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Posts from June 2008

Squawk Box conf call/podcast calls this week - please join us!

squawkbox.jpgWith Alec Saunders away on vacation, I agreed to step in to host our daily "Squawk Box" conference calls this week and next. I'm working on lining up some interesting guests and in the meantime we'll also have our regular tech conversations that have always seemed to go well. (FYI, if you or someone you know would like to be a special guest either this week or next, please do let me know.) I'm particular excited about our show on Tuesday, July 1st, where we'll have author and researcher Jonathan Zittrain on our show. I've started reading his new book, "The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It", and I have to say that so far it strikes at the core of what we've talked about frequently on the show... the move from "walled gardens" to open networks and now the frightening potential re-emergence of walled gardens and proprietary "lock-in" business models. More information about the book - and video of Jonathan Zittrain - can be found on: As has been the practice, here are the URLs for the shows this week - I'm looking forward to seeing many of you on the calls: MONDAY - JUNE 30th - Discussion of Microsoft after Bill Gates and Steve Gillmor's view on the subject, the end of sales of Windows XP, as well as Google's move to help academia move into cloud computing: TUESDAY - JULY 1st - Jonathan Zittrain interview: WEDNESDAY - JULY 2nd: THURSDAY - JULY 3rd: FRIDAY - JULY 4th - There will be no call. I look forward to seeing many of you on the calls this week. NOTE: The calls will be posted over on Alec's although right now I seem to be having problems connecting to the site. Hopefully that is just a temporary issue...

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Skype 4.0 to be the subject of tomorrow's Squawk Box...

squawkbox.jpgFor those looking to discuss the recent Skype 4.0 beta release, Skype's Product Manager for Skype for Windows, Mike Bartlett, (a.k.a. "the guy in the Skype 4.0 demo videos who likes to play football/soccer") will be the guest on tomorrow's Squawk Box conference call/podcast at 11am Eastern US time. Jim Courtney has the details over on Skype Journal.

I have another meeting at that time and don't anticipate being able to participate tomorrow, but it should be an interesting conversation. Given that I'm on a Mac these days, the Skype 4.0 beta for Windows is pretty much irrelevant to me, although I may fire up a virtual machine just to take a look at it briefly.

In any event, it should be a good Squawk Box. Please do join if you're interested in Skype.

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Skype 4.0 seriously disrupts the Skype UI - is this a good thing?

skype_logo.pngWill Skype's new Skype 4.0 user interface simplify the experience and brings in masses of new users? Or will it annoy and alienate the longtime (and often paying) users of Skype?

As a Mac user perpetually left behind in Skype's development process, I can't personally report on the new 4.0 beta which is Windows-only and apparently due out tomorrow, but reports are starting to come out... TechCrunch says "Skype 4.0 Beta: It's All About Video" and Andy Abramson discusses how this might allow future video advertising (and how Skype needs a CTO). I expect we should be hearing from the Skype Journal folks soon as well.

In watching Skype's three Daily Motion videos about the release, I had these quick thoughts:

  • The Skype window now covers the full screen. Instead of having a separate window for your contacts, separate windows for each chat (which we Mac users have had collected together in a single chat window with a "drawer" for some time) and a separate window for each call, it's all in one window. While I can see this being a benefit for new users, as someone who has been using Skype for now... what?... 3 or 4 years? I have to say that I like having separate windows! Especially on my Mac where I use Spaces on Leopard and do have different Skype windows in different windows. My initial reaction is that I do definitely hope that the full-screen mode is an option, i.e. there's an advanced setting or something that lets us maintain "classic Skype" look and feel.
  • Multi-modal conversations are better integrated. - In the past, you could have a video conversation and separately have a Skype IM chat going. These were two different windows and so you of course had the issue of having to keep track of those two different windows. While I was personally okay with this as I often work with two monitors and could put the video into full-screen mode on one and keep the chat on the other monitor, Skype has made this simpler by having a "Show Messages" button that makes your video smaller and brings the IM chat window underneath in the same full-screen window. I can see this making sense.
  • It is all about video. The TechCrunch headline is accurate... my sense from watching the videos is that Skype 4.0 is really all about video. The new "Video Call" button does let you initiate a video call in a single click, versus the current way of making the call and then clicking the video button (or configuring Skype to automatically launch video). I agree with TechCrunch, though, that it is puzzling that Skype's video is still only one-to-one when there are so many others out there offering multi-party video chats.

