Thursday, 6 December 2007

SimpleWebPhone - really here

Go check it out

I'll say no more.

I'd draw your attention to http://www.simplewebphone.com/Testing, as I believe David would appreciate a bit of testing.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

And then there was Mojo

Well, Mojo is the big one - and its an open secret to a number of early developers. We'll be showing it off at TechEd Barcelona, and letting more and more people register.

Mojo is the official way to use the BT SDK in a RESTful manner. Look elsewhere for an evenhanded evaluation - this blog will keep its wider scope.

SimpleWebPhone - almost here

http://simplewebphone.com/ has text, and calls to follow.

Why the delay? Just waiting for the final pricing model from the BT SDK.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

There may be no free lunch

One cautionary tale for Telco 2.0 is that the network is still owned by the Telco 1.0 business, and they don't want to lose out.

Robert Cringley often warns about network neutrality; a concept that you might imagine exists, but actually doesn't and probably never will. Similarly you may imagine that any call you route will always be honoured - that's not the case.

FreeConference.Com enables a caller to set up a conference call for the price of a single long-distance call to the mid west, and then receive an access number that up to 95 other callers can use for a conference. Alternatively you can pay a small charge and avoid the trunk call cost. This service has been up and running since 2004. Most of the things you would expect to find are there, including recording. Unsurprisingly, it's popular with small businesses and voluntary organisations. A similar service for 5p a minute is offered from the UK by http://www.voicemeeting.co.uk/. And there seem to be quite a few other similar services.

Unfortunately Freeconference.com wasn't to the phone companies liking; they consider a call to be something between just two parties - not a load of people. And they have their own conferencing services to push. So many carriers, including AT&T simply block the service.

While this appears to be a cartel like limiting of consumer choice, in fact the problem lies deeper with regulations, smaller carriers and termination fees. All seem some distance away from the original idea of almost free phone conferencing. The current legal view is that it is the big companies game, and they can take their ball away anytime they want to.

If there is a lesson, it's that service offerings that depend on transient loop holes or treading on toes are less water tight than ones that seem good for all involved.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

SimpleWebPhone

I've seen the future - and maybe its in the shape of the soon to be launched SimpleWebPhone. Will it be able to tackle some of the problems faced by its other rivals? It seems to have a lot of rest interfaces already in place. More soon.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

The next big thing or just another phone book to fill in?

The last big thing was Skype which was a nice jump forward for those of us who were techno savvy and liked the idea of very high quality call audio and zero cost.

An unfortunately side effect of "big things" is that they ultimately segregate the efficiency of a single point of contact, and single point of contact information.

Back in the day when I was a kid there was a family phone and a family phone book next to it for contacts. If you wanted to know the phone number of someone you knew, it was probably in there, and if you were the sort that liked that kind of thing then Speed Dial could make life easier.

Go forward 10 years and it became two phones (land line and mobile phone) and two phone books for your contacts if you were the type to watch your pennies and try not to spend too much on your mobile bill.

Go forward 5 years and it became three phones with Skype, land line and mobile phone and potentially three phone books for your contacts, or messing around with your mobile phone to get the number for someone.

With the possible addition of web page based telephony to this for discount priced calls to mobiles in other countries etc. we're potentially looking at four phone books to maintain or the continuation of mobile phome messing.

Which ultimately leads to a point where the mobile phone is such an easy way of making calls without messing around, will lazy people look anywhere else when the efficiency of the single point of contact and single point of contact information exists there? and will the juggling of phones remain the past time of the techno savvy miser?

Monday, 27 August 2007

The cost of entry dilemma

This appeared on the Zootok site recently:

We have decided to change our free calls. New users will now get 2 free calls when they credit your account for the first time.
Otu tells us a little more on his site:
We had lots of people registering with bogus emails simply for the
purpose of using our free calls without any intent to ever top up their
balance.

The point of the free calls is to allow people who would like to try
ZooTok to do so and not for scam artists to make calls at our expense.

