Tag Archives: Telephony

Myth 1: ICTs will save the world. « The ICT4D Jester

My bet, though, is that even in 2020, 10 years after this writing, the poor – even the mobile-owning, Internet-surfing, technology-savvy poor – will still be with us. Mobile phone owners won’t be much better off than they were before, and owning a mobile phone, however fancy and Internet-enabled, won’t do squat for helping a person out of poverty, illness, ignorance, or misery. Sure, we’ll hear a heart-warming story of a poor basket weaver climbing out of poverty because of the dial-a-job-mobile-service-for-migrant-laborers, but that will be a handful of cases. Meanwhile, we’ll also see the heart-wrenching story of the parents who forewent food for their children to feed their phones (see Kathleen Diga’s PhD thesis for early evidence in Uganda [x]). Technology will help some and hurt some, and in the end, it’ll all come out a wash.

Powerful stuff. And probably true. My sense, though, is that cellphones tend to defy the notion that technology is impoverishing–poor people going into debt to buy televions, cars, refrigerators and computers–because of what I would call ‘coping technologies’, not least the missed call. Which is a way of transfering the cost to someone else (either the person who has to call back, or, more likely, the operator whose masts the missed calls travels over.

The other thing is that cellphones are getting cheaper, both to buy and use. I wonder whether there’s a point at which it does become, like the telephone before it, a social and economic enabler? Maybe the Jester is only half right?

Phones Aren’t About Telephony

Skype is a powerful tool because it’s found its way into the hands of people who need it most — ordinary folk. Now it and the companies that make devices to use Skype on need to understand that it’s not about telephony anymore, if it ever was. It’s about two or more people sharing each others’ presence. Now we need the products to make that happen.

I was chatting with someone last night, a gent in his early 60s from LA, who should have retired but decided to take on one more project, in Hong Kong. He was in two minds about it because it would mean a year away from his wife, but he was persuaded because he knew Skype would keep him in touch. Of course it could be any VoIP tool, but the point here is that Skype was the first to cross the threshold into this market because it was easier (and worked better) than all the others at the time. Now the guy can chat with his wife every night and being apart is bearable and not making him too poor.

But he was still using it as a phone: Call the other person up, chat and then hang up. Had he ever thought about just leaving the line open, I asked him? Why would I do that? he replied. Because it won’t cost you anything, and then you’ll hear the sounds of home, which in a way is what you’re really missing. Your wife banging around in the kitchen, the kids arguing, a dog barking, the sound of the wood pigeon in the garden (OK, that’s more my memory of home than his. Not sure they have wood pigeons in LA.)

I then realised that actually there would be a great line of products here. Wireless devices that you could place around the house, outside, some that are just microphones picking up sound, and others that also serve as speakerphones, so his wife can just wander around and, when she wants to, chat as well. Of course, a Bluetooth headset might do the trick, and maybe there are some wireless handsets that might work. I’ve done a quick search and not found any obvious candidates. Most seem to assume you want to use Skype as a phone. But Skype is not really about phones anymore. It’s about presence — on one side, showing other people whether you’re available, etc, and on the other, allowing you to teleport yourself to the person you’re with without the old restrictions of the phone: cost, the structured nature of phone conversation, having to press a device to your ear.

Manufacturers, it’s true, are beginning to wake up to the idea that we don’t use our devices in the way, or the place, they’re designed for. Take the percushion pillow phone, for example, which finally solves that problem of trying to have a conversation with someone while you’re trying to get to sleep. That’s a good start. Now lets see devices that use sound and vision to make anyone, including my new homesick friend, to really feel they’re home.

The End of VoIP?

A provocative (or is it prophetic?) piece  from The Register’s Andrew Orlowski who sees the end of Skype and VoIP:

It’s small, it’s boring and won’t turn any heads – but it probably spells the end of the road for Skype, Vonage and any other hopeful independent VoIP companies. It’s Nokia’s 6136 phone, which allows you to make calls over your home or office Wi-Fi network, as well as on a regular cellular network. UMA, or unlicensed mobile access, is the mobile operators’ answer to the threat of VoIP – and now it’s reality.

