When More is Less

I've been using OS X Lion, the new Apple Mac operating system for a couple of days and I have relearned an important lesson about application design: when designing applications, more is often less.

Overall I have found the refinements in the OS X Lion user experience delightful. The new mission control, dashboard and trackpad swipe features are magic. Spotlight, the OS X search capability, seems fast and more accurate; I think full screen iPhoto is wonderful. I look forward to learning more about versions. In all of these areas of improvement, Apple has refined the user experience while leaving the core feature set basically the same: Spotlight is still a search utility, iPhoto hasn’t changed and the Spaces ability to utilize multiple virtual screens has been vastly simplified with the new swipe capabilities.

Unfortunately, in one area I believe they reached a bit too far, added too many features and made the user experience too complex. For the past couple of months I have been using the Sparrow email client. On the company's web site at www.sparrowmailapp.com they state "Sparrow is a minimalist mail application designed to keep things simple and efficient." I find Sparrow the fastest and most efficient way to manage my multiple email accounts on my MacBook Pro. With Sparrow's “minimalist” approach there are times I wish for an additional feature, however since my productivity is so much greater with Sparrow I stick with it.

Then three days ago, after installing OS X Lion, I gave mail.app, the built-in OS X email client another try. Many of the "industry experts" raved about the enhancements to mail. Here is what I found: Mail.app is a feature-rich email environment with full support for threaded conversations, an iPad style user interface and improved search. While this is all very nice, Sparrow is still more effective for me. Let me explain.

I use multiple Gmail accounts and an Apple me.com account for my email. Mail.app maps each Gmail label to a folder. When I want to move an email from the inbox to a folder in mail.app the move command lists all of my folders for all of my accounts. While this is extremely powerful—allowing users to move a message from one account into any folder on any other account—I have a lot of folders, and for my purposes, rarely need to cross-file emails. The unintended side effect is that it is very hard to find the correct folder when the move command displays a list of all of my folders across all email accounts.

Sparrow on the other hand takes a different approach. First and possibly most important, it is more well-integrated with Gmail in that it understands that Gmail labels are not just folders. When I am reading a message, from the unified inbox, it gives me the option to either label a message, or label and archive a message. The labels presented are the labels local to the specific Gmail account. Sparrow’s approach is more limited than mail.app’s, but this is in fact exactly what I want to do 99 percent of the time. It makes the task of labeling and archiving an email much easier.

In a second example, Sparrow has a wonderful “quick reply” feature. When using quick reply instead of opening a new message window Sparrow scrolls the message down and presents a small entry panel at the top of the current message. This panel does not include address information or signatures, just a place to write a short reply. The feature makes a quick reply feel similar to replying to a text message. If you need access to headers and signatures with one click the quick reply opens into a traditional reply window.

It makes sense that Apple would want to improve their mail client or introduce one that is more dynamic and feature-rich. Simplicity and ease-of-use, however, is what attracts people to their products. If anything gets added to a product, it should be value; if anything gets removed, it should be complexity. At the end of the day, in this case as in many others, more is often less.

 


Call Centers Go Mobile

With millions of workers going mobile, working from their cars, homes, hotel rooms and coffee shops, companies providing call center software need to embrace the mobile worker. As highlighted in the following picture with the Ifbyphone Call Distributor solution displayed on an iPad, any employee with a telephone and an iPad is able to fully participate in calls traditionally routed to a on premise or outsourced call center.

Mobile Call Center Display On iPad

Ifbyphone's Call Distributor solutions supports distributing calls to anyone, anywhere, on any type of phone: cell phone, office phone, home phone or VoIP phone. Your agents accepting the call just log into the Call Distributor from their iPad and agent panel is displayed. More importantly a call center or call group manager is able to view the Ifbyphone Call Distributor manager panel with full queue control from any iPad connected to the Internet.

With Ifbyphone's Call Distributor your business is able to leverage the power of a mobile work force and manager that your customer interactions from a highly mobile and low cost iPad.


The Three Hats of VoIP

Over the past few years new VoIP products and services seem like they are announced daily. While this rate of innovation is exciting, it is also very confusing. How are these companies the same or different? What service should I use for my business?

These new VoIP solutions fall into one of three general categories: hosted PBX solutions, telephone API platforms or telephone applications.

Many hosted PBX solutions, such as Packet 8, Vonage or Fonality, replace your business’s premised based telephone with new SIP phones or “soft-phones” connected over the Internet to a hosted PBX system. These solutions often result in lower costs with no premise based telephone system to support and maintain. But, there are hidden costs in this model that complicate the buying decision. The best solutions require your company to install a dedicated, VoIP-optimized Internet connection. These connections are often more expensive than dedicated phone lines so some of the costs savings disappear. Since cost is most often the driver for the switch from plain old telephone lines (POTs) to hosted PBX solutions, this space has been commoditized and has become highly price competitive. This price competition is good news for your business but creates challenges for the hosted PBX companies.

Telephone APIs from companies such as Twilio and Voxeo, offer a platform where your software developer initiates and controls phone calls without purchasing equipment or telephone connectivity. The best APIs, such as Tropo from Voxeo, give your company access to a sophisticated, and highly reliable, telephony network suitable for developing complex telephone applications. Ease of use is often a selling point of these platforms, but in reality they are only easy to use for experienced software developers since they provide infrastructure and not packaged solutions. An experienced software developer may be able to code a simple phone call with just a few minutes of work using a telephone API. But building a robust, reliable telephone solution, such as dynamic call tracking, a virtual call center, or customer notifications service with retry logic and automated scheduling, requires hundreds or even thousands of hours of work. Telephone API solutions are best for companies where integration of telephone services is a core competency and where dedicated software developers are available for application support and maintenance.

