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Define "VoIP" - and then we can debate whether it is dead!

There is a fundamental problem with the "VoIP is dead" debate continuing to rage across the VoIP/communications part of the blogosphere (see Alec Saunders part 1 and part 2, Jon Arnold, Andy Abramson, Ken Camp, Jeff Pulver part 1 and part 2, Om Malik, Shidan Gouran, Ted Wallingford, Dameon Welch-Abernathy (PhoneBoy), Rich Tehrani and a zillion others...)

Aswath Rao and Luca Filigheddu came closest to the mark in their posts. The fundamental problem with this entire debate is simply this:

Define "VoIP"?

As I discussed in an Emerging Tech Talk video podcast I put up this morning, there are a range of definitions you could give to "VoIP", including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. The underlying infrastructure, a.k.a. the "plumbing" - the mechanisms, protocols, etc. that are used for the transport of voice/video/etc. over IP. Things like SIP, H.323, RTP, various codecs, etc.

  2. Consumer "PSTN line replacement" services - Offerings like those of Vonage and so many others where the basic idea is that you can get cheaper telephone charges by going over the Internet and getting rid of your local landline. Also called "pure play" VoIP by some or "VoIP arbitrage" by others.

  3. Computer-to-computer/softphone offerings, often coming from the IM space - Skype sets the bar here, but there's a host of other players as well, including Gizmo, GoogleTalk, FWD, and many others. Some of these came from existing Instant Messaging services that simply added voice.

  4. Enterprise IP-PBX/"Unified Communications" solutions - Communications systems used by enterprises, large and small - what has traditionally been called the "PBX" but that term is increasingly meaningless given the range of options now being provided.

  5. The *entire* vision of rich communication over IP - The whole picture... everything over IP... voice, video, IM, presence, file/data sharing... the whole rich communication experience.

Each and every one of these is referred to as "VoIP" by some segment of our industry. (And there's even more... I did have someone once reply to me that "VoIP" was the pre-paid calling cards that you can buy in convenience stores, etc. (And in truth, they usually do get their cheap rates by using VoIP for transport somewhere in there.))

The point is that we need to be a bit more precise in what we call "VoIP" before we can argue about whether it is alive or not.

From my point-of-view, the life and death of these different definitions of "VoIP" varies:

  1. The underlying infrastructure - Doing extremely well... in fact, so well, that it's fading into the background and just being part of our underlying network infrastructure, both in the fixed and mobile environments. (Which also argues that some of the VoIP-infrastructure-specific products/services are no longer quite as necessary.)

  2. Consumer "PSTN line replacement" services - Great for cable companies; not so good for pure-plays - Looked at Vonage's stock price lately? They and so many of the other companies whose only real selling point was "get cheaper phone calls with us" are certainly struggling or dying. Why? The cable companies, for one, are cleaning up in this space with their "triple-play" bundling of voice with Internet access and television. The pure-play companies may be cheaper on voice but the cable packages may be far more compelling. Add in the "unlimited calling" mobile phone plans we have here in North America, plus the softphone players like Skype plus some of the emerging cloud/hosted offerings... and all-in-all it's not a pretty picture for Vonage and friends. (And this is really the VoIP "industry" to which Alec was referring.)

  3. Computer-to-computer/softphone offerings - Very alive - Skype is flirting with 15 million simultaneous online users and also reporting decent income, Gizmo is rolling out a Flash-based softphone to remove the need for a client, TringMe is providing widgets to various folks... and a whole range of others are growing. (While some players are shrinking here, too, of course.)

  4. Enterprise IP-PBX/"Unified Communications" solutions - Very alive - Basically every vendor supplying communications systems to enterprises are now doing so over IP. No one is selling traditional TDM PBXs anymore. Players in this space include the traditional telephony players like Nortel, Avaya, Siemens, Mitel, Alcatel-Lucent, along with newer entrants like the dominant Cisco, ShoreTel, Digium/Asterisk and then even newer entrants like Microsoft OCS and IBM Sametime.

  5. The *entire* vision of rich communication over IP - VERY alive! - In fact, I'd say that the next few years will be one of the most fascinating years in this space. We're at this amazing intersection of insane amounts of local bandwidth and computing power, increasingly ubiquitous powerful mobile devices, and incredible power out "in the cloud". All around us we are building the massive IP communications interconnect. It's happening. At a glacial pace in some areas and at a crazy pace in others. We're layering on applications and services. We're making them available through simple APIs and mashups. We're all collectively doing some pretty amazing things out there. It's a great time to be in this space!

So how do you define VoIP?

If you think of "VoIP" as my #2, the "cheap telephony consumer services", then sure, if you don't consider the cable companies then than sector isn't doing too well. If you define VoIP as one of the other definitions here, well, then in my view it is very much alive.

What do you think? How do you define "VoIP"?

P.S. If you'd like to join a number of us to discuss this topic, Sheryl Breuker and Ken Camp are hosting a conference call tonight at 9pm US Eastern / 6pm US Pacific. Join us... it should be fun. :-)

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