UMA, he says, has the edge because in one phone you will be able “to keep one phone number, one handset, and receive one bill at the end of every month.” In the future phone calls at home — whether you’re on your mobile, landline or online — will be free. This is a neat fit because where quality was worst — inside — you will be able to use WiFi.


Got a signal yet?

This is not good news of course, for those of us who saw the interesting lunatics taking over the asylum. Disruptive technology, it turns out, means just that it disrupts the monsters out of their slumber and they finally get it. As Orlowski concludes: “So long then VoIP, and thanks for the free calls.”

.

At Last, Some IM Interoperability

InformationWeek quotes AP as saying that Microsoft and Yahoo “Reach Instant Messaging Deal”:  

Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc have agreed to make their two instant-messaging programs work together, a partnership that could threaten market leader America Online, people familiar with the situation said. The deal was expected to be announced early Wednesday, these people told The Associated Press. One of them works closely with Microsoft. The other was briefed on the deal. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.

A Yahoo-Microsoft partnership, allowing users of the competing services to exchange messages seamlessly, would give the two companies nearly as many users combined as AOL has in total.

If true: Thank God. I use Trillian so have no real use for this but this makes a lot of sense. Not only, as the article points out, do Microsoft and Yahoo lag AOL/ICQ in terms of users, but (as the article doesn’t point out) Skype and Google Talk threaten to steal the rug from under their feet if they don’t get interoperability sorted out. First, because Google Talk is open so you can access it via, say, Trillian; but with Skype mixing voice, telephony, text (and later, video) the old smiley-driven instant messaging software is going to look a tad old fashioned.

Users have long been frustrated with not being able to instant message across platforms. Now they are going to increasingly insist on being able to conduct voice conversation, video conversations and teleconferencing with anyone else on instant messaging. Perhaps Microsoft and Yahoo belatedly realise that. Their enemy on this is not AOL: it’s Google and eBay/Skype.

Another Kind of Phone

Here’s another interesting phone-over-Internet approach that also works over existing telephone lines: the PhoneGnome.

This is how it works: A user connects the PhoneGnome via an ethernet cable to his of her home network, and to a PSTN wall jack using a standard telephone cable. When the PhoneGnome powers up, it automatically reports in to a server to let it know it’s online and what its PSTN phone number is. That’s the entire scope of the basic installation.

Once installed, when the user dials a telephone number, it checks with the server to see if that number belongs to a registered PhoneGnome user. If it does, the call is made directly via the IP network, bypassing all PSTN toll charges.

The PhoneGnome also works with non-PhoneGnome accounts like BroadVoice, VoicePulse Connect. In a nutshell, the service seems to straddle the best of old-style telephony and the best of the new — including the public SIP protocol.

I’m not clear whether the PhoneGnome works overseas; I see no reason why it couldn’t.

SkypeIn’s Wonders, And One Nagging Concern

The SkypeIn thing is really excellent. I was a bit slow to get aboard, mainly because of credit card issues, but now I’m there I’m impressed. It’s great to see a free service adding extra paid services that are really useful, rather than the usual free service later weighed down by sneaky efforts to grab your cash by limiting services, confusing users or adding dodgy features that don’t add up to a hill of beans.

The voicemail is excellent, very clear, the notification subtle but helpful, the message coming through almost immediately I’d hung up. My only concern is this: Incoming calls seem to lack caller ID:

Skype

Perhaps this is just a glitch, because the website version shows clearly the incoming number. Maybe this will be fixed. If not, isn’t there a danger of the number being used by VoIP spammers and others? Who is going to take a call on SkypeIn from an unidentified number? To me the whole beauty of IM/Skype is the ability to screen who it is who is trying to reach you.

