Saturday, March 14, 2009

Telephony and the web

In the last few weeks, the web has finally started to encroach on the last holdout communications medium: the telephone. One day soon, most telephone calls will take place via Facebook, Twitter and Gmail, instead of your phone's inbuilt address book.

Internet telephony has already been through one massive hype cycle without great results:

  • Skype is only real global success with consumers. Not web-based. Proprietary.
  • Back-end infrastructure has been converted to IP, especially for business use and internally in telcos. But from the consumer's perspective it's still a separate network.
  • Endless Voice over IP start-ups have now failed. There was clearly a missing ingredient - they focused on back-end technology e.g. SIP, not the consumer side, and they couldn't take advantage of network effects. Also, what advantages did they provide from a consumer perspective except reduced cost?

Most revealing for me is the phrase 'unified communications' in the telephony industry - it's been a mirage because they never unified with the web, surely the most important communications medium of all!

A new wave of innovation has started in Silicon Valley and this time I think they're on the right lines. Recent news includes:

  • Native browser support for audio and video, in Safari 4.0, Firefox 3.5 and Chrome 2.0 is coming very soon. This enables browser-based conversations without plugins such as Flash.
  • Phweet - integrates phone calls with Twitter
  • Mikz - web-based access to your mobile phone call data
  • Twilio - web platform for making & receiving calls, suitable for integrating into websites.
  • Google Voice - web-based call management tool, due to be integrated with Gmail

You can see where this is going. The web is taking over most other communications mediums (TV, newspapers, letters, email) and telephony is up next. Telcos were never able to deliver the vision of a unified suite, centered on the address book, where customers could communicate with each other. It's now the turn of the web and its social networks.