Telephone application services are completely different from both hosted PBX solutions and telephone APIs. Telephone applications, from companies like Ifbyphone, provide your business with complete, ready-to-run, hosted applications that work with any telephone - business, home, VoIP or PSTN. The plug and play nature of telephone application services enable your business to measure value immediately - increased sales, reduced service delivery costs and improved customer retention. You can use these applications to manage, measure and automate phone calls that track advertising campaigns, dynamically route calls, provide customer notifications and deliver customer fulfillment or support via virtual call centers or distributed call groups. Then by utilizing an API on top of these applications your company can quickly and cost effectively integrate these ready to run applications with key business processes.

To further clarify the differences among these three VoIP models, let’s compare them to traditional web business services.

  • Hosted PBX solutions are like Internet backup services such as SugarSync or Mozy. Instead of purchasing and maintaining your own computer backup equipment, you back up your computers over the Internet to a centralized service. While you share a high-quality backup facility, you still carry the cost of the Internet connection and the desktop computers.
  • Telephone API platforms are like web hosting companies such as GoDaddy or Rackspace. The hosting company provides you a platform to build anything you want providing you have the right skills and the staff to support your custom application.
  • Telephone application services are like Salesforce.com or NetSuite. While you could build your own CRM system, most businesses choose to use an off-the-shelf CRM solution. Salesforce.com then provides APIs for integrating with their applications and a specialized environment for extending the platform (force.com). Similarly, Ifbyphone offers an API for integrating with our applications.

While hosted PBX solutions, telephone APIs and telephone applications may share the VoIP “cloud”, these three solutions are very different. Think of hosted PBXs as replacements for existing telephone systems. Telephone API platforms provide a greenfield environment for software developers. And, telephone application companies, such as Ifbyphone, provide ready to use applications for businesses looking to increase sales, improve customer retention and increase business efficiency.

By focusing on ready to run telephone applications Ifbyphone is helping thousands of company manage, measure and automate voice interaction with hundreds of thousands of customers daily.


Early Adopters vs Mainstream Customers; Android vs iPhone

Since the iPhone 4 began shipping a couple of days ago I have read a multitude of articles comparing this new phone to various Android based devices, generally focused on the newer Droids. I think the authors writing these comparisons miss the point; these devices are serving very different marketplaces and therefore have developed completely difference ecosystems.

Reviews are often focused on processor speed, memory, camera specifications, battery life, size, weight, and the number of applications in the app stores. Some comparisons proceed to position the iPhone as a closed system and highlight the advantages of the open Android development environment. More complete reviews include Nokia and Rim devices in the mix. Almost all of these reviews focus on the devices and not the users of smart phones.

Back before smart phones, Geoffrey Moore in "Crossing the Chasm" described an evolution of product adoption that applies to many high tech companies. Moore's classification of customers is very similar to the technology adoption lifecycle developed by Joe Bohlen, George Beal and Everett Rogers in 1975. The lifecycle classifies customers into groups called innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.


Image Provided by Wikimedia Commons

Moore argues that companies need to focus on one group at a time to cross the chasm between the early adopters and mainstream customers included in the right-most customer group shown above. He continues to point out that many high tech failures occur after a company has amassed a significant number of innovators and early adopters but fails to understand the needs of mainstream customers.

Android is an early adopter ecosystem while IOS (iPhone) is for mainstream customers.

The open Android ecosystem provides developers with a highly flexible, open, and easy to root (gain operating system access) development and runtime environment. Google provides very few limitations on the applications available to Android users and does not restrict application distribution. In fact on the Android Market developers web page it states "Android Market is open to all Android application developers. Once registered, developers have complete control over when and how they make their applications available to users."

In contrast the IOS (iPhone) ecosystem is tightly controlled by Apple. All iPhones ship with a locked down application environment. If you "jailbreak" or unlock the application environment on your iPhone you invalidate your warranty. Developers are required to submit all applications to Apple for review and Apple has full authority over the applications it will allow developers to distribute via the App Store.

Given these differences why would anyone want an iPhone? Because most smart phone users are not developers and in fact do not want to take risks with their phones. They want the company that provided them with the phone to ensure a third party application will not break their ability to make and receive phone calls. Mainstream smart phone customers value consistency over creativity, reliability over flexibility and stability over openness. From the perspective of most iPhone customers there are more applications available in the app store then they will ever need.

Why do developers build applications for the restrictive iOS (iPhone) ecosystem? To paraphrase a famous campaign slogan from the 1992 United States Presidential election, "It's the economy stupid". The mainstream smart phone marketplace is vastly larger than the early adopter market and the Apple ecosystem provides developers with a very easy to use distribution channel.

In conclusion, both the Android and the IOS (iPhone) ecosystems provide valuable additions to the telecommunications world. Both solutions provide customers with vastly more choices and with hundreds of thousands of applications. Early adopters that value the maximum in flexibility and that are unfazed by some inconsistency between devices and applications will find their needs well served by a wide range of Android devices. Mainstream customers that want a smart phone that just works and still offers hundreds of thousands of applications, but may not always have the very latest application, will be delighted with an iPhone. When comparing products and services in the rapidly changing technology world of the 21st century, remember to first understand the customer demographics served by the product or service and then properly qualify your comments for a specific marketplace.


2010 Predictions about Cloud Telephony

Now that we are well into the new year, and the dust has settled on the annual predictions from all of the popular industry experts, I would like to add my own observations to the mix.

