Application-Powered Telephony

Quietly, for the past year and a half or so, a small, venture-funded company has been working out one vision for the future of broadband communications. The company is Campbell, Calif.-based, Casabi; the vision is the telephone as hub of a communications network that delivers relevant services and content to users at the point of use.

Or to quote the company’s somewhat more flowery Mission Statement: “To enable the delivery and optimization of web-based services and content to telephone handsets and other devices at the edge of a home broadband network.”

Of course, voice and other web-based services are available at your PC, but as Casabi vice president of marketing and business development, Dave Weinstein, told “The PC makes a [dreadful] voice terminal.” That view is central to Casabi’s philosophy.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure is we can bring to the handset information and services that are relevant to what you’re doing from the handset—which is the process of communicating,” Weinstein said.

Things go better with apps
What are we talking about in terms of enhancing applications and services? There are three categories, according to Weinstein.

First are the extended communications services, employing presence-enhanced peer-to-peer instant messaging protocols, supported by web-based services such as personal directories and buddy lists, plus access to both email and voicemail.

Second are highly targeted information services that users know they want, but don’t want to have to go out and search for. “Imagine your phone wakes you up with a custom ring at 7:00 AM and tells you the weather, or shows you the traffic conditions on your drive route” Weinstein commented. Other such services might be sports scores, or on-demand yellow pages searches for local resources.

The third “bucket,” according to “Weinstein, is personalization services, such as ring-tones, as mentioned above, which, although somewhat trivial seeming, are a tremendous revenue driver.

IM, p2p, and p2t
The foundation of Casabi’s telephony functionality, as mentioned, is IP instant messaging—along the lines of Skype and its PC-based work-alikes. “What we’re doing is taking the entire IM experience and optimizing it for voice from a handset,” Dave Weinstein asserted. “So you look at your phone, you see who’s on line you can initiate a p2p call by just clicking the individual’s name, and at that point you’re engaged in a voice conversation from a telephone, only it is using the p2p infrastructure,” he said.

One of the ways the Casabi-powered handset outshines the PC is that, generally speaking, only one user in the home can be making calls at any given time from the PC, whereas, with Casabi, the number of simultaneous conversations is limited only by the number of handsets. Furthermore, since each family member can ‘punch up’ his/her own profile on picking up the handset, each has access to personalized phonebooks, buddy lists, and voice/e-mail.
Then again, with Casabi, phones ring around the house when incoming calls are received, and since each household member can have a customized ring tone, everyone will know who’s being called.

Looking to the future, Casabi envisions incorporating push-to-talk technology into its service. “I may not want a nailed-up voice connection—even on a p2p basis—with a single buddy. I may just want to hold the button down and have that go to a buddy—and in fact be engaged with multiple buddies simultaneously,” Weinstein told VoIPplanet. “There are three benefits of IM,” Weinstein went on: “Presence, free calls, and the ability to have multiple threads of communication going on simultaneously. It’s not unusual for teenagers to have10 IM windows going at once. The p2t technology begins to take that paradigm and push it out to the handset.”

Business model
All well and good, but how does this vision translate into reality?

Having developed and tested the technology for aggregating and delivering these services, Casabi is now in the process of developing business partnerships—with handset manufacturers on the one hand and with carriers on the other.

“The carriers are our business” Weinstein told VoIPplanet. “We’re not meant to be a brand; we’re meant to be invisible. We’re meant to be the glue between the carriers and whatever content providers they might have a relationship with. We don’t make much money off the handset guys, because we can’t afford to add much cost to the device because that would make it uncompetitive in the market. So we go to the carriers—all kinds of carriers, ILECs, cable guys, independent VoIP providers, and p2p providers,” he said.

“Our technology has two pieces to it,” Weinstein explained. One, we have a complex set of servers that exist in the web, that we call Casaworks. Which basically knows how to source, optimize, and deliver content to devices. It also understands your personal preferences, so it knows what information and what services you want sourced.

“The second piece is something we call Casaware. Which is a lightweight framework that we license to the manufacturers of these phones—software in these phones that insures that the phone is compatible with all of our services and communicates completely with our back end. The paradigm with other mobile services has been application-specific client. But in our world, we’re saying ‘I want to change this device as infrequently as possible.’ So we want a very lightweight, general purpose framework so this can become a general purpose platform for whatever applications we throw at it now and in the future,” Weinstein concluded.

In addition to giving carriers a new revenue stream in the face of the dwindling of per-minute telephony revenues, the branded handset provides the carriers with a piece of customer premise equipment (CPE) over which they have some degree of control—a way of communicating directly with the customer.

“In the old days,” Weinstein pointed out, “you got your telephone from the carrier. But they got out of that business. Nowadays, the cable guys have a piece of CPE that they control and that’s looking good to the carriers. They want to reassert their ability to have some CPE in the home that can serve as a vehicle to selling additional services,” he said.

How close is application-powered telephony to the acid test of the open market? The first handset-vendor-partner, RTX America announced its Casabi-compatible phone last week. On the carrier side, Weinstein figures they’re about a month away from announcing their first major carrier deployment—with a “very well known company.”

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