I've included the three videos below that you can watch for yourself. The TechCrunch article also has some additional images and slides. I'd also watch Skype Journal's site as I know they'll have more details soon. Windows users will apparently be able to download the beta sometime tomorrow at (We Mac users will just have to continue to whine... or, do what I'll probably do and fire up a Windows virtual machine to try it out.)

Skype is having a briefing tomorrow which I expect will be all about this, so I'll look forward to hearing what they have to say. I've heard some rumors (including from Andy's article) that the Skype 4.0 beta wipes out previous settings, so I'll be curious also to see if others write about those experiences (and provides another incentive for me to try it out in a VM). I'll also be curious to see how well Skype balances "simplifying" the user experience for new users while maintaining the functionality that "power users" have come to expect. It's a tough balancing act and it will be interesting to see how Skype does.

In any event, the new Skype 4.0 beta is here for Windows users - if you give it a try please do leave a comment and let me know: what do you think?

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It's all about syncing to the cloud - Apple's MobileMe was the most interesting part of the iPhone 3G WWDC keynote

Okay, so the iPhone got better - so what? To me, the new iPhone 3G was NOT the most interesting part of yesterday's Steve Jobs keynote at the Apple WWDC event. Sure, the blogosphere (and mainstream media) is buzzing like crazy about it (and we discussed it at length on yesterday's Squawk Box). Sure, it's great that the iPhone costs a lot less (at least, up front), is available in more countries (but still not in Vermont!), has GPS and now will work over 3G networks. Sure, all that is great.

<Donning flame-proof clothing> But at the end of the day, it's still just a mobile phone! Sure, it's an incredibly sexy one and yes now that I live in New Hampshire I admittedly am considering getting one. But it's... still... just... a... phone. (And yes, I realize such a statement is heretical in defiance of the Cult of Apple (of which I am increasingly becoming a member).)

BA9FE4C0-1648-4669-BE49-19B9ACA79931.jpgTo me what was far more intriguing was Apple's launch of "MobileMe" at Why?

Apple is getting into the "cloud" in a major way.

Let's take a look at what Apple is offering (watch the Guided Tour to see it in video):

  • Push Email
  • Push Contacts
  • Push Calendar
  • Synchronization between iPhone, Web interface, Apple desktop and PC desktop
  • MobileMe Gallery - taking on Flickr, etc.
  • 20GB of online storage - with file sharing

No need to dock iPhone to computer. In fact, no real need to use an iPhone - it will work perfectly fine with regular Macs and PCs, although obviously the iPhone adds the Mobile component. All for the price of $99/year... or $8.25/month. (And with the cute domain of replacing the domain.)


At a base level, MobileMe is all about synchronization, a.k.a. "sync". Now synchronization is not overly sexy. It's not overly exciting. You don't necessarily see people out there drooling over "sync" (the way they do over, say, the iPhone). However...

As we move more and more of our life into the "cloud", sync is critical.

So with MobileMe, you can now sync your email, contacts and calendar between your various devices - and also the cloud. applemobilemesync.jpgMy information lives in the "cloud" and is accessible and visible - and modifiable - through the various devices. Consider the ways in which I can access and modify the data:

  • On an iPhone
  • On a Mac using the Mac OS X applications Mail, Calendar and Address Book
  • On a PC using Outlook 2003/2007
  • On a Mac or a PC - and potentially any other device - using a web browser

As the guided tour demo shows, you can add or modify a contact on one device and it appears on all others. The sync to local desktop applications is very cool (and very smart) in that users can continue to use their regular old applications. Outlook users can continue to use Outlook. Mac users can use the Mac OS X suite. Nothing changes.

My last bullet point above is particularly of interest to me. From the demonstrations the web interface to the information looks like the typical AJAX-y kind of interface we see with GMail, YahooMail or any of the other online mail services we have available today. The key question is this:

Will it only work in certain browsers?

Or will it work in all browsers? Could I, for instance, access the information using Firefox on a Linux desktop? Could I even see it using the mobile browser on my Blackberry 8830? Conceivably I could... we'll have to see. Current "supported browser list" is Safari 3 or Firefox 2 for the Mac and Safari 3, Firefox 2, or Internet Explorer 7 for Windows.

In the end, if you buy into using Apple for sync - both literally in paying for the service but also in using your MobileMe account as your online identity - and if you trust Apple with your data and with being available, it looks to be a powerful way to live with your data up in the online cloud.