When I think about the telephone industry the old Rodney Dangerfield line about respect comes to mind. Telephones just don't get no respect. While most businesses, if forced to choose between their telephones and the Internet, would give up their Internet access before their telephones, these same businesses take their telephones for granted. In fact telephone companies are called utilities. Wikipedia defines a utility as:

"... an organization that maintains the infrastructure for a public service (often also providing a service using that infrastructure) ..."

So a utility maintains infrastructure. How exciting.

While utilities are critical to our businesses and society, we surely don't think about them as value added. They are just there. But we sure do count on their reliability. The telephone utilities of old were famous for using the phrase five nines (99.999) which is still the gold standard of reliability. No more. The world of telephones has changed. Few if any telephone services still offer five nines of reliability. Overall we have traded cost for quality. We pay much less for phone calls today than at anytime in history. In exchange we are not surprised if our calls drop or if we have trouble getting a dial tone. I believe that for many people their Internet connectivity is more reliable than their cell phone. What even happened to five nines?

Have we given up five nines of quality just for lower prices? I think not. Along with lower costs the telephone network is also much more open today than at any other time. Due to changes in tariffs, the elimination of many national telephone monopolies and the availablity of VoIP access for call termination and origination, anyone can build an application that interacts with an end user's telephone device. This device may be a traditional phone, or it might be a mobile phone, a smart phone, a VoIP phone or even a computer.

What is my prediction? In 2010 telephones will transition from cost centers to profit centers as more businesses recognize the opportunity to change the way they use telephones. Cloud-based communications enabled business processes (CEBP) will improve business economics in much the same way that "saleforce.com" revolutionized customer relationship management. CRM went from a nice to have, used mostly in very large enterprises to a fundamental component of standard business practices. Saleforce.com has helped turn average sales and service organizations into outstanding organizations that drive increased revenues and profits into thousands of businesses.

In 2010 businesses of any size, from SOHO to Enterprise, will gain access to telephone applications agnostic of device (that work with any telephone) for improving business lead flow, optimizing sales processes, reducing service delivery costs and improving customer experiences. Just as Salesforce.com revolutionized thousands of businesses' relationships with their customers, Cloud Telephony based applications will dramatically enhance the utilization of telephone technologies in businesses of every size, turning the utility-based telephone cost center into a profit center.


Thoughts About Clouds

My thoughts about the evolution of cloud computing and cloud telephony.

Let's begin by thinking about the history of computing. First we had mainframes, since they were very expensive we shared them, hence timesharing. Then as computers became smaller and more inexpensive we put mini-computers in our businesses, and ultimately personal computers on our desks. This lead to fat client, client server computing. Unfortunately we found that supporting complex applications on our employees desks was very expensive, so we began to move applications back to the data center and ultimately to the clouds.

The same evolution is occurring in telco. In the beginning of telco all complex components where centralized in central offices and switching stations. Then as PBX systems dropped in price, enterprises installed PBX systems, and ultimately many small businesses installed key systems. However, these systems were limited in their expansion capabilities and expensive to support, so business have begun to look for alternatives. The alternative is to move telco back into the clouds with your telephone becoming your voice and multi-media browser accessing cloud delivered services.

In the telco industry we have always lived in the clouds. I would propose that Cloud Computing is in fact just the latest terminology for Timesharing and in the world of telephony Cloud Telephony is in fact the latest evolution of "The Network is the System".

It is ironic that while traditional telco is the gold standard of quality and reliability, you probably remember 5 nines of reliability in the old days, cloud computing and cloud telephony are viewed as inherently less reliable. In fact it is just the current implementations that are not as reliable as they need to be.

To summarize I predict that in a place not to distant from today, your computers and telephones (often the same device) will be browsers for multi media content which will include voice, audio, video, images and text and that the "cloud" industries will resolve the reliability challenges.

Here at Ifbyphone we are leading this revolution by providing automated telephone applications that reside in the clouds and work on any telephone.


The Evolution of the Telecommunications Industry

The Telecom Industry Evolves: From "Old" and "New", to App-Focused Telcos

Over the past 20 years the telecommunications industry has undergone two fundamental transitions: first, from "old telco" to "new telco" and now, to application-focused telcos.

As Martin Fransman, Professor of Economics at the University of Edinburgh wrote:

"The demise of the Old Telecoms Industry began in the mid-1980s when, due to different combinations of political-economic circumstances, the monopoly of telecoms was ended in Japan, the UK and the US".

Fransman continues. "In the 1990s a new set of influences, that had begun thirty years earlier in an initially unrelated set of activities, brought about fundamental forces that further transformed the Telecoms Industry into the Infocommunications Industry. These influences came from the Internet based on its triad of core technologies: packet-switching, Internet Protocol (IP), and the World Wide Web"[i].

As a result of these industry wide sweeping changes, the standard definitions of telecommunications companies no longer apply. I would like to propose a new set of definitions, classifying telecommunications companies as facilities based (FACTEL), virtual (VIRTEL), or application-focused (APPTEL).

FACTELs include all companies with cables either in the ground or on poles, or significant physical and distributed infrastructure. This would include traditional ILECs, CLECs that rent facilities from ILECs, cable operators, and facilities based mobile operators. All have spent millions or billions of dollars on capital spending for infrastructure, and primarily recoup their investment by charging for dial tone.

This classic economic telecommunications model often requires years of customer usage before these providers break even. As the rate of change in telecommunications increases and the diversity of competition expands these models will come under increasing economic pressure.

Much of this economic pressure is generated by VIRTELs, which house their entire infrastructure in centralized, in-the-network, data centers and utilize IP circuits to support hosted VOIP solutions. Since these solutions work over existing Internet links, a VIRTEL does not need to buy nor build a cable or last mile infrastructure. This gives them an economic advantage and is the reason why VIRTELs such as Skype and Vonage are able to deliver dial tone at highly competitive prices or perhaps for free.  (The ‘free’ approach has not yet been proven to be profitable, calling into question the viability of the business model).

