Business voip hardware

Interview with Dean Elwood of

deanelwoodDean Elwood runs the industry leading website Over the 6 years this has been going Dean has come into contact with most of the major thought leaders in the communications space. He has also seen many of the new developments in VoIP play out in the form of discussion and comment on the website’s forum which has given him an unique insight into the workings of the VoIP industry.

TD I understand that for many of us there was life before VoIP and that you were in the legal profession. How did this enormous career step change come about?

DE Organically. 16 years of corporate law has its way of taking toll on you. I always maintained an interest in technology and looking back that’s really where my heart was. The defining moment happened in 2000 when I originally built a GSM conferencing system for two-way radio. VoIP User came about because of that in 2003.

TD VoIP has gone from being in the domain of the technology enthusiast (quite a long time ago now) to being mainstream. Has the growth in subscribers reflected this and how has the nature of the discussion topics changed in this time?

DE That’s an interesting question and one I re-visit myself from time to time. VoIP User has experienced a growth rate average of 50 new members/subscribers per day and it has not deviated from that in 6 years. It’s still the same as it was at day one. I’m not sure I can explain the reason why, other than to say that I feel VoIP User is an attraction to the early adopter and this maybe represents the rate of growth in the early adopter space.

We have noticed a change in the discussion topics to more mass market type threads however. I’ve noticed that in particular in the business space – a lot more IT professionals realising they are having to become PBX specialists due to the fact that telephony is more and more falling into their remit. These days if you’re an IT manager, that will typically involve you in voice services. 5 years ago that was a role relating to PC hardware and software management. That’s a change which is very obvious when you look at some of the threads in our Business Forum.

TD Would you say that you had had a scoop of any kind on voipuser?

DE Several over the years, but recently as we’ve become a bit more mainstream we tend to get embargoed. I had the scoop on GrandCentral/Google Voice back in December but was asked (very nicely) not to publish as it would interfere with Google’s marketing plan. So I obliged which is what we typically do. We do not wish to be seen in the same light as traditional media – we’re not here to interfere with marketing plans, we’re here to inform users. So with that one we waited until it was public and then talked about it. What I did do was have a detailed piece pre-written and ready which sat on my laptop for about 2 months awaiting the go-ahead. I prefer it that way. Making scoops can mean making enemies of marketing directors 😉

TD In the early days VoIP service providers had pride of place at conferences such as Voice on the Net (VON) and would attract the attention of every single device and handset manufacturer in the world. Nowadays there are hundreds if not thousands of ITSPs and almost as many device manufacturers. Do you think that it is too late for new players to get in the game.

DE I don’t think being too late is the issue; I think the issue is understanding what “the game” is. From my perspective there are huge opportunities. For example, the compliance and regulatory space is wide open. Life is getting tougher on lawyers and accountants to produce audit trail evidence of conversations.

There are plenty of ways that a niche specialist could build a business in that space alone and there is precious little out there serving that customer base. I think a product that serves those specific industries and integrated SMS and voice call trails into existing systems (MimeCast for example) would do extremely well.

That’s a simple example of providing a solution to a very real-world problem and I still feel there is scope for that approach in this space. Niche yourself, attack a specific market and do it extremely well. Long gone are the days of wanting to be the next Vodafone or IPO or Skype level sale, but that’s not to say that there is no room left. I think there’s plenty.

TD What in your mind have been the major milestones in the VoIP industry?

DE I could say the obvious – Skype sale to eBay, ubiquity of broadband and of SIP etc. But the truth is I don’t feel we’ve really seen any major milestones yet from a consumer perspective. VoIP as a technology is still yet to prove it’s value in terms of offering advantages over TDM.

At the moment it remains an alternative technology for voice and that’s all (with most providers playing on the cost-saving end). It’s not yet become an alternative *product* in it’s own right. That needs to happen. That would be a real milestone.

TD What is the recipe for success for a VoIP business today?

DE  Understand your customer. Release products that are a direct reaction to their specific requirements or solve their specific problems. Don’t release products or buy other companies simply because your engineering department thinks it’s a “cool” technology.

Technology is meaningless without a valid product reason for its existence and a sales channel to get it out. We saw a lot of meaningless and/or cheap minutes plays in 2008. The only things that people will buy from you in 2009 are products that solve specific problems your customer or target market is experiencing.