And so Apple joins the other giants in the playground... Microsoft gets the whole concept of sync with FeedSync and LiveMesh... Google has been all about applications in the cloud, but they've gotten into sync as well with Outlook Calendar sync and Blackberry sync plus IMAP email to use your email wherever (and mobile email apps)... Yahoo's had various forms of sync around... now Apple joins the battle, too.


As part of MobileMe, Apple also rolled out MobileMe Gallery which lets you easily create and share online photo albums. Think Flickr only with synchronization with all your devices (and without the community that is at Flickr). MobileMe Gallery can also be viewed on AppleTV in addition to your other devices. This capability has been here in a limited form with DotMac, but now seems to be expanded.


applemobilemefilesharing.jpgMobileMe also gives you a 20 GB online file storage area to "store your files in the cloud". Most interesting to me was the file sharing capability. I'm a podcaster and I work with very large audio files. Sending 20MB or 50MB files (or larger) to someone else such as another producer is a serious pain-in-the-neck.

To solve this large-file problem, a whole crop of newer companies have sprung up..., YouSendIt,, my current favorite DropBox and half a zillion other ones.

Now Apple joins that realm as well... upload a file from any of the devices and simply click a Share button - and then share the link out or send email to people who can share. Set a password... restrict the number of downloads...

A key point here, too, is that to a Mac user your "disk in the cloud" appears simply as any other folder in your Finder. To a PC user it's simply another drive to map.

The online file storage has the same user experience as regular disk file storage.

No web pages to go to. No other applications to install. Simple. Easy. (Provided you've bought the service.)


Strangely, a good chunk of the commentary I've seen thus far about MobileMe has been about the fact that Apple is charging $99/year for a service that others like Google provide for essentially free. Sure, others are offering the service for "free"... although if you think about services like Google's (which I use) are free as long as you are okay seeing advertisements.

But I mean... is $99/year really too much? That works out to be $8.25 per month. Too much? That's what.... a couple of coffees at Starbucks or a six-pack of cheap beer?

Now I am personally already a .Mac user... so I'm already paying the $99/year. I do so in part because I want to try the services and also because I am personally willing to pay for service because I know it does cost money. Having said that I also like free services and use them a great amount as well. We'll see how Apple does... if they succeed in making the experience simple and painless they just may find people willing to pay that $99/year.


In the end, the reality is that an ever-increasing number of us are moving more and more of our data, our applications and indeed our lives into the online "cloud". While some of us may already be sick of seeing marketing pieces about "cloud computing", the truth is we're only going to see more and more on the topic as we move more and more into the cloud.

applemobileme.jpgApple's MobileMe is their entry into this grand story we're all participating in writing. The service isn't available yet, so we can't really judge it yet... and yes, I have all sorts of questions about it myself, like:

  • How secure will the online storage be? What will prevent others from seeing my data? Can I really trust Apple?
  • How available will my data be? What kind of Service Level Agreement (SLA) will I enter into with Apple as a paying customer? If I'm going to trust Apple with my data I want to also be sure that I can get my data when I want it? What kind of infrastructure will they have in place to ensure this?
  • What kind of APIs will be available? Apple's history is of walled gardens and proprietary lock-in... will this be more of the same? Will I be able to get to my online data through means other than Apple applications?

And so on... we'll have to see. Still, it looks to be an interesting entrant in the space from Apple.


All joking aside, yes, I do realize that yesterday's WWDC event was all about the iPhone 3G.... and the potential that it has to turn millions more users into endpoints of the giant interconnected clouds we're building... we certainly do live in interesting times!

What do you think about MobileMe? How successful do you see it being? More walled garden or maybe something better?

P.S. Want to be notified when Apple actually releases MobileMe? You can now signup to receive email notification.

Here are some other views of the iPhone 3G and the WWDC keynote from other VoIP bloggers:

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VoIPInsider: "101 Things You Can Do With Asterisk Contest"


Garrett Smith and the team at VoIP Supply have partnered with Digium to have a little bit of fun with a new contest: "101 Things You Can Do With Asterisk Contest". They started out looking for 101 unique things you could do with Asterisk and the idea that when they got 101 submissions they would pick one random winner for a $1500 VoIP Supply shopping spree.

However, they discovered there are a lot of people out there with ideas for what you can do with Asterisk. They put up their blog post at 11:08am and their 101st comment came just over two hours later at 1:21pm (a few comments had multiple ideas). As I write this, the list has grown to 151 comments and Garrett and crew have indicated that they will be leaving it open until Friday and then making their drawing.