Finally, APPTELs leverage universal telephone access to deliver advanced applications to any telephone. For example Google Voice is based on Google's ability to terminate or place a telephone call to any traditional telephone number.

Although Google does host a sophisticated call routing infrastructure to deliver calls, it is similar to VIRTELs in that it does not incur last-mile or cabling-based costs. In fact, an APPTELis able to deliver calls to telephones provisioned by FACTELs and VIRTELs.

While FACTELs and VIRTELs compete for a customer's dial-tone dollars, APPTELs charge for applications with much less competition and are easily able to differentiate their service offerings.

A crystal clear case in point is Salesforce.com. It’s an example of a comparable economic model to the APPTEL business approach.  Salesforce does not provide Internet connectivity yet it utilizes the Internet to deliver its services.

The Salesforce application works equally well over any Internet connection. Because it is an application Salesforce is able to value price their solution while the Internet ISPs compete in a tightly defined price band for connectivity dollars. 

This very same dynamic applies to one group of the telco industry, APPTELs.  APPTELs are able to value price solutions with measurable business benefits while dial-tone providers compete for increasingly scarce dollars.

With the addition of SIP trunk connectivity options from companies such as Ifbyphone, FACTELs, VIRTELs and call centers, are able to integrate an APPTEL solution into their platforms. This integration provides FACTELs and VIRTELs with a powerful value-priced addition to their product lines.


[i]  Martin Fransman, University of Edinburgh, http://www.telecomvisions.com/articles/pdf/FransmanTelecomsHistory.pdf

 


Ifbyphone Interview about Cloud Telephony with TMCnet Rich Tehrani

This interview between Irv Shapiro CEO of Ifbyphone and Rich Tehrani of TMCnet explains the Ifbyphone services and their integration into the telco ecosystem.


The Telephone Technology Pendulum and AnyPhone Technologies

Arthur Schopenhauer a German Philosopher, wrote an often misstated quotation, "Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom".  We can apply this quotation in general to technology and specifically to telephony.  Telephony technology swings between complacency and advancement.  In these exciting times, when telephone technologies are rapidly advancing, we are often faced with the pain of innovation.

This pain is partially caused by the instability of change. Many of us have moved the majority of our telephone use from the over 100 year old, stable and reliable, plain old telephone service (POTS) to mobile and VOIP communitations. This pain is also partially caused by the transition of telephony from a hardware driven industry to a software industry with all of the advantages and shortcomings of software systems. Software, unlike hardware is relatively easy to change. This ease of change indirectly leads to reduced testing and an increase in software failures, commonly called bugs. With software innovation in the telephony industry the bugs in the system have increased. So next time you are walking down the street and your cell phone drops a call, recognize that this might be caused by a poor signal, an ineffective network design, limited cell capacity or even a plain old software bug.

As an entrepreneur I am happy to accept the pain of change over the boredom of stagnation. The next evolution of telephony, returns telephone services to their roots, it moves them into the clouds. Traditionally most people used telephone services connected to a centralized telephone utility. As networks expanded and became more sophisticated additional capabilities were added to the centralized utility.  In 1977 Julius Marcus, VP of Networks and Communications at Digital Equipment Corporation coined the phrase "The Network is the System".  This phrase, in various iterations, was later used by AT&T and Sun Microsystems.  With the development of Cloud Telephony, the network is the system.

Cloud Telephony provides hosted telephone services accessible from anywhere at any time.   However, many of the first Cloud Telephony services, such as hosted or virtual PBX solutions, still require dedicated specialized telephones.  This isn't limited to hosted PBX solutions.  In the United States, most of the cell phone carriers require telephones specifically configured for their networks.   So while cloud or network based telephone service are expanding our communications horizons, they are not freeing us from device dependence.

At Ifbyphone we are taking Cloud Telephony to the next level with AnyPhone Technology. The concept is very simple. We believe you should be able to add telephone features and applications to your business without purchasing any new equipment and while using your existing telephones,  any telephone.

The Ifbyphone automated telephone technologies work with any phone with a traditional phone number.  This includes home phones on POTS lines, business phones, VOIP phones and mobile phones.  With AnyPhone technology you have no hardware to buy to add new features and applications for interacting with your customers.

Today,  Ifbyphone AnyPhone Technologies support a wide range of inbound, outbound and API based telephone solutions. Over the coming months we will release new and innovative applications that push the limits of traditional call center and PBX solutions.  And they all work on any phone.


The Great CLEC Squeeze

As a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the number of CLECs providing telephone services exploded. A CLEC (competitive exchange carrier) provides telephone services by leasing local loops (phone lines) and interconnecting those local loops to their own or sub-contracted long distance services. For most of the past 23 years, CLECs have primarily competed with the incumbent telephone carriers (ILECs) on price. Those days are over.

CLECs are facing increasing competition on four different fronts:

  1. The traditional carriers are reducing the price of dial tone and bundling services into double or triple plays.
  2. Dial tone, or basic phone services from cable companies, independent VOIP startups and industry leaders such as Vonage and Skype are driving down call transport pricing.
  3. An increasing number of homes and business are dropping traditional landlines in favor of mobile devices.
  4. Google Voice is demonstrating the viability of purchasing additional telephone services from an alternative telephone company. If a business has more than one telephone company, lets say Google and CLEC ABC, the CLEC has lost a bit of account control.

In summary, CLECs are squeezed between collapsing transport prices and expanding features. To compete in this environment many CLECs are upgrading their existing telephone switches to gain access to SIP technologies. However, while low cost upgrades to add SIP capacity are available, upgrading an existing switch to provide applications such as Google Voice are very costly, time consuming and disruptive. In fact, sophisticated voice applications are not available for many call-switching platforms.

