I’m usually a big fan of Om Malik’s superb GigaOm weblog, but today he’s posted a bit of a rant about the evolutionary steps that we’re seeing with Voice over IP (VOIP) companies at the Consumer Electronics Show that I think is just wrong.
First off, go read his commentary: Enough of these damn VoIP silos.
Now, before I explain why he’s wrong, let me briefly describe my own VOIP setup, because it’s quite relevant. I am using the small Canadian VOIP provider Vbuzzer for my office line, as I’ve written about before (see Is VOIP ready for small business? and Business VOIP solutions are too complex). I’m not using it as what industry folk call a “softphone”, though, where it relies on my computer, I’m instead using a slick little Sipura device, the SPA-3000, to hook directly into my local area network.
So what I have is a box under my desk that interfaces between my regular RCA telephone (it’s a four line phone, two lines are from Qwest, my local phone company, one is Vbuzzer and one will be, when I get the right hardware, Skype) and my cable modem connection to the Internet. No computer involved, no geek factor, and my kids can pick up the handset and dial anyone in the US or Canada for free. The Vbuzzer line has its own assigned telephone number too.
So back to what Om’s complaining about:
“Over past few days, we have been bombarded with one announcement after another from handset makers who are touting WiFiphones for Vonage or some other phone service. Bunch of speaker phone and USB handsets that work exclusively for Skype. Netgear is pushing routers that work with Skype, no PC required. Even Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon, where Bill-G in his big CES keynote showed off two wireless handsets from Philips and Uniden that work only with Windows Live Messenger, and MCI powered PSTN service. Does anyone else see this as the continuing balkanization of VoIP?”
And then he adds the colorful example:
“Imagine mom�s confusion when she finds that here Microsoft phone only talks to Microsoft phones, or Skype phones don�t play nice with others when it comes to free phone calls. Sure you can make PSTN calls on the cheap, but hell you can do that even with your mobile phone. Just wait for the clock to turn 7 p.m. in the evening. Someday Microsoft�s Live Messenger will talk to Yahoo, Google Talk will call AIM, but don�t hold your breath.”
The problem with Om’s logic is that any of these VOIP solutions that are worth considering already have an assigned traditional phone number and the ability to bridge out of the VOIP network onto regular phone lines. Heck, even Skype can do that!
So where are the silos? If we’re talking about VOIP companies that are only offering in-network calling then I question whether they should really be in the same category of solution provider as the more general solutions like Skype, Vonage and even Vbuzzer? Maybe we just need a new name for this sort of closed VOIP network to more easily differentiate between the two?
I’m sure uninterested in a telephony solution that only lets me call other people on the same network and cannot break out into the greater world of telephony. It’s daft for a company to even offer this sort of thing. It’s what I expect from America Online, perhaps, with its insular perspective, but even Microsoft isn’t that clueless. Or are they?
In any case, I think that Om’s missed the proverbial boat on this issue and I, for one, am happy with my VOIP solution and definitely don’t feel like I’m stuck in any sort of silo. I couldn’t care less what telephony solution someone has on the other end of the line, as long as they have a phone number I can call from my landline, cellphone, and Vbuzzer line.
And isn’t that transparency of service provider the whole point of VOIP as a telephony killer in the first place?
I think you missed Om’s point. He is not talking about the customer being limited in connecting to other networks or phones. He is talking about the hardware being shackled to the service.
When the hardware is frozen to the service provider, you have to buy new hardware to change the service (or enter into another long-term, hardware linked contract). You are also subject to the service provider deciding what you can and can’t do with “their” hardware (similar to how cell carriers cripple stand-alone cell phone features to force the customer to buy more voice or data service).
One of the advantages of the Sipura device that you have usually, is its ability to be used with a variety of service providers or even two at the same time. The new VOIP packages that Om is talking about do not allow this, at least not without a hack.
It’s ironic that after so much de-regulation in the telecom industry over the past years, we are ultimately returning to the “you have to buy your telephone from the phone company” model. It limits flexibility for the consumer and makes the market less competitive.
Its probably largely the consumer’s fault though, for falling for “free” and “cheap” equipment without realizing the true cost of “free” and “cheap”.