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Posts from August 2008

Skype's 5 years of disruption... (Happy Birthday, Skype!)

skype5years.jpgFive years ago today, the first public beta of Skype launched, and in a blog post today new Skype CEO Josh Silverman celebrates with "Five Years of Wow". It's a bit of the "Ra-Ra" celebratory kind of post I would expect from a CEO but ends nicely with this:
So, as we celebrate the first five years of Skype, let's raise a toast to the human desire to connect.


Skype has done a great amount to help people easily connect to each other. It's also caused a heck of a lot of disruption within the telecommunications industry. I use Skype daily (Skype ID: danyork) and it has indeed become a significant part of both my business workflow and personal life.


I had a personal reminder of that the other day when I wound up in a video chat with one of my closest friends who was my best man at my wedding 12 years ago. Although we have spoken in the intervening years, we had not actually seen each other in probably most of 10 years due to living far apart. He and his wife emailed a group of folks that they now had a Skype ID. I added them as a contact, opened an IM chat and wound up calling them... and then moving into video and seeing them both. It was a powerful moment - and a great reminder of the power of Skype to easily connect people.

Like many longtime fans of Skype, I do have concerns about Skype's future direction. It doesn't seem to quite have the "buzz" it once did and I'm still not really sure what the long-term vision is... what does Skype want to be when it grows up?


But future concerns aside, I think we should take a moment to celebrate Skype's five year birthday and I want to reflect a bit on some of the ways in which I think Skype has changed telecommunications (some of which we discussed a bit on yesterday's Squawk Box podcast).

Skype arrived in 2003 at a fascinating intersection of multiple trends. First, we as a society were at the stage where we started to get massive ubiquitous 'always-on' broadband connectivity into people's homes (at least in many parts of the world). Dial-up was fading away... cable Internet and DSL were becoming "normal". Second, home computers were becoming more powerful and more multimedia. Third, peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing networks had grown to a massive scale and validated that such a networking approach could be used for serious applications. The timing was perfect for something like Skype to come along and ride the waves.

So what did Skype bring that was different?

  • SKYPE "JUST WORKED" - If you look at comments that people make about their experience using Skype, over and over again you see comments along the line of "it just works." More than anything else, I think Skype's simplification of the end-user experience made it the runaway hit that it was. I would suggest that this simple experience is really two parts:

    • SIMPLE USER INTERFACE AND INSTALLATION - Skype provided a drop-dead-simple installation and a user interface (UI) that was incredibly easy to use.

    • FIREWALL TRAVERSAL - Connect your laptop to a network and... ta da... probably 9 times out of 10 (or 10 out of 10) your Skype icon is ready to go. I've often even personally used it as a connectivity check - if the Skype icons show as "online", I knew I had good connectivity. Skype does an amazing job adapting to firewall restrictions and figuring out how to punch holes through whatever firewall it is behind and enabling communication to occur. Yes, it can be blocked, but the simplicity by which it got through made it so incredibly easy to use.

    It should be noted, too, that this occurred cross-platform with versions out for Windows, Mac and Linux (although with not all platforms sharing all features).

  • WIDEBAND AUDIO - Skype was the first VoIP application deployed on a large-scaled that used a "wideband" codec (originally iSAC from GIPS, now their own SVOPC) to give a much richer voice experience than traditional telephony. For the first time, many people realized that VoIP could provide better audio quality than the PSTN. After you have used Skype for a while, you rapidly changed your perspective to where PSTN "toll quality", previously the high bar for voice telecommunications, would be viewed as low quality audio. To me this represented one of the most profound yet less visible shifts brought about by Skype.

    Skype's wideband audio also let many of us use Skype as a method for creating podcasts or other recordings with remote hosts. Jonathan Zar and I have used it for Blue Box for almost 3 years. Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson have used it for For Immediate Release for longer. Creating podcasts with Skype has had its own challenges... there have been connectivity challenges and "Skype moments" when audio artifacts are introduced or audio fades in and out... but those can be edited out. The fact is that when the connection is good, it sounds like you and your co-host are in the same room.