Martin Geddes (BT Director of Product Strategy) is someone that understands this very well. His headline statement is “People are expensive, minutes are cheap”. If you can get an employee off the phone 20 minutes more quickly then your customer (as an employer) will be quite happy paying you 5p/minute more than your competitor is charging because the customer saves real money, not pennies. That’s where the profits lie in this business, not in cheap minutes. If you’re in the latter space, watch out for the price wars and high customer churn rates. VoIP as a technology is actually an enabler to doing clever things like call avoidance and dynamic call control and routing.

TD VoIP has come a long way since the beginning. Quality of Service has all but disappeared as an issue and we are now starting to see VoIP calls with much better sound quality than traditional PSTN calls. How much farther do you think VoIP has to go?

DE I’m not convinced that QoS has all but disappeared. I still have clients experiencing this issue today when not in control of the last-mile of connectivity (where most of the QoS problems actually arise). Timico solves this problem because you’re in control of that last-mile as an ISP, so QoS is something that you can offer your customer and perhaps it’s therefore something you don’t see anymore. That’s a good place to be in, but many are not in that position and have to look elsewhere for their value adds.

Moving further forward, I think hi-def audio is a good place to be in. That really makes a difference, especially in conference calls or when you’re speaking to people with strong accents or native language differences. The clarity of hi-def solves the problem of understanding someone in those situations. It is something that requires the support of hardware manufacturers though, for obvious reasons, to really come to fruition.

Most ITSP’s that I speak to really want to do hi-def, but don’t have the hardware support to make it possible for their customers. It’s a critical mass/chicken and egg problem but I do think that loop will be broken. Jeff Pulver is going all out to try and break that loop at the moment as you know.

TD Do you think the term VoIP has had its day? The world seems to have moved on to using the term Unified Communications and even this in my mind is inadequate as a description of the experience that users are going to get with new communications technologies and tools. How should we be describing this new experience?

DE VoIP as a buzzword and sales point has definitely had its day. If you take 100 consumers and ask them what VoIP means 95 of them will respond with “Skype” in the sentence. The other 5 are early adopters/technology enthusiasts. Skype achieved that brand position by productising the technology. Unified Communications is an inadequate expression only because the 95% don’t understand what you mean. Nobody has productised it yet.

If you say to an accountant that their voice calls can be logged into the same compliance system as their email they’ll understand the point and see the value to them. That’s what productisation is. I don’t believe there is any single expression that will make that point to the mass market. Like Skype, I believe this movement will be product-led and not technology or catch-phrase led. There is an opening right now for a brand to immerse itself into the UC space in the same way that Skype immersed itself into the VoIP space or Google in the search space.

TD We do live in a world where volumes are almost the be all and end all. Who do you think will be the major players in the global VoIP game. A couple of players seem to be nosing ahead of the pack, in the consumer market at least.

DE I only see one player ahead of the pack at the moment in the consumer space and that’s Skype. Everyone else, as Jeff Pulver remarked at the ITSPA 2007 event, is “just noise”. Whilst there is money to be made in the noise it’s becoming much harder in the economic downturn that we’re experiencing. I honestly don’t believe for a moment that many of the tech-household names that we know in this space will be around in Q1 2010. I still feel the market is wide open for a clever product play and I think it will take that to ensure survival.

TD You personally produced an embedded client for Truphone for Facebook. Where else are we likely to see such clients and will we recognize them as such? Is the VoIP enabled fridge any nearer happening (it being one of the trendy futuristic uses of VoIP for almost the whole 10 years I have been in the industry).

As soon as the VoIP enabled fridge is available you and I will be buying one, so there’s two customers! I don’t think we need to recognise what they are, as consumers, I think we only need to recognise value in the product. We don’t really care what’s driving it or how it works, just that it adds value somehow. If that value is simply that I can make hands-free calls from my kitchen then that’s great. That might be all that device needs to do to satisfy me as a customer. In that case it could be my toaster – we don’t have to stop at fridges!

I do think we’ll see more voice oriented applications within the social networking space and there is definitely an opportunity to be capitalised on there. Second Life is currently routing one billion minutes per month between its users, for example.

TD Where is it all going?

DE Voice minutes are a commodity. I think many business models exist with a long history that shows us what happens when a service gets commoditised so we don’t really need to guess, we can just look back.

Aviation is one such example. When you look at times in history when the airline industry has hit rock bottom (through price cuts in times of trouble), a few go bust, several consolidate and a scarce few do well. The ones that do well are the ones that are selling an expensive service with a value add. They rise above the commodity price by adding value to the raw service.