As a result, we have decided to stop giving away free calls on registration
and instead give them to customers on their first topup. Since we offer
purchases as low as £1, we feel it is a low enough barrier that anyone
with genuine intents wishing to try us won't mind paying £1 to do so.

There seems to be a genuine problem here. The net wants things to be free, in order to bring the cost of entry down to zero. But small outfits cannot really afford that much largesse.

When the dodgy Russian mp3 download service gomusic.ru started, they gave accounts that paid up some dough in advance a healthy amount of extra credits. 37 signals always tries to give free service for entry level offerings.

I think giving away some free credits, thereby reducing the risk for any users who want to try things out was the right decision for Zootok. Along with that goes the risk of simply giving free calls away to those with no intention of using the service in the future. But the message still gets out.

The response to give extra credits once joined is also a good idea in the circumstances, even though a few genuine prospects will now no longer experiment. This is where sponsorship - "your free Pepsi credits" - is probably the right solution, if you can get it.

Paying up front is fine when the product has little risk, or the rep of the company is good enough. For everyone else, the barrier needs to be as low as it can go.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Phonemefree

Another service to look at http://www.phoneme.at/

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Zootok - a closer look

While it is a bit early to give this fresh new site a close examination, I gave it a play via my favoured Maxthon browser.

First of all Zootok gives two free calls, so messing around will cost you nothing. Joining involves filling in a very small form. This maps your email to one designated phone number. OpenId has been promised in the future.

I think calls are 50p (it's hardly mentioned), which is not bad for anywhere in the world for an hour. This may get competition in the long run. My credits were used even though I didn't connect - though the site promises otherwise. Probably a service issue.

After you log in, there is a nice user page that gives you a "phonebox", reminds you of your designated number and a click to get more credits from google checkout. You can just connect another number directly to your designated number via the phonebox, or do the same thing via a text message to Zootok's number.

There is a very rudimentary address book, though only for mobile users. A good idea that will be a nice feature for the future. The terms"contacts", "names", "shortcuts" and "alias" all get used on the same page- maybe indicating that the designers lacked a critical eye at times.

There are no nice error pages or reports as yet. Putting a bad number into the phonebox (I accidentally tried an alias) gives back an HTTP 500. Logging in with the wrong credentials gives fair warning but unfortunately the message is in the same black colour as the rest of the text; hence you may not notice it.

Most of the new web building frameworks seem to support good REST type urls, and Zootok is easy to get around because of it. When routing and redirection is well managed, this gives any site a well organised feeling. In Zootok the credit account site and history site are situated off your user page url and all look logical. I can see that I am user "12", which I don't really need to know - I'd prefer to be user "DE". Attempts to "jump the fence" and visit user 13's page are correctly ignored.

The contact entry page is basic, and does not encourage people to put in comments, wishes etc. There is no blog associated with the site yet either. Given that the term "zootok" has no other meaning, the designers have complete control of their domain.

All in all this early offering seems promising - and hopefully will be polished in the near future. It also should spur on other developers to pitch in with their own efforts.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Introducing ZooTok

I haven't had time to look at ZooTok inside out but I registered, and it worked. You can make calls from the site or via an SMS. Lets take a look at the basics.

1) The first call is free - of course it is. Otherwise you wouldn't use it would you?
2) The site is simple to use, with simple url names.
3) I can make top ups, check my call history, and check my details in one click

I'll make a more detailed examination later.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Divergent needs

Despite its name, this blog is not about rebuilding telecommunications hardware. Its about the business of making calls and messaging more ubiquitous via software - the cables and wires can stay where they are.

Have a look at the Economist article "Home truths about telecoms". The use of communication technology is not converging. Most of us use a mixture of channels; the good old land line as the household or work "collective channel" for quasi public calls, mobile for last minute co-ordination, texting for intimacy, email for admin, IM for continuous communication.