    I'll never forget a comment left by my friend Martyn Davies to another podcast that I had been part of that had used a traditional PSTN conference bridge. He said the call was good, but "he didn't know if could stand listening to such poor quality audio each week." And that was a "toll-quality" PSTN conference bridge! The bar was raised for those who became Skype users... and now we're finally seeing wideband audio come out in various IP-PBXs and in phones from vendors like Polycom and others.

  • SECURE VOIP - As a security guy, you might of course expect me to praise the fact that Skype encrypted all the voice and call control from the start. But more than that, back around the time when Skype first came out, there were a lot of nay-sayers in the VoIP industry who presented the argument that you couldn't encrypt voice or call-control without having performance suffer. That was their argument for why they couldn't roll out encrypted voice. The sound quality would degrade, etc. Skype killed that argument. Skype showed that you could have high-quality voice and have it fully encrypted end-to-end. It was a wonderful way to rebut the audio quality argument (and I used it myself with some vendors).

  • P2P VoIP - Until the emergence of Skype, all mainstream systems that included VoIP had been server-based. You had your VoIP client that registered with a VoIP server and communication was all handled by the servers. Skype showed that you could in fact run VoIP over a P2P network infrastructure. Now Skype is not a pure P2P network - there are "enrollment" servers that deal with usernames, passwords, etc.

  • VOICE FIRST - While Skype appeared to emerge out of the "Voice-over-instant-messaging" space in that it was very similar to MSN Messenger, AIM, Yahoo!Messenger, etc., it had one fundamental difference - voice was the first mode of communication. When you double-clicked a name to initiate a connection, instead of IM, you initiated a phone call. In fact to launch an IM chat, you had to right-click or somehow get to the chat button. Voice was the first mode of communication, and so in most people's minds Skype became thought of as a "voice" communication tool versus an IM tool (even though its IM is quite powerful in and of itself).

  • MULTI-MODAL COMMUNICATION - Recall that at the beginning I mentioned that I started out with an IM to my friend, which then moved into audio... and then into video. For Skype users that seems to be a fairly common path. I've had calls that have started as IM, gone to video with IM being used as a backchannel to exchange URLs, dropped back to IM only, moved into audio, back to IM... and so on. With file transfer happening in there as well. Now Skype users seldom think about that kind of movement between "modes" of communication. Certainly other clients allowed this before Skype, but Skype made it popular on a mass scale.

  • PSTN INTERCONNECTION - Many of the earlier software-based VoIP clients suffered from the basic problem that you could only talk to other people with those clients. Skype rolled out SkypeOut which let you call anywhere for cheap rates. Perhaps in my mind more significantly Skype rolled out it's "SkypeIn" service where you could get a PSTN number associated with your account. In fact, you could get many PSTN numbers in different parts of the world. Suddenly Skype could be how you were contacted by regular callers.

  • CHEAP CALLS - Of course Skype disrupted traditional telephony with its "unlimited" calling plans. I mean... the concept here in the US of paying $30 per year for unlimited calls within North America is a pretty dramatic change from our traditional rates. Skype certainly helped lead the further commoditization of voice minutes.

  • CHALLENGING SIP AND OPEN STANDARDS - As Skype emerged in 2003, the VoIP industry was slowly coalescing around the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) as "the way forward" for voice signaling. But SIP had (and still has) some fundamental problems in that it didn't work well through firewalls, wasn't terribly interoperable and was therefore complicated at times to get working. Suddenly here was this upstart Skype that... (gasp)... used proprietary signaling! Open standards advocates, myself very definitely included, were appalled and knocked Skype for not using open standards like SIP. The success of Skype, though, did give SIP advocates a good competitor... and I think to a degree that has helped. We've seen stronger firewall traversal mechanisms come out. We've seen improved interoperability. Competitors can be good and in the end help make you stronger.