During a terrible climate for the aviation industry between 1999 and 2003 the airlines that did well looked at user-experience and made changes there. They did video on demand. They created rapid check-in processes. They saved you time (see Martin Geddes quote above) and gave you good in-flight entertainment which meant the time you had to spend (in flight) at least had some value. A good end to end user-experience.

That’s all they needed to do to pursuade flyers that it was worth spending the extra money to fly with them. They started selling expensive airmiles, coupled to value-adds focussing on the value of peoples time.

I see the telecoms industry going the same way. But while everyone else is jumping on to the cheap minutes bandwagon and causing commoditisation the best thing to do is the opposite. Be in the expensive minutes business with a value add and great user-experience that saves your customers more money than cheap minutes alone. All of this really just equates to recognising the value of your customers time and recognising that VoIP is a technology that has the capability to rise above the low-end proposition of cheap minutes.

Business internet UC

The forecast for Unified Communications is cloudy

Oracle has been in the news recently with the acquisition of Sun. One of the prizes that comes with this purchase is Open Office. This probably would have fitted in very well with Oracle’s Network Computer play of ten or more years ago – I remember visiting Oracle at the time to try and design in some networking components.

Lack of cheap high speed connectivity is what brought Oracle’s efforts to a halt in the 1990s. Today the environment is completely different. Today, however, I don’t see Oracle playing in the space. Instead the spotlight is on Google and what can be seen under the bright lights, understandably, bears no resemblance to what was there in Oracle’s day.

All the components are there: cheap connectivity which is getting faster and cheaper all the time, a massive cloud computing infrastructure that would have been unimaginable ten years ago and a whole bundle of applications that are easy to use and can be accessed from multiple platforms.

Google is poised to be a massive player in the Unified Communications market, at least in the consumer space and downstream probably for small business as well.

There are already many reasons why people use Google’s online facilities. Google mail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Docs and Google Talk and of course Google the search engine.

When I log onto my iGoogle home page I can already access many features that would traditionally have been the domain of a business based Unified Communications service. From my Google Mail account I can send Instant Messages and have video conversations. I realise there are other services available where this can be done but none have the same potential for integration with other cloud based applications (Microsoft will probably disagree with me here).

Now add mobility. Despite being a clunky initial design, sales of the G1 phone have just hit the 1 million units mark and are forecast by British based analyst Informa Telecoms and Media to overtake the iPhone by 2012. And it is still early days for Android, the open sourced mobile operating system used by Google.

HTC has announced a new Android based smartphone that will support Google Mail, Google Talk, GoogleMaps, and synchronises with Google calendar and contact list. Word also has it that Samsung is also looking to introduce three models later this year. The initial clunkiness will soon be long forgotten.

All this points to more and more users using Google Unified Communications services. This doesn’t mean to say I am tolling the death knell of other UC services. I am not. Business has needs that go beyond what Google offers as a basic service.

Better office tools aka Microsoft Office, integration with other business services such as Customer Relationship Management tools operation behind secure company firewalls etc etc. These services are however becoming increasingly virtualized and hosted in the cloud, just like Google does and like Oracle wanted to do way back when I fitted into a smaller waist trousers.

As far as Unified Communications goes I can see clearly now and the future is in the cloud.

Business internet ofcom

EU threatens to sue UK over Phorm

EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding has issued a statement threatening to sue the UK over their stance concerning behavioural advertising and Phorm.  I covered this last October – Ofcom was saying it was OK for ISPs to use Phorm provided they were transparent about it despite the fact that the EU was saying it was illegal.

In the UK the use of Phorm is being driven by BT, other ISPs having stepped back, afraid of the negative publicity. The reality is that the whole industry would jump at the opportunity to make more money out of advertising, at least the consumer ISPs who have the volume subscriber bases.

Although there are huge privacy issues involved I think the momentum is beginning to gather to the extent that the use of behavioural advertising is bound to grow.  Facebook, for example, must already use this form of database mining because when I visit Facebook, as I am wont to do,  I often see adverts for golf and guitar related subjects – those being two of my stated interests.  Google is also talking about selling advertising based on a given user’s recorded web searching habits.

The UK Government has two months to respond.  The EU press release can be read here.

Business internet voip

Data Retention Act Absurdity

The Data Retention Act, as you will know from previous posts requires Communications Providers, when requested, to store information concerning voice calls, emails and potentially Instant Messages sent and received by its customers.

I learned yesterday that this will not apply to IM services of companies such as Facebook that are defined as “information society services”.  This does tend to make the whole Act an absurdity in my book.  Also what happens when Google launches VoIP in the UK? Is Google an information society service?