So what is a CLEC to do? It is well accepted in the world of business that it is less expensive to keep an existing customer than to find a new one. The CLEC community needs to maintain account control and expand the services they deliver to existing customers. They can do this by utilizing SIP trunking to drive down long distance rates and Cloud Telephony to deliver new features to existing customers.

Saleforce.com, Amazon EC2 and others have demonstrated the value of on demand, just in time, shared resources. Cloud Telephony in conjunction with reverse SIP Peering presents the same advantages to the CLEC community. Let me spend a minute to flesh out the Reverse SIP Peering concept. This is best done by an example from the Internet world.

When the first generally available web browser, Mosaic, was released by the University of Illinois, it supported the use of the HTTP protocol to access HTML formatted information. Before long millions of users where browsing the web everyday. But it wasn't until some very creative technologist realized that HTTP could be used to communicate server to server, and the web we know today developed.

Reverse SIP technologies provide the equivalent for Telco. SIP was initially deployed as a signaling protocol for voice based telephone communications. It has evolved into a signaling and setup protocol for multimedia communications sessions including voice, video and even games. Reverse SIP Peering, takes SIP to the next level, supporting SIP as a protocol for accessing a SIP application warehouse. In fact reverse SIP requires no technology changes and is strictly a new business application of the existing SIP 2.0 protocol stack.

To utilize a SIP Application Warehouse, a CLEC provisions a SIP Peering relationship with the warehouse owner. Once peered, calls into the CLEC are routed to the warehouse, handled by the applications resident in the warehouse and routed back to the CLEC when transfers or additional calls legs are required.

With this new capability any CLEC or Telco carrier with SIP support can resell, Cloud Telephony resident, automated telephone applications. These applications might range from a simple parallel Find Me service similar to Google Voice, to complete IVR call center solutions.

This presents an exciting opportunity for the Telco 2.0 community. The opportunity exists to build hundreds of applications, ranging from basic voice mail to complete IVR business automation solutions and provide access via SIP. In support of this opportunity, SIP Application Warehouse hosting companies need to provide robust telco grade hosting services, fully redundant and easily managed. Application provisioning requires the development of white-labeled customer portals and CLEC management tools.

While for traditional Telco companies these may be difficult times, for innovative Telco 2.0 vendors this is an outstanding time to be in Telco.


CLEC SIP Application Warehouse White Paper

We are very excited to announce the availability of our partnership program between the telephone carrier community and Ifbyphone. To better understand this initiative lets look together at the evolution of the world wide web and how SIP signaling is following a similar evolution.

When the first generally available web browser, Mosaic, was released by the University of Illinois, it supported the use of the HTTP protocol to access HTML formatted information. Before long millions of users where browsing the web everyday. But it wasn't until some very creative technologist realized that HTTP could be used to communicate server to server, that the web we know today developed.

The new Ifbyphone CLEC support provides the equivalent evolution of SIP. SIP was initially released as a telephone signaling protocol for voice communications. It has involved into a signaling and setup protocol for voice and video. The Ifbyphone carrier services take SIP to the next level, supporting SIP as a protocol for accessing the industry's first SIP application warehouse. With this new capability any CLEC or ILEC with SIP support in their softswitch can resell all of the Ifbyphone automated telephone applications. These applications range from a simple parallel find me similar to Google Voice, to complete Voice Broadcast and IVR solutions. Ifbyphone IVR solutions support text-to-speech, speech recognition, DTMF decoding, call recording, and recorded audio playback. All Ifbyphone applications are configured from a very easy to use customer portal with excellent reseller services.

Our white paper describes in more detail our view of the evolving cloud telephony space and its applicability to the CLEC/ILEC community.

Download Ifbyphone's White Paper: Cloud Telephony For Carriers & Service Providers


eComm 2009 Ifbyphone iPhone Mashup Tutorial

I recently led a session at eComm 2009 on how to build an Ifbyphone-to-iPhone App. We've uploaded the session to YouTube. You can find it on the Ifbyphone YouTube Channel, and I've also listed the URLs for the 7 parts below:

Part 1: Introduction to iPhone Applications

click here to play video

Part 2: Introduction to the Ifbyphone API

click here to play video

Part 3: Getting Started as an Ifbyphone Developer

click here to play video

Part 4: Building Your First SurVo (IVR Voice Dialog)

click here to play video

Part 5: Building Your First iPhone Application

click here to play video

Part 6: Building the PHP Middleware (Glue)

click here to play video

Part 7:  API Review and Course Wrap Up

click here to play video

You can find more information on http://www.phonemashup.com or in the developer section of the Ifbyphone website.


Why Skype for Asterisk is more important than Skype for SIP

Back in September of 2008 and now today, Skype has announced initiatives to open the Skype network to SIP users. These two solutions; Skype for Asterisk and Skype for SIP are very different and offer significantly different capabilities.

Just to recap the details. Skype for Asterisk, which is still in closed beta, is a true Asterisk channel driver. This allows Asterisk based solutions to make, receive and transfer Skype calls. A significant capability of the SFA solution is its support for terminating a call to a Skype user name, for example a PC based user of the Skype client.

Skype for SIP is a very different animal. This service provides VOIP trunk support for existing SIP based PBX systems, which may include Asterisk. Unlike SFA where calls may be place to any Skype user, SFS calls may only be terminated to PSTN end points.

So what does this all mean to the Voice/Telco 2.0 marketplace. Overall Skype is beginning to leverage their extensive VOIP network to compete in the VOIP origination and termination marketplaces. Both of these services would enable a SIP based PBX user to utilize Skype as their transport vendor. For example, a traditional SIP PBX customers would directly use SFS for call termination and would provision Skype in numbers to provide origination.