  • PERSISTENT CHAT - WITH HISTORY - While I've been writing here about voice, I want to mention one other innovation on Skype's end with regard to IM. The beauty of Skype group chats is that they are persistent and have a readily accessible history. With Skype, group chats can become an always-open-and-available place for discussion. The beautiful thing is that when you shutdown or disconnect from the network and then later reconnect, you automatically rejoin all the chats you were in, but more importantly, you automagically receive the history of what happened in the chat while you were away. This latter part is huge. Persistent group chats with history means that you can be planning a project with a group of people and do it all through a group chat. Go offline to travel or at the end of your day... connect back in hours or days later and automatically receive all the messages that occurred when you were gone. What other IM system does that? None of the consumer services... and not Jabber or IRC. Certainly now we are starting to see services that offer it, especially for inside an enterprise, but it remains a strong advantage of Skype IM.

There are no doubt other reasons that people can suggest. (And feel free to leave a comment with your reasons.) Someone on yesterday's Squawk Box said a key factor for them was that Skype was the best in their opinion for cross-platform file transfer. Someone else mentioned that the vast number of users brought out all these "hard" phones and other devices that "work with Skype". And sure, it's not at all been a perfectly tranquil time for Skype. There have been outages... and audio quality problems... and changing billing plans... and... and... and... Yet in the end I think you'd be hard-pressed NOT to say Skype has had an effect in various ways on telephony and telecommunications as we know it.


What next? As I said at the beginning, many of us who have been long-time Skype users wonder where it's really going. It has seemed a bit rudderless since the eBay acquisition and has seemed to drift from vision to vision (or simply not had one). There have been opportunities that have been missed to truly turn Skype into a "platform". As Phil Wolff mentions in his great post today at Skype Journal, Skype isn't even really in the race to "talk-ify" the web. (Although I don't necessarily agree with Phil that Ribbit is the answer - I view them as just one of many players in the space (including my employer) - but I agree with his point that what they and others do is a sign of the future of voice.) There have been various features that were launched in what seemed a half-baked way. (Skype Prime, anyone?) There's been management churn and all the other fun of a company growing up.

But Skype's got a new CEO now, and he's only been there 5 months, so to a degree we have to wait and see where he points Skype. Regardless, the fact remains that Skype has changed the way we think about voice communication over the Internet.

Happy 5th Birthday, Skype! I'm looking forward to seeing where the next 5 years take you!

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Good to see James Enck blogging again at EuroTelcoblog...

It's good to see that James Enck is blogging again at EuroTelcoblog. For quite a few years, I enjoyed reading James' blog largely because he provided this North American writer with some perspective into telephony/telcos in Europe and also because he wrote about Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) a good bit and I learned from that.

Then in April 2007, after about 3 years of writing, James just... stopped.

But now he's back... with an interesting explanation.

Welcome back, James! I look forward to reading more of your views...

Bell Canada: "Users will NEVER need more than 10Mbps to the home"

This piece in Canada's Globe and Mail truly defies belief. Bell Canada is trying to offer some type of justification for why they are slowing down on rolling out fiber to the home. Well, I should say... they are trying to offer some justification other than the fact that they are now $30 billion in debt due to the recent buyout to take the company private. Anyway, along the way, they provide this gem:
Mr. Crull said rivals cannot guarantee those high speeds and their service deteriorates depending on traffic volume. Furthermore, he said, the majority of customers have no use for speeds above 10 Mbps.

Obviously Bell Canada executives missed the memo about people getting more and more of their video across the Internet... and wanting to stream HD video, etc. And maybe they missed the memo about Asian countries that are now delivering 100 Mbps into homes.

And then there's this little detail of how we are evolving more and more of our services "into the cloud"... and for that we need big, fat, dumb pipes.

I guess the good news is that if you are in Canada and are a Rogers shareholder, odds are pretty good that you'll see increased revenues as more people leave Bell Canada DSL for Rogers cable...

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Want to learn more about Voxeo? Join Voxeo CEO Jonathan Taylor appearing on Squawk Box conf call tomorrow

squawkbox.jpgAre you are available tomorrow, Tuesday, August 26th, at 11am US Eastern time? If so, you are invited to join in to Alec Saunders' daily "Squawk Box" conference call / podcast where Alec will be interviewing Voxeo CEO Jonathan Taylor about all the recent news about Voxeo, including:

The call will take place using Alec's company Iotum's "Calliflower" conferencing/collaboration application. To join in to the call, you simply need to go to either of the following links to "join" the call and receive a PIN and call-in number for the call:

  • Calliflower Facebook application - If you are a Facebook user, simply go to:
    You will be prompted to add the Calliflower Facebook application and then will receive the call-in information.

