Saturday, November 11, 2006

VoIP is a series of tubes...

But unlike the Internet, these tubes can be filled without allowing inter-tube communication. Unless I am mistaking, we are getting yet another replay of the "my little walled garden" show, this time with point to point voice communication as the guest star. Just take the same incumbents as in the case of consumer instant messaging services, add eBay with Skype, and Google with GTalk and you have the new landscape. What is also interesting is the parallel uptake of VoIP hard phone devices for use with these closed services. We already knew the series of Skype phones, but more recently the movement has accelerated with examples of Yahoo! and GTalk phones.

I will resist enumerating the reasons why walled gardens and non interconnected “tubes” cannot provide a sustainable model, as I have done so here before. But this multiplication of closed voice services and associated devices raise two questions.

Firstly, the technological context in which these services are being created is different from the context of instant messaging. At the time where IM services have originally been created, there was no established standard for instant messaging, which in turn led to the development of proprietary and incompatible protocols. In comparison, SIP was available as an open VoIP standard. So why wasn’t SIP chosen by all these players to incorporate in their soft clients? Apart from AOL which included a SIP stack in its latest AIM clients, the other incumbents, including Microsoft, as well as Skype and Google came up with their own VoIP solution. I have various reasons coming to my mind that could explain why SIP was not chosen, amongst them I can cite:

  • Inability of the players to conceive voice services outside the existing traditional telco model, where the only conceivable option for them is to play the role of clearing house. Using a proprietary VoIP system would force the end users to go through the incumbent's gateways to reach out to other VoIP services.
  • Fear that adopting SIP would give an unfair advantage to Microsoft which had clearly endorsed this standard in its enterprise products. The current situation is proving that this possibility was grossly exaggerated, as MSN does not use SIP for VoIP, and there is no concrete proof that SIP is used to a large extend by MSN yet.
  • Inherent complexity of a SIP solution ranging from the phone configuration, recurring subject cited by many VoIP observers, to the associated infrastructure necessary to support and control the service. Furthermore, SIP is a documented standard, but its standardization process is similar to a vendors' consortium initiative. As a result, most of the SIP equipments are only manufactured by traditional telecom vendors, and the cost of a SIP infrastructure may have been excessive.
  • Scarce SIP expertise amongst the developers that have been put in charge of implementing the service and integrate voice in the IM clients. Skype and GTalk are typical examples, where developers had a protocol at hand that was solving many issues SIP is facing with NAT traversal. In such condition, it was easiest to just add signaling and voice transport to the existing protocol than to learn SIP in order to embed a full stack.

Secondly, why do all the VoIP pundits remain silent before the obvious rise of these new walls?  I find this silence deafening and profoundly puzzling. I don't know if you are like me, but I don't think it is difficult to infer that all these voice services are of no real value to the end user. I was under the impression we were in an era of users' empowerment and "social" communications. Furthermoe, if the attention economy is effectively the natural economy of the Internet, then voice is the first natural way to draw someone else's attention. After all, what does a baby do immediately after it is born but cry to draw attention? Voice is the ultimate open medium, and is the first and most ubiquitous human way of communication, far before writing. But when someone can only use words in the limited context of a closed community, without the possibility to be heard outside, it looks strangely similar to being deprived from basic freedom of speech.

I can hazard a possible explanation to their silence. Maybe the said pundits, having been exposed to long to the traditional telco business, are only able to conceive a single type of voice applications: toll gates, which are the natural complement of non interconnected “tubes”.

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