EQO (pronounced ‘echo’) Communications’ vice president of marketing and alliances, Ian Bell, calls them “archipelagos.” The two island chains this company’s technology seeks to link are online social communities—whether they’re about dating, business networking, or just plain ol’ chit-chat—and the approximately 2 billion mobile phone users wandering around the globe.
Stick around; this is interesting—but complicated.
It all began when a group of high-powered consultants (with heavy-duty experience in big-time telecom and networking technology biz) “stumbled,” according to Bell, on a set of intellectual property related to peer-to-peer call signaling and NAT and device and domain traversal, and other technologies associated with IP telephony. “We started looking for ways to leverage that intellectual property. We had this whole set of technologies but we really had to figure out a way to ‘bake’ them that had some market applicability,” Bell explained to VoIPplanet.com.
EQO’s message to the mobile carriers goes something like this: “We can help you extend your community of interest to some of these social networks. And that will benefit you in the following ways. It will let you build some affinity around your service, which makes it easier to retain customers; it gives you kind of a sizzling feature to sell people and pulls people up the food chain in terms of phones; and it lets you nurture your existing business model around data/SMS and voice.”
To the online community sites, the message is “We can extend your brand in a real-time manner to mobile devices, and allow people to actually get talking to one another in the context that you create.”
So, what is EQO’s product? Right now, it is the EQO Mobile Internet Phone Service—a downloadable software client, available for Windows or Mac OS X, that allows Skype users to use their Skype accounts from their mobile phones. (Keep in mind that Skype is, among other things, an online social community.)
Technically, the service separates the signaling from the media path. “The signaling travels over data/SMS to our signaling network in the sky, which is talking to a piece of software running on your desktop, which is talking to the Skype network,” Bell explained. “When it comes time to make a phone call, we just use SkypeOut to ring the leg of the call that goes to your mobile phone, so that just becomes a regular circuit-switched mobile phone call.”
Bell readily acknowledges a technical flaw inherent in the solution—at least in its current state of development: For the system to work, the user’s desktop computer has to be running. Not a big issue for many in North America (laptop users excepted), but a very big problem in parts of the world where electricity is scarce and expensive.
Bell acknowledges likewise that—in its current state—Mobile Internet Phone Service is really a proof-of-concept beta product, and aside from the expenditure of SkypeOut minutes, is free.
Meanwhile, the EQO developers are working with Skype to figure out how to accomplish the same results at the network level. “Once we’ve done that, then that’s a chargable service,” Bell asserted.
For online communities that don’t happen to have their own phone signaling and/or instant messaging technology, EQO will happily supply whatever piece of the solution are needed.
Of course, the communities that are about a particular communications context—as opposed to just communication in general—communities like MySpace, LinkedIn, orkut, or lavalife—tend not to have these tools, and that’s where the real magnitude of the market opportunity becomes apparent.
Let’s take a deeper look at the problem EQO thinks they’ve cooked up a solution to.
Perhaps the clearest illustration is provided by dating sites. People who use them typically create what Bell calls “disposable identities” for such communities, identities that allow them to protect their privacy and anonymity within the community. So, people expose themselves in the controlled, protected environment of the community, but, since that communication is session-based, they have to be sitting at their PC.
Moving outside or beyond the structured online environment means leaving that protective anonymity behind. It entails some risk—certainly a loss of comfort—for the participants, and for the site operators, it means their users have circumvented their services, with resultant loss of revenue and opportunity.
“So,” Bell put it to VoIPplanet.com, “by taking the availability and the connectedness and extending it a little further, to mobile devices, we’ve allowed the community to extend its brand, to monetize a little bit further, for people to continue their use of the community that’s comfortable.”
Rather than simply voice-enabling (or IM-enabling) an online interaction, this really does seem to extend it to another medium. Given the rapid proliferation of online communities (300 and counting), EQO sees no limit to the possibilities.