Another Voice Convergence Coming of Age

We’ve reported in the past on efforts to integrate cell phone service with instant messaging networks and the voice applications that ride on them, but Talkster is something different. Explaining why isn’t necessarily simple.

Let’s start with the immediate facts: Last month, Talkster, a global company with offices in Toronto, Brussels, and New South Wales, Australia, announced a beta release of its impending enterprise product that, according to Talkster president and COO James Wanless, “allows a user with a regular mobile phone to be able to see their instant messaging buddies from the public instant messaging networks,” and to connect a call from that mobile phone to a buddy’s PC.

Unlike other similar efforts we’re aware of that are outwardly similar (in particular, iSkoot and EQO), Talkster uses no special client software, and the service works with any browser-equipped mobile phone.

Furthermore, Talkster is built on open, standard protocols, such as XMPP and SIP, rather than proprietary or reverse-engineered signaling or transport methods.

Members of the public who sign up for the beta program can chat with fellow Talksters for free, according to the well-established Skype model, and pay low rates to place calls to the PSTN. Depending on a user’s calling plan, Talkster will either route the call directly from the mobile phone to its gateway or local number, or, with certain calling plans, “call you back on your phone and then bridge the two pieces together,” as Wanless explained to—whichever is least costly.

But becoming a Skype competitor is not really where Talkster is heading with this. Rather, as Wanless puts it, the beta is “just a thin slice of the enterprise product—a proxy.” That is to say, a proof of concept of one important piece of the total package. We’ll come back to this in more detail in a bit.

First, a look at the context within which Talkster’s goals are taking shape should help focus the bigger picture:

One key element here is that enterprise workers are increasingly using instant messaging networks for business communication—these days, mostly public IM networks. While this is convenient and effective, public IM networks are problematic from a corporate IT perspective in that they are outside management’s control and cannot be monitored for content—can’t comply with either corporate policy or government mandate to log and archive communications.

It follows, then, that alternatives to public IM networks will be adopted in the enterprise—alternatives that can be managed or regulated.

Another element is the rapidly shifting landscape of organizing and mapping communications “endpoints.” The past history of telecommunications is largely about telephone numbers mapped to stationary endpoints (conventional telephones). But enterprises are moving more and more toward IP-based endpoints—IP phones that sit on the desk, IP softphones on a PC. And while we can map traditional phone numbers to these devices, it isn’t necessarily the most logical, efficient, or cost effective way to go about directing calls.

“It means,” Wanless pointed out to, “particularly if you’re making a call which is long distance or international, that you’re having to dial a telephone number and therefore there’s a cost associated with it. What we’re doing is saying: You have a set of contacts and the contact has a name, and associated with that contact may be many things—a regular phone number; an instant messaging address, or it could be a SIP URI.

[With the Talkster system,] “once you’ve chosen the person you want to speak to, and once we’ve connected your call onto our network, then from that point forward, you’re going to the endpoint, and you’re able to do that through the most cost-effective channel. You’re also able to do it in a manner which can be regulated,” Wanless explained.

“So, what we’re doing today, by connecting to the public networks, is really just a proxy– to show an example of how the Talkster network functions,” Wanless continued. “It can connect you to regular, ‘plain old’ phone numbers through the networks we all know and use, and at the same time, it’s bridging that gap between the plain old mobile or landline network and voice over IP. But it’s not requiring you to do any kind of mapping or translation to do that; it’s simply saying that you have a contact, and you chose the name of the contact and that allows you to make that call,” Wanless concluded.

The magic behind the scenes involves some special “signaling and transcoding” activities that are necessary to let a call pass from the “plain old cell phone network into an open-standards SIP/voice over IP infrastructure,” according to Wanless. Another bit of the magic is “exposing the information which is necessary for communication using web services,” Wanless explained—”specifically, XML web services—the communication layer—and when it comes to actually passing voice, SIP.”

So, getting back to the Talkster beta, connecting to the public IM networks, according to James Wanless, “is something which is proving the capabilities of the network layer of the service,” but merely one piece of what’s to come.

How does Talkster translate into a business model? “Everybody wants to make phone calls, and they want to make them cheaper,” Wanless agreed, “and that’s great; it’ll be a slice of what we offer. But our whole business model is not going to be built around the margin between wholesale and retail of those voice minutes. The VoIP arbitrage chasing the cost of a phone call to zero is not a good path to be following for any business.”

“We will be going into 2007 releasing other features and functions which will be a prelude to releasing our actual enterprise-focused 1.0 service before the end of the first half of 2007,” Wanless explained. “When you talk about the enterprise and layering on the other things which are important to them, that’s where it has a value, and that’s where we as a company earn money, because managing those services is something which has a value and a cost associated with it.”

We certainly plan to stay tuned and see how this Talkster thing develops.

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