It’s fun covering technology because every day brings something new. The world
of voice over IP is a fast-moving target, and for me it’s extra fun because
it’s this big chaotic mess of open source and proprietary companies, evolving
standards, one-man bands, and giant globalcorps.
The Enterprise VoIP Planet brew reflects this diversity: My beat is primarily
open source, do-it-yourselfers, and system and network administration; esteemed
managing editor Ted Stevenson covers news, trends, hobnobs the nabobs at industry
trade shows, and gives my articles fun, catchy subheadings. Adam Stone, Gerry
Blackwell, and Jeff Goldman contribute excellent news and reviews, and Mark
A. Miller serves up gnarly, in-depth tutorials for SMBs and network professionals.
The year’s grande theme
If there is an underlying theme to the VoIP industry, I would call it chaos
and opportunity, thanks to the open source Asterisk iPBX that launched
this whole telecom revolution. Even industry analysts are
recognizing the value of open source, and how it creates opportunities and
fosters creativity in the VoIP space (just as it does everywhere). The barrier
to entry is low. Anyone who picks up the requisite networking and telecom skills
can pick and choose from any number of free Asterisk-based iPBX packages, and
build a good business around network evaluation, installation, service, and
support. (Note to potential freelance moguls: Social skills matter!)
If you don’t want to spend your days crawling under desks and tracking down mysterious cabling problems, you can set up shop as a VoIP service provider. The software is free—buy minutes cheap, sell calling cards high, and profit!
VoIP calls are easy to eavesdrop on—anyone with access to any wire that
carries your transmissions can snoop
with trivial ease. There is a possible remedy, but it’s not widely used
yet, and that is the ZRTP
encryption protocol. I think it shows the most promise, as it is lightweight,
provides very strong encryption, and—best of all—requires no user
or administrator intervention; it Just Works. ZRTP is somewhat like cell phone
encryption, except that it’s not weak or easily broken. Zfone is the software
implementation of ZRTP, and now you can get a plugin for your softphones. It
costs nothing but a bit of time to try it out.
A rather thornier security issue relates to relying on a service provider,
and we’ll be digging into this in more detail in future articles. This year
the big story was the
Skype worm, which knocked a sizable number of users offline for as long
as three days. While most reporting described this worm as “clever,” I didn’t
think it was clever at all, simply smarter than the users who were dopey enough
to fall for it, and who executed the several steps it took to catch and spread
the worm without a second thought.
Vonage pummeled mercilessly, but still standing
Vonage had more than its share of troubles this year, getting sued all to heck
for patent infringements. (IMO anyone who breathes or blinks is violating a
whole raft of patents, but the utter broken-ness of the U.S. patent system is
a topic for another day.) Vonage lost to Verizon and was ordered to cough
up $58 million in damages, plus royalties on future sales. They lost to
Sprint and were ordered
to pay $80 million. Nortel Networks delivered a Christmas present to Vonage
in the form of yet another patent-violation
lawsuit. AT&T is snapping at their heels as well. *
Me, I’d like to twap them for their annoying TV commercials and ugly orange color scheme. But they have enough troubles, so I shan’t.
Wireless and Wi-Fi wars
Customers want easy, inexpensive wireless everything. The telecoms want customers to quit making demands, and meekly accept whatever meager offerings they deem suitable. And so we have epic battles over network access, with the FCC mediating, looking wise, and nodding thoughtfully.
Meanwhile, back in the open-source VoIP world, Wi-Fi VoIP is slowly gaining a foothold while the big industry players duke it out over who gets to use what wires. It doesn’t need any special FCC permissions, just polishing, refinement, and better network integration and access.
2008 is going to be more of the same: improvements in existing services and hardware, more battling over which standards and service types are going to prevail, and more security woes and headlines. Devices and services will expand to be more inclusive, such as multi-mode cell/Wi-Fi/Internet devices; we’re going to be stuck with a mix of standards, protocols, and technologies for quite a few more years, rather than seeing one or two dominate and the rest go away. Open source will continue to lead the innovation parade by hundreds of country miles.
Hope you enjoyed our coverage in 2007; we’re looking forward to a vibrant
Editor’s Note: AT&T subsequently also settled with Vonage for monitary damages.