990s. It was initially started to commercialize a technology called isosynchronous Ethernet, which carries voice calls using a special signaling method much the same way ISDN-based phone systems operated. The technical details aren’t so important now, as isosynchronous Ethernet is obsolete, but the idea of interleaving voice and data on a common wire was, for it led to the development of the first commercially useful VoIP product, the Internet PhoneJACK.
The PhoneJACK was a PC card designed expressly for Internet telephony; it solved problems with quality that plagued early software-based systems (dropped audio, echo, poor performance, etc). It was cheap, too, just $100-$200 in the mid 90s. That might look pricey today, but it was a deal back then, particularly since you could use it to avoid international tolls, which often ran $2-$3 per minute. My company at the time, PhoneZone, was one of the first resellers of the card, and we sold them like hotcakes to customers all over the world. The product line grew to include more and more sophisticated, but still very inexpensive, VoIP cards and gateways. (Full disclosure: After seeing how popular their cards were, after I sold PhoneZone I also made a small investment in Quicknet.)
Above and beyond selling peripheral cards, however, Reineccius had a vision of how these inexpensive devices could be networked to create a global, peer-to-peer VoIP network, with free Net calls, and cheap inbound and outbound PSTN calls (like Skype Out). The concept was called Micro Telco. It was similar to Jeff Pulver’s Free World Dialup, except that it was designed as a commercial service, where independent gateway operators (micro telcos) would set their wholesale rates, and would be paid out for terminating traffic from other users. It was a simple but very powerful idea, especially in 1998-2000, when phone calls were still expensive in much of the world. In the meantime, Internet connectivity was getting faster and cheaper every year, so it was clear that the trends were headed in the right direction.
Micro Telco, alas, was never to be, at least not in its envisioned form. Quicknet was just months away from launching a peer-to-peer version of the service when the dot-com crash put an abrupt end to startup funding, and the company found itself mired in protracted legal battles with one of its investments funds, making it all but impossible to raise cash from anyone else. And that meant it couldn’t invest in new products, such as USB hubs and standalone handsets. So Quicknet was left to die on the vine as the device business became a commodity market, and as purely software-based services improved.
Had things been different, Quicknet would have created something like Skype — and we would have had a worldwide dial tone a few years sooner. Importantly, Quicknet was a big supporter of open standards, such as Open H323, so Micro Telco could have even become a platform in of itself, sort of like Asterisk for long distance, whereas Skype is a largely closed system.
The lesson of this story is that the technology industry is full of both unintended discoveries and missed opportunities. A lot of it is luck, for being in the right place with the right product is often an accident of timing. So many things can go wrong, while in order to be successful, so many things have to go right.