  • site - If you are not a Facebook user or just don't want to add another Facebook application, you can go to the site at this URL:
    You will be prompted to create a free user account if you have not already done so.
Both links are live today so you can go right now and RSVP to attend the call tomorrow. If you do so, you should also receive a reminder about 15 minutes prior to the call tomorrow morning.

When you join the call tomorrow, you can also use the Calliflower web interface through either of the links above to see who else has joined the call and also to participate in the "live chat" area during the call itself. Typically Alec will ask a series of questions of the guest and then open it to others who are participating in the call. If you'd like to learn more about what is up with Voxeo and/or ask questions of our CEO, tomorrow's a great opportunity for you to do so.

It should be a fun time and we're looking forward to the conversation. Please do feel free to join in!

NOTE: If you are not available to join the call, it is being recorded and will be made available through Alec's site sometime later tomorrow. We'll post an update here on this blog site as well.

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An extraordinary week for Voxeo...

voxeologo.gifLast week was a truly extraordinary week for my employer, Voxeo. Here's a bit of what went on:
  • Voxeo announced record growth and global expansion - In these economic times, it's incredible to be part of a company putting out information like this.

  • Voxeo announced a new product release with new SIP APIs, Mac OS X and Linux support - To our knowledge, this is first commercial telephony voice application platform to be available on Mac OS X (as well as Linux and Windows). While our customers might not deploy production servers on Mac OS X, this means that their developers using Macs can now even more easily run our application server. Additionally, we've developed some new graphical management interfaces that are pretty incredible (and useful, too).

  • Voxeo acquired Micromethod Technologies - With this acquisition of a company based in Beijing and San Jose, we've added a strong SIP Servlet (JSR 116/289) platform into our portfolio and we've already started integrating that into our core platform. Developers will now have even more ways to build VoIP applications on top of our platform.

  • Voxeo named 2008 Market Leader by Speech Technology Magazine - We received an award at SpeechTEK last week in New York from Speech Technology Magazine for the best "Speech Self-Service Suite", which, when you read through the text, basically means the best voice application platform. We were pleased by the recognition. My colleague Dan Burnett also received an award as a "2008 Speech Luminary" recognizing his many years of contributions to the speech industry.

Combining all of those announcements with the crazy pace of activity at the SpeechTEK show in New York definitely made for some long days and long hours. It's certainly fun, though.

I think it goes without saying that I'm rather pleased with where I wound up last fall! (We are hiring, too, although right now only in the UK.)

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Tune in to the Mitel / Sun Webinar tomorrow (Aug 21) at 1pm EDT

mitelsun-mcnealy-matthews.jpgIf you are free tomorrow, Thursday, August 21st, at 1pm US Eastern time, I'd encourage you to listen in to a joint Mitel / Sun Microsystems webinar. Details are available on the Mitel web page.

Why am I encouraging readers to tune into this webinar? Especially when I no longer work for Mitel and have really nothing to do with them any more? Two words:

Terry Matthews.

During the time that I worked for Mitel from June 2001 up until last October (2007), the telecom industry went through some pretty bleak periods. Some very bleak periods. Mitel was not immune and there were certainly some tough times there. There were multiple times when friends seriously questioned why I continued to work there amidst some of the challenges and headaches. And while I admittedly had a few of those moments myself, I kept on working hard at Mitel because of the tremendous people I worked with there... and ultimately because of the vision and enthusiasm of Terry Matthews.

