The VoID in VoIP Applications

by Dave Michels

There are some things that the general disruptive VoIP telephony world does seems to agree on.

  • It is all about applications
  • It is not about cheap long distance
  • VoIP makes far more sense than hybrid and digital phone systems
  • It is more about software than hardware

No debate there. But what bothers me is the total VoID of decent IP phone based applications.

There is plenty of reason not to be bothered by this. Ultimately, it is the customer’s responsibility to determine what applications they require and develop them for their needs. The Dell model: Dell doesn’t create business value on the PCs – the customers need to do that. Dell creates value in the platform.

The IP PBX players mirror this role. Mitel, Avaya, Cisco, Polycom, (fill in the blank), all provide quality IP phones with the ability to run applications – they have micro browsers, they support networking protocols, they are configurable – what’s the problem?

The problem is these beautiful high quality, HD phones don’t do anything. Yes, the speaker phones are better than ever, the large LCD displays have improved resolution, the soft keys are brilliant, and some even have touch screens. They do voice – and even voice related apps such as messaging – great. You gotta love the latest phones.

As a dealer we sell them to some highly technical companies. And you know what they do with them? They use them to make/receive phone calls. The irony is the high speed LAN bandwidth is free and available. Contrast this to our smart phones – we pay extra for what the carriers call “unlimited data”. We value our smart phones for their data ability and use our LAN IP phones for their voice capability.

Consider the “soft phone” for a moment. Initially considered to be the killer of the handset, it proved to be only valuable to travelers. Most people prefer to chat on the hard or real phone. Why? Perhaps it is the satisfaction of slamming down the handset, perhaps it’s the right to use the phone while booting up or shutting down the desktop, maybe it is just because we want our full desktop screen while on the phone. So this leads to the question of the day, if the phone device could do more things in a friendly way, would we use it for more than voice? I think yes, but there is no way to prove this theory today.

When PCs were new, IBM didn’t take them seriously. They believed real computers belonged in glass data centers, not on desktops. But the PC revolution taught us something about empowering users. The iPhone did the same thing. Something powerful happens when you liberate the customer from the shackles of technology.

Fred Posner recently posted a Perl script to have an IP mirco-browser equipped phone provide local weather information. It is clever, the phone is always connected, always on, always within reach – makes sense to me. Thank you Fred for sharing. This is the kind of thing a user may want to deploy on their IP phone. But they probably can’t.

First, this isn’t a user feature. You need administrator access to configure the phone’s browser. But there are more steps. You will also need a server to collect and format the data. In Fred’s case, he uses a server to query Google for the current weather information, then formats the data for the phone’s display (different scripts for different models). He uses the server’s scheduler to repeat the script and output every 10 minutes to ensure current information is delivered when requested.

Now just for giggles, let’s consider how a user might obtain this same information differently. At the desktop, no problem – Yahoo, Google, TWC, and many other websites offer local weather. With a mobile phone, we have less options. Other than calling someone, an easy solution is to SMS text “46645” (GOOGL) with “weather [zip code]”. Google will reply (usually within seconds) detailed local weather information free of charge (standard text messaging rates apply). If you have a “smart-phone” and a data plan, there are several more options including the same sites mentioned above, or you could load a weather application on your phone – such as the Weather Channel Iphone App. Look ma, no administrators, and no servers. Adding insult to injury, many smart-phones support VoIP clients to do what the IP desktop phones do.

It would not be difficult for the PBX companies to offer some basic applications such as weather and headlines into the core PBX (configurable from the user web portal). A non voice feature on a phone system? Blasphemous I know.

When you get a new mobile phone, think about how you customize it: load your contacts, load your applications, add bookmarks, customize fonts, sounds, and other options. What do you do when you get a new desk phone? Probably make a test call on it (to your cell phone).

The barriers to being able to leverage the IP phone are many, including access control, form factors, and complexity. The solution is to put a friendly OS on the IP phone. This will instantly make the IP phone much broader – beyond voice – and lead to a slew of new ways we use the VoIP infrastructure. All IP phones technically have an OS – but the vast majority are proprietary with no or limited APIs (ensuring no applications). There are several phone OS candidates to consider, primarily from the mobile arena:

  • Apple (iPhone)
  • Android/Google *
  • RIM/Blackberry
  • Windows Mobile (end of life?)
  • Symbian (Nokia controlled) *
  • LiMo (Linux Mobile)*

* indicates Open Source (LiMo is partially open as it is based on Linux).

My goal is to get some application development momentum, so the most desirable of the above are Apple, RIM, and Android. It seems to me that RIM licensing their platform to say Cisco would be very interesting for both companies. There are hundreds of Blackberry applications already, and probably thousands of developers. Obviously most of the applications are geared for mobile specific uses, but that could change.

Android, being open source, might be very attractive for the SIP/Asterisk community (Polycom, Snom, Aastra). Two compatible open source environments, both with creativity and momentum, will deliver some interesting ideas. Android has a lot of potential with non SIP phones too. The fact is, we live in a highly connected world – VoIP phones didn’t get the memo.

Apple is not known for their licensing or openness, so I am not sure if they have much to offer the VoIP community. Well other than incredible phone technology that invigorated an industry. If there is any way to tap that energy into VoIP, it deserves a look.

This will lead to some challenges regarding VoIP phone form factors. But the mobile industry evolved. Five years ago the vast majority of mobile phones were designed primarily for voice too – either keyboards or touch-screens are the likely answer for VoIP phones too.

Comments encouraged:


See my related posts to this topic:
The PBX Needs to Change
IP Phones are Stupid
SIP Phones Limit Asterisk