It would be interesting to understand how the reg will apply to P2P services such as Skype?  I’m sure I must have been told sometime.

Business mobile connectivity

Mobile VoIP action hotting up

One of my predictions for 2009 was that mobile VoIP would finally come of age. In the last two weeks there have been significant announcements in this space.

Firstly Google announced a service called Google VoIP that is intended to be a rival to Skype. The service will also do voice to text when someone leaves a voicemail and send it to you via SMS or to your Gmai inbox.  Ther service is initially only available in the USA and then only to customers of telephony company Grand Central who Google bought some time ago and have since temporarily stopped accepting new customers.

Secondly Nokia has announced native support for Skype on its new N97 handset available later this year. The Skype service will run over either WiFi or 3G when the former is not available.

However all the mobile networks apart from Vodafone have said they will block VoIP calls over 3G. Whether they do or not it is a fact that VoIP over 3G is not a cheap option.  I did a rough calculation last year and the bandwidth costs from handsets are such that the cost would be much the same as if you were making a normal mobile voice call.

Whether the networks block the VoIP traffic or not this is another step toward mainstream mobile VoIP.  I will be looking at a similar service myself this year.

Business internet

Is The UK An Innovation Backwater?

I’m sure this is a subject that has raised its head on many occasion over the past decade or two. It struck me this morning that all the futuristic development work that I am looking at is based on technologies and services that have originated outside the UK.

In particular Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Digg it Yahoo, Google etc etc etc are all North American inventions. The one British equivalent that springs to mind is Friends Reunited which looks as if it has missed the boat big time on the social networking opportunity yet it was probably the first in the space. Certainly I never used it seriously because there was a subscription cost.

Not only is the innovation in the USA but all the conferences that you might want to go to to network and discuss innovation are in the USA. I used to work for a company that had offices in San Jose and when visiting could always sense the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that pervaded the whole community. 

Now it is true that due to the nature of the internet and thanks indeed to the ability to communicate and innovate that web2.0 has brought (bit of a generalisation I know) the world is a lot smaller. However there still lacks the forum outside of the USA for getting together with like minded people to discuss and progress.  Jeff Pulver’s “Breakfasts” are a good start and I will be attending the one in London on January 28th.

I periodically hold a “Friday Lunchtime Session” in the office at Timico HQ where innovation is discussed. If there are any like minded people in the UK who want to get together on a periodic basis to discuss innovation, technology, Social Networking, Web2.0 et al please get in touch.

End User mobile connectivity

Google G1 Phone Date Announced

Google is launching its new mobile handset, labelled the G1, in the UK on Thursday 30th October. This is Google’s first phone and is based on a new open source operating system named Android.

I haven’t had a play with it myself yet and am unlikely to in the near future as T Mobile has an exclusive deal in the UK.  In anycase it is initially going to be a consumer play and I use a mobile phone for business rather than listening to music etc.

The exciting thing here is that Android is open source. Anyone can write an application for it. I’m sure there will be gotchas that benefit Google but that is understandable. Why otherwise would a company make such an investment.

If you don’t understand the implication here of “openness” look at Facebook. Facebook has had thousands of applications developed for it, good and bad.

Nokia is making its own Symbian OS open source and Apple allows developers onto its iPhone although not with complete freedom. The mobile revolution is about to move onto its next phase.

Apps Business mobile connectivity

Mobile handset wars

I have always been a fan of Nokia handsets for business use. However I have recently been a little concerned that in the longer term the writing might be on the wall. What with developments in the iphone world and more competition potentially coming from a google open mobile platform.

Nokia has just announced that it is purchasing outright rights to the Symbian operating system. The company intends to make Symbian freely  available as open source which might do something to stop the potential rot. We can only wait and see.

The developer community for iphone will I’m sure come up with thousands of applications in a very short space of time. How many of these will be particularly useful is another thing. Again we can only wait and see, or at least wait and see how many of them will be useful to business. The issue really  for me is is how many useful applications will now come out of the woodwork for Nokia handsets.

I did come across an application on the Nokia website which I consider to be supercool (excuse my naievity if readers think this is all old hat). This is a barcode generating application that allows Nokia handsets to be used as barcode scanners.

 nokia bar code

It took me seconds to generate this barcode and upload it to the blog. There have to be many uses of this in business and Nokia has made it easy. There is a prize for anyone who can tell me what the barcode says. Leave a comment if you have the answer.

Use this link to see more.