This tells us that people want lots of different solutions, to fit different needs and circumstances. Mixing two different high technologies e.g. video + phone = videophone without working out what the need is doesn't work. Nobody wanted a videophone because it didn't fit a communication niche. Find the niche, then make the tech work.

So it should be quite possible to hit the right untapped communication niche with the right combination of software, and the right web services. A simple idea like sending a message to a different device depending on the time of day and what the recipient is doing hasn't really been licked yet. There are probably a lot of ways to mash up comms; some of which will make a strong business case.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Why Price Isn't Enough

Earlier today I learned that SunRocket, the VOIP only Telco had shut up shop and left 200,000 odd subscribers in the dark without their communications. With most of us now having multiple ways to communicate through our landlines, mobiles and softphones, losing one type of communication isn't probably a big problem, but if you only had one form of voice communications and that gets taken away, that could be quite painful.

Anyhoo, does the departure of SunRocket provide more opportunities to others to take the market, or is it a signal either the market isn't ready. Is it simply the case that SunRocket plans were foiled and they didn't have a plan B? It's hard to say from the outside, but there's a lesson for us all in there. Know your customer, understand the business problem, don't over commit and think about competition.

Check out these blogs for more insights.

So farewell then... SunRocket

Monday, 9 July 2007

What is a Phone Call? Pt 1 - Originate, Interconnect and Terminate

Following on from my last post, What is A Telco, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about what a phone call is.

Most users have a fairly simple explanation of what a phone call is. They pick up the phone, and dial (or find an entry in the contact list). Their phone places a call, and the guy at the other end either answers, or goes to voicemail, or hits an error state. The errors could include "Number not available" "Cellphone out of range" etc.

But when you start digging under the covers that's a pretty simplistic explanation. It's a bit like asking a checkout girl how the barcode scanner works - "I lift up your item, scan it, and the screen says what it is and how much it costs." Course it does. Ask someone from NCR, they might have a different answer.

I'm gonna peek under the covers. See what's ticking.

Let's start by thinking of a call from one cellphone to another, in different countries, where the phones are owned by different operators, let's call them Giant Telco, and Big Cell. Arthur gets his cell phone and mobile calling plan from Giant Telco. Brenda gets hers from Big Cell.

Arthur places a call from his phone to Brenda. Except of course he can't call Brenda's phone direct, as there is no direct network connection between the two. So in fact, Arthur is placing a call to Giant Telco, asking them to hook up his phone to Brenda's. Arthur has no idea what network Brenda is on, but he does know that she's in a different country, because the dialling code tells him that. So he won't get billing surprises later. But that's another post!

Giant Telco now has this call request come in. Let's call this a call leg. It now has to find Brenda's phone and make it ring, while keeping Arthur's phone connected. Fortunately numbering ranges are fairly well understood between Giant Telco and Big Cell, so this is easy. Unfortunately Giant Telco and Big Cell don't have networks that link together. So Giant Telco needs to route the call with another carrier, let's call them Deep Sea Net, as they specialize in underwater fibre. Deep Sea Net gets the network between Giant Telco and Big Cell set up and tickety boo, then Big Cell starts hunting round for Brenda's cell phone. Fortunately it keeps a good track of where Brenda's phone is using a piece of kit called an HLR, so it knows exactly where to send the call. Finally Brenda's phone rings, she answers, completing a new call leg. Her leg is joined with Arthurs, they can talk. It's good to talk.

This all sounds expensive, and that's because the infrastructure to support all of this IS expensive. If you want to start your own telco, it's probably not a good idea to start building all of this, even assuming that you have permission to dig up roads to lay copper, get permission to broadcast radio frequencies etc. If you want to do that, then you are reading the wrong blog. This blog is about starting your own telco with none of that.