The Vulnerability Of VoIP

Listened to an interesting talk by Emmanuel Gadaix of the Telecom Security Task Force at the Bellua Cyber Security Asia 2005 conference in Jakarta. Emmanuel spoke of the security threats to mobile telephony, and while he pointed to the weakness of SS7 signalling — the part of mobile telephony where networks talk to one another — he feels the real threat will come from VoIP. Of Signaling System 7, Emmanuel says: “determined hackers could close down a whole country’s mobile phone network”.

But of VoIP he was more concerned. With many smaller vendors pushing out VoIP services into an already bustling market, vulnerabilities abound: “A lot are still at the beta stage,” he says, “so there will be problems.” And while he stressed that he had noticed that VoIP providers were more aware of security issues than their traditional counterparts, the threat was a significant one. “Full IP telephony will eventually happen,” he says. “And telcos must learn to prevent future threats. You will not be able to ignore them.”

The kind of threats: Denial of service or quality of service attacks, interception of voice traffic, injection of voice traffic (such as SPIT, or voice spam), anonymous and untraceable calls, etc. etc.

Skype Comes To Hong Kong

Skype are moving into Hong Kong with an agreement with Hutchison Global Communications Limited, which operates Hong Kong’s largest fibre-to-the-building network.

HGC is the first Fixed Telecommunications Network Services (FTNS — a provider of fixed line services which include telephony) operator in the world to have reached a co-branding agreement withSkype Technologies S.A, Skype says in a press release issued today (not yet available on their website but I’m guessing it’ll be here when it is).

Under the agreement, the two partners will bring Skype to Hong Kong through a co-branded “HGC-Skype” portal, which is scheduled to be in service in March 2005.

In short, this means that HGC Broadband users — both wired and wireless — will be able to use Skype. Of course, they could anyway, but (I’m guessing here) this is an opportunity for Skype to pitch itself to a Chinese audience, and a chance for Hutchison to offer an extra lure to customers in an already crowded marketplace. As Peter Wong, Chief Executive Officer of HGC, puts it in the press release, “Being a full fledged telecommunications service provider, we launch ‘HGC-Skype’ to cater for the communications needs of tech-savvy users. We always partner with leading service providers, and Skype is no exception. Our cooperation will bring ‘Skype mania’ to Hong Kong.”

What’s interesting here is that Skype is dealing for the first time with an infrastructure provider, and one that offers ordinary telephone services as well as broadband. While Hutchison sounds as if it is calculating that only the tech-savvy are going to be using Skype, it must also be recognising that the days of expensive international phone calls are over. (Local phone calls in Hong Kong are free.)

Voice Commands, Singapore Style

Here’s more on voice recognition replacing touch-tone menus. Is it a good thing?

ScanSoft have teamed up today with Unified Communications –  ’the leading provider of proprietary telecommunication solutions in Asia’ — to launch OneVoice, a ‘voice portal application’ for Singapore Telecommunications Limited (SingTel). OneVoice is a speech-activated service that uses ScanSoft’s SpeechWorks speech recognition and text-to-speech software to allow SingTel subscribers to ‘dial their personal contacts or public establishments, access useful information and carry out their personal information management’.

What does this mean exactly? By dialing *988 or *6988, SingTel customers can access stuff using simple speech commands. Speaking a name already stored in their personal address book would enable them to reach that person. They could also ‘request sports and lottery results, download ringtones, picture messages and logos, utilize location-based services to find the nearest amenities and recommended food outlets’.

The basic idea seems to be to replace navigating a touch-tone menu of options or scrolling through an address book on a cell phone. Not a bad idea, and you’re not replacing real people here but actually adding another layer of usability. (Of course Nokia and several other makes of handphone have the speech option already, where you just speak a name and the phone will dial, but that requires setting up, and I’ve seen more people get embarrassed when it dials by mistake than I have folk getting some serious use from it.)

The downsides I can think of are limited to the idea of storing all your data on a central server. But then again, the cellphone company is going to know all that stuff anyway, so who cares? The only other thing I can think of is the annoying problem of your voice not being recognised.

Which brings me to my only question, a cultural one: Is ScanSoft’s voice recognition software geared towards Singaporean-style English, or a more generic one? Or both? Watch this space.