Some great ideas in the comments to the post - well worth a read!

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Is Craigslist blocking VoIP, Prepaid phone numbers in anti-spam effort?

craigslistlogo.jpgIs Craigslist really blocking phone numbers from VoIP service providers or pre-paid cell phones as an anti-spam measure?

Last night over on the VoIPinsider blog, Cory Andrews wrote that Craigslist is apparently blocking VoIP or prepaid cellular numbers as part of their anti-spam measures. Now I'm a huge fan of Craigslist and we've sold lots of items (including, now, our house) via Craigslist. But we've also seen the spam out there and personally been contacted in response to one of our ads by a sleazy individual who was trying to scam us out of money. Techdirt, in fact, says that the battle has been lost and that the spammers are taking over Craigslist. While it wasn't that dreadful in the Vermont Craigslist area, there certainly was some spam and you can understand the folks there wanting to do all they can to block spammers.

But to block VoIP service providers? Just as increasingly large numbers of users move over to VoIP services?


It seems a rather draconian - and misguided - measure. As the VoIP Insider article states:

A few months back, Craiglist instituted a telephone verification process that places an automated outbound call to a user placing a classified ad in certain categories. The call delivers a unique code using text to speech, which is then used by the poster to authenticate the ad they are placing.

This is an effective measure for dealing with spam, and a great thing for legitimizing the Craigslist user experience….but not so great if you are a Craigslist user and you also happen to be a VoIP or prepaid cellular user.

The problem is that Craigslist is categorically blocking legitimate VoIP and Pre-paid cellular users from authenticating themselves.

While I've not encountered the phone verification process in any posting I've done to Craigslist (but have seen CAPTCHA images all the time), I can see how the process would be useful in combatting spammers. The article goes on:

Craig’s uses a 3rd party service, to screen out VoIP and Pre-paid cellular numbers, and will not deliver an automated verification call to a number that is determined to be such. (Since only SPAMMERS use VoIP and Pre-Paid Cellular!!!) What sophisticated algorithm does use to identify VoIP numbers, you ask? They check the DID number to see who owns the NPA NXX X number block, and if the DID number is owned by Level 3 Communications, they classify it as VoIP of course. Whizbang!


My immediate question was whether this is for all VoIP service providers. This forum thread would seem to indicate that "fixed lines", even fixed VoIP lines, would come up as okay. So phone numbers from VoIP services from telephone carriers or cable providers would probably be okay. So it may just be the phone numbers of VoIP service providers who are not tied to a fixed infrastructure (and who provide connectivity to so many of the innovative services out there today!).


There are, though, some fairly obvious problems with this approach to blocking phone calls:

  1. LOCAL NUMBER PORTABILITY - Here in North America, phone numbers are "portable" (to a degree) via "Local Number Portability" (LNP) between carriers. So a phone number that may come up as "fixed" may in fact go to a VoIP service (and possibly to a spammer) due to LNP. Now perhaps the third-party service used by Craigslist is doing LNP database lookups.

  2. FORWARDING SERVICES - There are plenty of services (including one identified in the VoIP Insider article) that will forward calls to another phone number. I could even do this easily with something like Asterisk running on my (fixed) home phone number that then forwarded the call out via SIP.

It seems to me that it would be relatively trivial for any serious spammer to obtain a "fixed" phone number that would defeat this blocking mechanism. Certainly this would block some of the less savvy spammers who are just trying to use disposable phone numbers... but in the meantime it may well block legitimate posters who happen to use telephone numbers from VoIP service providers.


So is Craigslist really blocking VoIP phone numbers? Garrett Smith (from VoIP Insider) indicated in an email that someone there was in touch with Craig and Craig indicated he was not personally aware of the blocking. Obviously, someone within the Craigslist organization has engaged this external company,, in their ongoing efforts to fight spam. The blocking seems to lie in there. What needs to happen now is some conversation with those folks to understand what exactly it is they are doing.

We'll have some conversation, in any event, about this issue on today's Squawk Box at 11am US Eastern Time. Feel free to join us if you would like (you need to login via Facebook).

It's an interesting question - in the era when people can obtain cheap (even free) "disposable" phone numbers, how do you balance providing access to legitimate users while blocking using those numbers as a way to spam or perform other malicious actions?

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