LinuxUser Column 5

Last week Vonage came to the UK. Vonage provide a basic form of Voice over IP (VOIP), in other words Internet telephony. You pay a monthly fee and get cheap calls routed over the Internet. Vonage send you a box which you plug into your ADSL line and your normal phone handset. Voila – Internet prices with old fashioned ergonomics.

It’s a nice idea and it’s been doing very well in the US market. It’s not such a great money-saver in the UK however as you still need to pay BT or NTL a monthly rental for your broadband connection. This may change in the next 18 months (Vonage hope) with the introduction of ‘naked broadband’. This isn’t as racy as it sounds – this is merely ADSL without the need for a BT line, thereby making Vonage a better price proposition.

Vonage isn’t really that revolutionary at all though, despite what many avid American users have been saying. Vonage still want to bill you monthly and they still want to charge 4p/minute to call Warsaw. Ok so they offer free local and national calls but that certainly isn’t the biggest part of my phone bill. Vonage is fairly traditional when compared to some of their competitors.

We need to look to Skype for a glimpse at a different approach. Skype, created by some of the founders of the Kazaa peer-to-peer network, is extremely ‘right-on’ in a digital economy sort of way. It’s a totally multi platform (Linux, Windows, MacOS X, Pocket PC & Symbian) P2P Internet telephony application. Like Vonage you can use Skype to make and receive calls to the old-fashioned telephone network. But unlike Vonage you can instant message, transfer files and voice chat with other Skype users. Fairly uniquely bandwidth is routed from Skype user to Skype user, not via centralised systems unless you need to skip out to a real phone number.

Skype isn’t the only one, there are many other competitors, but Skype is the poster boy – they often have over 3 million customers online at the same time. Sure, in one sense, 3 million is a lot of people but it’s nothing compared the total number of people on the Internet, let alone those with phone numbers. Skype has created another pool of users locked into an exclusive network. Skype users cannot call other Internet phone users free of charge and they can’t instant message the 180 million ICQ users, 35 million AOL Instant Messenger users, 23 million MSN Messenger users or the 19 million Yahoo! Messenger users. Nothing new there, all instant messaging users have had to grapple with Yahoo! users being unable to communicate with MSN users and so on. Sure there have been solutions such as Trillian on the PC or Adium on the Mac, but they patch together the competing networks in only the simplest of ways – advanced features such as voice chat and file transfer rarely work, if ever.

For instant messaging such incompatibilities are more of an inconvenience than a serious hindrance. But when we move into the world of serious telephony, such incompatibilities become a major problem. Skype claim that because they encrypt all communications between users compatibility would be problematic. Perhaps, but when AOL bought ICQ they managed to get both groups of users intercommunicating. Compatibility shouldn’t be difficult, there’s an IETF standard Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) which a number of VOIP providers, including Vonage and Apple, support to a lesser or greater extent. It allows systems to negotiate a compatible way of communicating for voice, video or data. SIP also defines a standardised way of calling VOIP users with a number:user@provider.com address format. The beauty of SIP is that is very light, most of its functionality is provided by existing standards including MIME, RADIUS and LDAP. It’s a good protocol and we should encourage all providers to use it. But the history isn’t encouraging.

Jabber, the Open Source instant messaging platform, launched with much promise but it never quite came through. Jabber’s excellent XML-driven standards-based architecture allows for gateways through to competing services such as AIM or MSN Messenger. But obsessed with the idea of locking their users in none of the major providers made the leap to the Jabber standards. Also the gateways have proven to be unreliable, partly because Microsoft and AOL helpfully kept changing their protocols to ‘protect’ their networks.

Jabber has had more of a quiet success in the corporate world however. Impressed with its flexibility and openness Jabber is powering corporate instant messaging servers across the business world. In a sign of its acceptance Apple has used Jabber to power a messaging server in MacOS X 10.4 Tiger and so iChat now supports Jabber too. The hype surrounding Jabber has turned full circle, from excessive expectations to quiet acceptance and use.

We haven’t had massive hype surrounding SIP, but VOIP certainly is getting hyped liked crazy. Let’s make sure standards get taken along on the VOIP rollercoaster or we’ll find ourselves running a herd of applications just so we can call our friends and customers. Standards matter folks.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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