If you aren't familiar with Sir Terrence Matthews, his Wikipedia biography and Wesley Clover (his investment firm) biography give a taste of the man. Terry is at this point a billionaire serial entrepreneur who has founded something like 60 companies related to high tech and telecommunications - primarily in Canada and Wales. Not all of his investments have been successful, of course, but many have, and there are a great number of companies and products that owe their birth to Terry. He bought back Mitel in 2001, focused it on the emerging space of VoIP and continued to invest in its future. He understood back then that the revolution in ubiquitous broadband was underway and that that huge availability of network bandwidth would open many opportunities for products and services that could make use of that bandwidth.

In the last few years of my time at Mitel when I was working in the Office of CTO, I had the privilege of working more with Terry Matthews and his advisors and it was definitely an interesting and memorable time. There is a certain energy, enthusiasm and charisma that Terry exudes that just inspires you to want to do more. Sure, there were challenges, too... like all of us he's only human. But even now, almost a year after leaving Mitel, I still retain an immense amount of respect for the man and his vision.

He's also a great presenter... so if my schedule allowed I'd definitely tune in to listen tomorrow, if only to hear Terry's take on where part of the industry is going. [NOTE: Now that I'm building him up like this, I do hope he's not sick and off his mark tomorrow!]

mitelsun-jointproject.jpgOh, yeah, Sun chairman Scott McNealy is speaking, too, and the product they're talking about, the Mitel Unified IP Client for Sun Ray, is pretty cool, too.

I had a chance to see earlier versions a year ago and definitely thought it was a very cool way to deal with strong authentication. Essentially you insert a secure Java card into the Mitel phone and you are logged into both your phone as well as the Sun thin client. Pop the card out... move to a different station in that office or in some other office on the network... insert the card, and now you are logged in there. All your desktop apps go with you, as does your phone extension, voicemail, message waiting indicator, etc., etc.

Very slick way to do secure "hot desking". If you go down the thin-client route, that whole solution works real well together.

Anyway, if you're around tomorrow at 1pm US Eastern, I'd encourage you to join the webinar. I'll unfortunately be on a train from New York City heading back up to Vermont/New Hampshire, so I'll have to view it later (I'm told it will be archived for later viewing). Cool stuff.

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Has Asterisk NOT "crossed the chasm" for developers? (Key links to read for open source)

jayphillips.jpgJay Phillips is frustrated. He passionately wants to see open source telephony enjoy success all around the world. Yet right now, when people think "open source telephony", they almost always think of Asterisk... and Jay sees too many challenges for developers embracing Asterisk. Jay, the creator of the Adhearsion telephony framework for Ruby, has spoken about this at recent conferences and pulled together his thoughts in a lengthy post earlier this week entitled "What We're Not Admitting about Asterisk".

Jay argues that Asterisk has not crossed the proverbial chasm for developers and outlines some of the issues he sees.

What is perhaps most interesting about Jay's post is the equally lengthy response by Asterisk creator Mark Spencer. Mark responds to Jay's various points and in doing so provides some good insight into his views on Asterisk's connections to developers, APIs, etc., as well as the differences between the markets that Digium, the company, goes after versus the "market" of Asterisk, the raw telephony platform.

Both Jay's article and Mark's response are definitely worth reading. I'm friends now with both of them and they both bring immense passion and energy to the world of open source telephony. Ultimately they both make the point that we need better tools for developers to create voice applications. This kind of dialogue is great and will only result in better tools in the end. Please do check out the posts.

P.S. Thomas Howe has also weighed in with a post saying this is a clash in world views, which also makes for good reading. I agree with Thomas that we are in a transition into a world of "web-as-a-platform"... basically a transition "into the cloud"... and so we do need "web-centric" interfaces and APIs. But I disagree with Thomas that Asterisk is "tired". To me, Asterisk is just... well... "plumbing". Asterisk is a telephony platform, as is FreeSWITCH... as is Yate... as are all the commercial IP-PBXs. Asterisk is an open source component of the rewiring of our communication infrastructure that we have underway right now. I think anyone, including Mark, would agree that Asterisk has technical challenges it needs to overcome but I, for one, am not ready to write it off yet.

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Is anyone really surprised the iPhone has a "kill switch"?

Are people really surprised that Apple has a the ability to remotely kill applications?