How do all these telcos get paid? Probably the paying customer in the example above is Arthur. He gives some money to Giant Telco, probably based on the number of seconds or minutes that his call to Brenda was running. Lucky old Giant Telco gets to keep the lions share of this money, but not all. The payment they get is for call origination charge, as the call started on their network, with Arthur's device being an endpoint on that network.
Deep Sea Net gets paid by Giant Telco, because the call went over their network. This is for interconnect charges. In some scenarios there may be many parties involved in interconnects, and indeed some Telcos offer various interconnect services for sale. I'm guessing there are some financial gurus and regulatory types who spend their time battling over interconnect fees. But going down that route isn't going to get you up and running very fast.
Finally, Big Cell gets paid by Giant Telco too, for terminating the call. In some cases (this happens a lot in the USA) Brenda gets charged for receiving a call. This doesn't seem fair to me, but Big Cell keeps signing up more consumers, so I guess the model works.

Similar things happen with Internet Charges. I buy broadband from my ISP, who manages their own network (though it may be a virtual network too!), and they then buy back bone from large carriers (yep, most of them are Telcos). This is another digression.

Back to Arthur and Brenda's call. I've described the experience of making a phone call that we are all used to now, not many of us really remember when we had to talk to an operator for each call we placed! Fans of old movies see this all the time. 
However there is a new breed of call, in which a central intermediary originates both calls from their own network. JaJah is doing this, it's also the way the BT Web21C SDK works. We know this as a Third Party Call. Here's how it might be implemented, Arthur presses a button on a web page, lets call it www.brenda.com that says "Call Brenda." The web site prompts him for his phone number. Then the site calls him - it's originating the call. When he answers the site calls Brenda - it's originating the second call. When Brenda answers the two calls are connected. Arthur could've been viewing a web page rendered on his cell phone of course!

Three very special things are happening here.

Firstly, both Big Cell and Giant Telco are only getting termination fees, for terminating their respective legs of the call. It's probable (but not certain) that Deep Sea Net is still in on the game, and due some fees. This depends on the relationship www.brenda.com has with Big Cell and Giant Telco; or more likely the relationship that www.brenda.com's telephony provider has with Big Cell and Giant Telco. You could speculate that the bigger the provider, the better and more efficiently they can manage their interconnects - potentially on just their own network if they are large enough. This leads into the algorithmically complex area of Least Cost Routing. This is simplified somewhat these days by the internet, where a bunch of voice traffic now can go over managed IP links such as VPN's, such as might link two Enterprise IPBX's

Secondly, the billing pattern has changed. Even though Arthur clicked the button, the _customer_ requesting the call is www.brenda.com. The telephony provider will charge them. brenda.com then hasthe choice as to whether they want to absorb the cost, or somehow bill Arthur or Brenda. How they do that is now up to them. Depends on their business model (ad supported telephony anyone?)

The other special thing that happened (and you may not have noticed, I didn't make it clear) is that Brenda didn't give out her phone number to Arthur. She's chosen to hide it behind the "Call Brenda" button on her web site.

Clearly the customer experience for Arthur is not as good as a cellphone originated call. But if the cost is orders of magnitude less, then it's likely that Arthur will accept having to answer his phone in order to call Brenda!

Indeed, I personally believe that this experience is better than a cellphone originated voip call, using a client such as Skype. Arthur would still be picking up costs for his data connection in that case anyway, and this normally isn't cheap. Plus the carriers have the ability to throttle voip traffic over their cellular networks if they wish. The third party call I describe here is using the plain old telephone service(POTS), that has cost billions and handles huge number of calls every day. With a quality of service we are used to, often 5 nines or more

Saturday, 7 July 2007

You and Telco 2.0

So you want to make phones rings from your website? And make some money? Well, someone will. May as well be you.

The great thing about "web 2.0" is that you can mix bits up and get something new. You just pick the best components for the job and trust to community standards to link them together. The definition of "best", however, is not so simple to figure.

Some platforms or standards will tend to dominate, or move you to conclusions that aren't quite right. And you may have prejudices that you need to get past. Much as I think Web21c is great, it maybe that another vendor is more for you. When I first read the hype about Facebook as a thriving new platform, I sort of thought it was only for kids. Then I found that half my friends were already on it.