From our perspective as a cloud telephony company, providing hosted telephone applications, SFA is much more interesting. While either service would allow us to provide IVR services to Skype users, the SFA Asterisk channel driver architecture allows us to terminate calls into call centers with no PSTN transport. Each call center Agent would just utilize a headset connected to a computer running the traditional Skype application. Customers calls would be able to originate from either a PSTN device or a Skype client, then route through the Ifbyphone IVR infrastructure and terminate to a call center via Skype's computer to computer transport. This has the potential to change the cost structure associated with supporting call centers. A Skype based call center would not require a PBX or for even any centralized telephony components. The call center agents could be virtually located anywhere in the world on high quality Internet connections.

Overall Skype's moves to open their network are exciting and create significant opportunities for innovative Cloud Telephony companies.


Why You Need 2 Telephone Companies

Historically telephone companies provided both dial tone and telephone features to business users. For example: when purchasing a telephone service for your business you would specify the number of lines and the features; such as voice mail, call forwarding, call waiting, three way calling, per line. Businesses with multiple lines would often terminate their phone lines into key or PBX systems that support line sharing across multiple extensions and supplement the available features. Your PBX might provide call center queuing, music on hold and enhanced voice mail.

Unfortunately, once you purchased a key or PBX system you were often limited in the new features you could add without purchasing a completely new system. For example, it is unlikely you could add Voice Broadcasting, Click-to-Call, or sophisticated Interactive Voice Response dialogs to your existing system. Even if these features where available you would need to hire a high priced consultant to configure them properly.

This has all changed with the introduction of My thoughts about the evolution of cloud computing and Cloud Telephony into the marketplace. Telephone applications in the Cloud are hosted applications capable of completing (terminating) a phone call to any telephone worldwide. Let’s break this down as bit.

Today, with the rapid decline in the cost of dial tone and the availability of VOIP communications services, companies may choose to purchase their out bound and in bound telephone services from separate vendors. For example a company could purchase traditional telephone services from the least expensive vendor in their area. When they pick up a telephone in their office, this vendor would provide the dial tone and place the call. This would be coupled with services from a company such as Ifbyphone for in bound calls. When a customer calls the business the Ifbyphone telephony cloud would route the call either directly to the business or to a hosted telephone application such as a virtual receptionist, interactive voice response dialog (IVR), store locator or virtual call center.

This hybrid approach provides companies with the least expensive out bound calling packages and the most flexible inbound call routing. In fact since the in bound calls are all handled via the Ifbyphone telco cloud, calls may be dynamically routed to your office phone, cell phone, and even home phone. This is important since if your office phone fails, because a bus ran into the telephone pole behind your building, with a couple of clicks you can reroute your Ifbyphone inbound phone numbers to a alternative location or cell phone.

In addition by using a Cloud Telephony solution for inbound calls, you are able to integrate your sales team that is using cell phones, with an outside call center and even home based users into a single virtual call center. Capabilities such as call queuing and call tracking are easily configured across users all of different telephone systems.

Are there advantages of using two telephone companies, one for out bound calls (dial tone) and another for in bound calls. Absolutely.


The Impact of Low Cost Telephone Transport

The integration of Jajah's network into the Yahoo Messenger platform signals a continuation of the movement of telephone transport from traditional PSTN networks to open VOIP transport. These new voice and data networks allow the user to bring their own device and access the world of telephony from new and exciting places.

Many of you may still remember when the telephone company provided all of your phones. The latest VOIP initiatives just continue the transition from telephone company owned devices to a device of your choice, by providing a device agnostic transport medium. Most telephone users now have access to open VOIP transport alternatives that are changing the pricing of transport. As transport costs continue to fall telephone users will obtain a new freedom in how that utilize telephone minutes. In a world of transport costs that are no longer a factor, users will want powerful applications that maximize the utility of these voice and data highways.

Let's break this down a bit with an example. Why have railroads failed in America and prospered in the rest of the world? The American highways were much too good, gas prices where too low, and the price of an automobile was a reasonable percentage of the typical Americans income. This lead to the creation of the largest automobile companies in the world. (These same companies are now failing because of a combination of historical mistakes and changes to the relationships between transport costs and personal income.)

The new VOIP networks are the highways of telephony. The traditional telephone companies are the railroads. Telephone Application Platforms such as Ifbyphone are the new automobile manufacturers. The Ifbyphone Telephone Application Platform delivers applications over low cost VOIP networks, affordable by any business, that leverage the power of low cost telephone communications in any business, at any location, any time of the day.

A link to the Information Week article on the Jaja Yahoo deal follows:

Yahoo Outsources Messenger Voice Service To Jajah


What is a Phone Mashup?

Every minute of every day, somewhere, someone is pounding on their keyboard, or screaming at their computer, "How do I contact the people behind this web site, or this blog?" Too many web sites make it difficult for viewers to connect.

Later that same day you might become frustrated because the emails you sent to a business associate or friend landed in the black hole of a SPAM folder. Or maybe you were away from your computer and the screen on your phone is just too small to read, but you need to check on the delivery of the sofa you just ordered. If you call the sofa company they will put you on hold, forever. You just want to know the date of the delivery - why should this be so hard?

All of these examples are easily solved by better utilizing the everyday, plain old telephone. Telephones are everywhere today, at home, at work, in our pockets. Phone mashups combine the intimacy of the telephone with the efficiency of the web. In the examples above, you could provide a web site visitor with a Click-to-Call that connects the viewer's telephone to your telephone. You could use an automated Voice Broadcast to send messages to your customers. With an Interactive Voice Response system, the sofa company could provide you with instant customer service while saving on staff and reducing costs.So why doesn't every small business, web site creator, or blog author integrate their web world with their viewers' telephones?