Based on news reports about Steve Jobs statement that Apple does have a way to remotely remove/disable software on users' iPhones, there were a good number of blog posts diving into the issue. Several posts seemed to view this as a way for Apple to remotely disable your entire phone... but let's look at what was actually said:

But the real controversy started when Jonathan Zdziarski, author of the books iPhone Open Application Development and iPhone Forensics Manual, discovered a URL buried in Apple's firmware. That URL links to a file dubbed "unauthorizedApps" where malicious or simply bad apps might go once they disappear from the App Store.
So essentially they are providing the application equivalent of a "Certificate Revocation List" (CRL) used in SSL (a point I was glad to see made by one commenter on a post). If somehow an application gets through Apple's vetting process and is found to do "bad actions", Apple has a way to tell iPhone's they should disable that application.

This very much makes sense to me... Apple needs to protect the trust users have in their AppStore. If something goes wrong, they do need a way to have rogue apps get shut down. A CRL-type of mechanism makes logical sense to me. I do agree with the article, though, that it would have been nice if Apple had disclosed this capability a bit more in advance.

I do understand the concerns various bloggers raised, though, about the centralization of control / power in Apple's hands. It is, however, their platform and so if you want to deploy your application on their platform you have to go along with whatever rules they may put in place. As a security guy, I have other questions, such as:

  • How is access to that list of unauthorized applications protected?
  • Who has the power to add applications to that list?
  • Could an attacker fake the site (via DNS poisoning or something) and shut down iPhone apps within an area?
  • How often does the iPhone "phone home" to check this list? On some regular interval like daily? Or only on power-ups?

The existence of a CRL-like mechanism is a double-edged sword. The company can use it to protect the network/platform... but attackers could also use it to shut down apps. The question to me is not whether or not such a list should exist... but how well is access to that list protected. Those would be some interesting questions to have answered....

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Speaking at SpeechTEK next week in New York on voice application security... Sunday I'll be boarding a train bound for New York City where I'll be attending SpeechTEK for Monday through Wednesday. As I mentioned previously, on Tuesday, August 19th, I'll be giving a presentation on "Securing CCXML and VoiceXML Applications":
How secure are your speech applications? As the usage of both VoiceXML and CCXML continues to explode, and VoIP usage continues to grow dramatically, especially within enterprise environments, it is increasingly important that you ensure that applications and services are not open to attack. Learn about the potential vulnerabilities in a system using VoiceXML or CCXML, what you can do to secure these systems, and how you can develop a strong architecture.

It will be fun to expand my VoIP security commentary beyond my usual scope of networks and more into voice applications. I'm planning to record it (and have permission to do so) and potentially put it out as a Blue Box podcast.

At SpeechTEK there will also be a good number of us from Voxeo there. We'll have a booth (#804) and we've got some exciting announcements coming up... ;-)

If you are down at SpeechTEK, please do drop a note and let me know.

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Heading out to ClueCon 2008, Telephony Developer Conference, this week..

cluecon08logo-1.jpgThis afternoon I'll be heading to the airport to fly out to Chicago to be part of ClueCon this week. Haven't heard of ClueCon before? Here's the quick summary:
ClueCon - is an annual 3-Day Telephony User and Developer Conference bringing together the entire spectrum of Telephony from TDM circuits to VoIP and everything in between. The presentations and discussions will cover several open source telephony applications such as Asterisk/Callweaver, Kamailio (formerly OpenSER), Bayonne, YATE and FreeSWITCH.

Billed as the "Telephony Developer Conference" it primarily focuses on the whole world of open source telephony.

I'll be there as part of two panels. First, tomorrow I'll be joining fellow VoIP bloggers Andy Abramson and Thomas Howe on a "VoIP Roundtable" to talk about current industry themes and trends. Then on Thursday I'll be part of a "VoIP Security Roundtable" talking about... gee... can you guess?

It should be a fun event... I'm looking forward to catching up with Andy, Thomas, Moshe Yudkowsky, Jon Todd and several others. There are also some folks on the schedule with whom I have corresponded but never physically me, so that will be nice as well. If any of you reading this will also be there, please do feel free to drop me a note so that we can connect.

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