VoIP suffers identity crisis

Enterprise network or PC application?

Analysis Two very different people, from vastly different backgrounds, described two virtually identical ways of working at the VON show for VoIP in the UK. Both are appealing, but very different in price, technology and approach. And the key to the future of voice over IP, is perhaps in knowing which one is right.

It may shock you to hear that one was the irrepressible techie upstart Niklas Zennstrom, author of Kazaa, and co-founder of Skype, while the other was Brian Day, a senior figure within Nortel's hosting services division. Perhaps the experience they are preaching is about the only thing they have in common.

At the heart of this divide is the fact that they both think that VoIP is something completely different from what the other believes. Zennstrom says that voice over IP is just a PC application, it's not a network, it will not replace what the community fondly calls POTS (plain old telephone system), it does not need regulating, there is no monopoly in it and it's not really telephony. It's just, as he says, a PC application.

Day already lives in a world where he is helping both Wireless and Wireline telcos make more money and reduce churn. He preaches his company's hosted systems and said: "My own personal way of working has changed beyond all recognition using these systems, and hosted services, including VoIP, is one of those things that once you've worked with it, you suddenly can't live without." Day went on to describe how once he was headquarters bound and fixed to a single desk and that the mobile phone only partially released him from this, but now he takes his office with him everywhere.

"I can work from a hotspot, from a regional office, from home, I can be Wi-Fi connected or connected through a Hotel broadband line and everything's the same. I can talk to my staff, see them on video, I can detect their presence, email or instant message them. I can explain things using co-operative browsing. It's just like being in my office," said Day.

But Day was evangelising the big corporate vision, something that later that afternoon Zennstrom tended to avoid. And yet Skype looks increasingly like the Nortel hosted tools that Day was talking about. It has pictures now, video conferencing in the near future, if offers presence through IM, and VoIP calls that beat mobile phones for quality easily, and, when they don't suddenly drop out, approach or beat fixed line voice quality. It comes with buddy lists, and will shortly have whiteboarding and text messaging and its own API for third party add-ons.

You can work on Skype in just the same way that you work on the Nortel system and on many other corporately targeted systems, but there are differences.

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