While the VoiceXML and CCXML standards have driven down the cost of custom IVR, these solutions are still too complex and expensive for many independent developers and small businesses. Many Click-to-Call solutions now available in the marketplace tend to be limited in flexibility. Phone mashups require flexibility.Phone mashup APIs need to be usable by any web developer with basic web form coding skills. In essence, the phone mashup API should replace web forms with voice forms.Ifbyphone provides a very flexible family of APIs (we call them Ifbyphone Glue) that includes the ability to:

  • Initiate a traditional Click-to-Call between two parties
  • Initiate a Click-to-Virtual Receptionist
  • Initiate a Click-to-VoiceMail
  • Initiate a Click-to a full featured interactive voice response system
  • Initiate a Click-to a Find Me with full recording capabilities

Ifbyphone APIs also support the scheduling of voice broadcast messages, reminder calls, and wake up calls.In addition to initiating telephone connections from a web site, the communications facilitated by the Ifbyphone hosted platform may be activated from a telephone call. When someone calls into an Ifbyphone provisioned telephone number their call can be:

  • Routed based on the caller ANI (caller ID)
  • Routed based on the time of day and day of week
  • Routed to a voice mail account
  • Routed to a find me
  • Routed to a virtual receptionist
  • Routed to an interactive voice response application (IVR)

Ifbyphone IVR applications can be thought of as voice forms. If you know how to build a web site that uses a form to collect information, processes the information, and then displays another form, you know how to build a phone mashup.

SurVo Voice Forms** are created at the Ifbyphone web site and then invoked by an API or telephone call. A voice form consists of prerecorded or text-to-speech prompts and questions that are played for a caller, and then allows their responses to be recorded or converted into text.

When the caller reaches the end of a voice form, the Ifbyphone platform passes control to a web page you create. This web page can be hosted on any server, coded in any language and secured or unsecured. Your web page will receive the data collected via the telephone dialog (voice form) as a post or get in the same way you would collect information from an HTML form.

Once you have the data you can write it to a database, use it to query another web source, or process it in just the same way you would process information collected from any other form. After processing, your web page outputs an XML file which tells the Ifbyphone platform what to do next. The next step can be another voice form, a find me, a virtual receptionist or even to just hang up the telephone. Data provided by your web page can be read to the caller or can be used to determine the next set of questions asked.

There is no limit to the number of voice forms or the number of transitions between your web pages and the Ifbyphone infrastructure.

To summarize, the Ifbyphone Glue (API) supports the combination of information accessible from the web for presentation via voice on any telephone. All Ifbyphone services use real telephones and do not rely on desktop computer based VOIP services.

To learn more just take a look at the Ifbyphone Glue (API) documentation.

Ifbyphone Glue (API) Documentation

All Ifbyphone Documentation

**The name SurVo comes from the fact that initially this technology was built for creating customer surveys.


eComm 2008, Ifbyphone Becomes a Silver Sponsor

While there are many telephone technology conferences each year, two stand out. VON and eComm. VON is where the business professionals in the voice and telephony industries go to make deals. eComm is where the technologists go to innovate.

Prior to this year Etel (the predecessors to eComm) was an O'Reilly sponsored conference designed to provide a forum for people working in the emerging telephony technologies to get together, learn and network. When O'Reilly decided to drop the Etel conference a ground swell of discussion in the telco world lead Lee S Dryburgh to put his day job on hold and facilitate eComm as a replacement. As stated on the eComm site:

"eComm is the venue for those interested in the radical transformation of the trillion dollar telecommunications industry. It has already started down the path that the homebrew computer took three decades ago. Just as democratized computation gave birth to the computer industry, eComm is tracking, highlighting and promoting the people and technologies driving this new wave of democratization.

eComm brings out the visionaries, emergent technologies, real-world startups, cutting-edge academic projects, views from the incumbent telecom players; garage based hacks and stirs required policy debates to create the ultimate three-day conversation.

The story of the decentralization of communications innovation has past the second chapter which was VoIP. It is now regarded as a building block only. As a standalone service it is both uninspiring and unlikely to be highly profitable."

The Ifbyphone phone mashup API is an ideal vehicle for developers looking to build creative web to phone applications. At my eComm 2008 talk I will describe the Ifbyphone architecture used to drive down the costs of sophisticated IVR applications while making them accessible to any web developer or small business.

Information about eComm 2008


Click-to-Call an argument for your CFO

Have you ever tried to squeeze a plumber into an online shopping cart? Unlikely. The fact is that most small to medium size businesses using the Web are not shopping carts. They sell services and products that just don't work that way--like landscape design, consulting, and acupuncture.

So when SMBs are asked what they want most from a Web site, they're more than likely to answer: more phone calls. This makes sense. In the non-shopping cart world, sales are made--or at least initiated--with a phone call. It's worth wondering, then, if small businesses are getting maximum value from their Web marketing dollars.

This was once a simpler question to answer. Once upon a time, all you needed for online presence was a website. That was easy enough. Then it had to be better than competitors' sites. So you built a better one. As websites became more sophisticated, the focus shifted to driving traffic, and then invariably to pushing only the right visitors your way.

And now, businesses are looking more carefully at how effective all of this is at converting their online spend to revenue. But what's missing here? Have we forgotten that even before the Web, any sale started with the phone ringing?

Ironically, relatively few SMB sites have metrics telling them whether, and how many, site hits turn into phone calls--let alone intelligence like which keywords deliver the most calls. But if Web spend is intended to generate leads that are converted offline, how can you effectively measure Internet marketing ROI without this information?