Your job is probably to focus on what you think your customer or audience are interested in. But against that, you have to invest time in the technologies and platforms that will help you now and later. I guess Apple are a good example. They haven't dwelt on their commercial failures (remember Lisa?, or Next?) Their success is in mixing what they do well with whatever good ideas they need. The iPod was neither first player, nor following any obvious trend. And it wasn't an in house solution.

Its not as if people don't have phones already, but ubiquitous communication is coming real soon now. So find the right niche and JFDI.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Where do you start?

I needed some hosting, a domain name, a paypal account and access to a service to fulfil the call requests. I got the following set up in a few hours...

Domain: http://www.t3lco.com/ (TELCO with a '3' replacing the 'E') - £25 per year

Hosting: http://www.positive-interent.com/ - £125 per year with no arbitrary bandwidth restrictions

PayPal: sales@t3lco.com (feel free to send me money) - about 23p for a £10 customer account topup transaction

Fulfilment: http://sdk.bt.com/ (BT's Web21C SDK) - about 20p per call

I wanted to promote feelings of simplicity and friendliness so I chose modeling clay to create my logo and some claymation elements for the site.




Something to Sell

To make a sale I needed a product and so I chose to start with voice calls.

I can initiate a call between two phones anywhere in the world using the BT Web21C SDK at a cost to me of around 20p where the call can last for up to 2 hours. While this may not be cost effective for my customers making a quick local call to say they are on our way home, it does offer some real value for those making long overseas calls particularly if they want to involve mobile phones at one or both ends.

To make a profit though I need to add a margin that will cover other costs such as hosting, transaction fees etc... So a charge of 30p per call can still offer value over a two hour call of around 0.25p per minute to anywhere in the world.

T3LCO.COM



What is a Telco?

 

'Telco' according to Wikipedia is a generic term for a telephone company.

I guess that means someone who sells, or gives away telephone calls.

Used to be that a Telco was a government agency, and the agency owned a bunch of copper in the ground, some buildings with switches and operators in (the exchange), and some billing infrastructure - probably this used to be people with abacuses. Hell, the agency even owned the telephone in your house. They owned the lot of it, from end to end. You got a phone from the government agency, or you didn't get one.

Things have changed a bit.

We've had decentralization. We have monopoly commissions. We've got a stack load of regulation. We have the internet. I don't think Alexander Graham Bell would recognise the telco of today. Voice data is now broken down into packets, and switched. Who knows if even one word goes over the same route?

So I think that the companies who were the Telco of yesteryear has morphed. Now they are a carrier. They shunt bits. Sometimes these bits are voice. Sometimes they are data.

Clever Telcos have extended their businesses. They are often now ISPs. They include among their customers other ISPs. They sell hosting. They sell IVRs. The one thing they seem to have in common is a whole bunch of sunk cost in network, and infrastructure. Sadly the end user experience hasn't changed very much. After all, if you pick up the phone and dial, you get through. What's different?

Well, we think that you don't need to own any network, or infrastructure in order to be a Telco. We think that anyone can be a Telco, and sell telephone calls, and advanced calling services.

This blog is going to show how you can build a telco with minimal upfront cost, on a transactional basis, and, hopefully, turn a profit!!

We're not going to tell you how to compete with AT&T, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Google, Skype, or any other Telco. How you do that will be up to you. You'll need to decide exactly what your positioning is.

All you'll need to get started is a $1000 PC (or mac!), a development environment, and some tools that we'll show you over the course of time. At some point you might need a web server. We're going to base a lot of the telecom integration on BT's Web21C SDK, which exposes their global network to developers with a very interesting pricing model.

So stay tuned, and you might find out what we mean by 'Leg and Mux'. The difference between call origination, interconnect and termination fees. What the difference between an IVR and an ACD is. The problems with voip. And anything else which springs to mind! I look forward to watching this conversation develop.