Consider this. A good website should perform like a good salesperson--and it's relatively easy to figure out if salespeople are bringing in more than they cost. And equally easy to see what kind of business is coming in. Shouldn't it be the same for a website?

The abundance of metrics provided by Internet marketing solutions report how many visitors came to your site, how long they spent, what pages they came from, and what search terms they used. But if you convert visitors to customers offline, these pieces of intelligence don't necessarily tell you if your website is a good salesperson, just breaking even, or underperforming.

Here's where Web telephony changes the rules. Capabilities like click-to-call marry age-old phone calls with Web marketing. Instead of simply listing a phone number on a site, click-to-call turns any image on any page into a phone call trigger call to action.

Because the phone call trigger is now a click, it can be measured like any other. When sites visitors click the call icon, that action is captured. Now you can see how many visitors called--and exactly which page they called from--in the same way you can see how many pages they looked at.

So is Web telephony the Holy Grail for improving your Web economics? Debatable, like anything else. Yet converting more visitors to callers does reduce per unit cost of leads and in turn, overall customer acquisition cost. And knowing which keywords drive the best phone calls will add intelligence to your keyword bidding, optimizing your spend--something worth consideration in the face of accelerating keyword inflation.

The bottom line: There's more to click-to-call than meets the eye. Yes, it generates more calls and builds a better experience for site visitors. But it's the role click-to-call plays in building a better Web ROI that makes it so valuable. Properly deployed, it's a game changer. Tell your CFO about it.


Why Does My VOIP Connection Sound So Bad?

Many new telephone services, such as Click to Call, Virtual Call Centers, Hosted IVR and Voice Broadcast, rely on voice over IP (VOIP) telephone connections to deliver services at the lowest possible cost. While some of these services sound great, others deliver voice quality no better than the walkie talkies your child recently received for Christmas. This blog entry will attempt to present, for a non technical audience, the basics behind VOIP communications that determine the quality of a phone call. Specifically this blog will address VOIP traffic transmitted over the public Internet.

Your voice starts out as an analog wave or vibration. Remember the telephone you built as a child with two cans and a string. The bottom of the first can vibrates, this vibrates the string, which then vibrates the bottom of the second can. In a traditional telephone these same vibrations are used to modulate an electrical signal transmitted over a wire which replaces the string.In VOIP communications your voice is converted from an analog wave into a series of data packets. These data packets, which share the Internet with email, web page transmissions and file transfers, are then transmitted from one computer to another where at the destination the data packets are converted back into a sound wave you can hear.

The process of digitizing sound is well understand and as in the case of DVDs can be very high quality. In fact many DVDs are better quality than traditional analog recordings.Unfortunately, unlike high quality DVDs, which have the capacity to transport a large amount of data, the Internet has limited bandwidth. Therefore when we digitize voice for transmission over the Internet we compress the data significantly more than the music on a typical DVD. This compression reduces the quality of the sound.

There are many standards for the compression of voice. However, in a typical engineering trade off; the more we compress the voice transmission, the more conversations we can transmit over the same Internet connection. The other side of this trade off is that the more we compress the voice the worse it sounds.

The vast majority of telephone calls today, even the calls made on your traditional home phone, are digitized. The traditional telephone companies use a compression standard called PCM or G.711. In fact VOIP telephone services that use G.711, such as Ifbyphone, sound just as good as traditional telephone calls.

Another common compression standard is G.729. Telephone calls compressed with G.729 are compressed on average four times more than G.711 or traditional telephone calls. This additional compression results in lower overall call quality.The telephone industry has a standard measurement of telephone call voice quality called the Mean Opinion Score or MOS. The generally accepted typical MOS (just Google MOS for more examples) for a number of compression standards follow:

Traditional PSTN phone calls: MOS is close to 4.5

G.711: 4.4 or better

G.729 about 4

G.723 about 3.5

G.726 between 3.5 and 4.3

Unfortunately this is not the whole picture. The quality of the connection of to the Internet used by your VOIP service provider also affects the quality of your telephone call. And finally some VOIP vendors use a Voice Activity Detection algorithm to reduce the bandwidth they need for your calls. VAD attempts to listen for silence between the callers in a telephone conversation and stop transmitting packages when no one is talking. If the VAD algorithm is inappropriately tuned the ends of your words will be clipped and overall voice quality will decline.

At Ifbyphone we are committed to the delivery of high quality voice services designed for business customers. We exclusively use G.711 for our business services. Since many of our services rely on automated voice recognition we need to set very high voice standards for the recognition to function properly.

Please feel free to post comments to this blog entry about your VOIP experiences and information you may have about the codex or compression standard used by your VOIP vendor.


Voice Broadcasting as an Email Alternative

Voice Broadcasting used properly is an effective and reliable alternative to email. Ifbyphone's services are ideally suited for delivery of customer service information, customer notifications and employee communications. All information valuable to the recipient. For example, let's say you own a heating and air conditioning company. You used to send emails to your customers in the spring and fall to recommend they schedule a tune up of their air conditioner or furnace. The last couple of years your customers have complained "John, why don't you email me a reminder anymore?". But you do. What's happening. Your emails are going into your customer's spam folders. Spam technology has rendered email an ineffective customer communications tool.

Instead of using an email message use a Voice Broadcast. Record a short 30 second message to each of your customers. Schedule 20 of these messages to go out a day and offer the customer an option to transfer to your office and make an appointment during the call. Just as email used properly enhances your customer relationships and improves sales, Voice Broadcast used properly is a more reliable delivery vehicle then email, which all to often today ends up in someone's spam folder.