Recently, I've been speaking to an awful lot of software firms who have "wireless VoIP" somewhere in their company description. Not that this is entirely new: softphone vendors targetting wireless PDAs and dual-mode phones have been around for ages - Cicero, Firsthand and so on. Then there's been the well-known migration of Skype towards handsets, as well as Nokia's own VoIP efforts on the E-series and other devices.
But most people would have noticed the sudden explosion of weirdly-named companies hoping to capture the Web 2.0 community spirit, coupling a device-side client to some sort of web-based server solution. Some use SIP, some use their own protocol. Fring, Jajah, Woize have all had their PR people in touch with me, and I'm aware of Mobiboo, Roq Viper and assorted others, most of which are just too embarassingly-monikered for me to talk to with a straight face.
But the company that I've encountered more "in the wild" than others has been Truphone, who seem to have been doing the rounds of conferences, exhibitions and assorted PR opportunities in an extremely assiduous fashion.
I have to confess that until yesterday I'd just thought "yeah, they're wireless VoIP supplier #37, whatever....". But then I had a rather interesting chat with their CTO at the Symbian show, where they had a stand, which rather opened my eyes.
I'd asked for a demo,and had one of their marketing guys call me via WiFi from a Nokia phone to my normal circuit-switched handset. No big deal, just standard VoWLAN via a SIP server, I thought (OK voice quality), until I looked at the caller ID... which was a mobile number starting in 07....
So, out of curiosity, I asked "what happens if I send an SMS to that number?".... and it worked. No cludged SMS-to-IM nonsense, it just works as SMS. Truphone apparently has an SMSC, and also manages to "hijack" the native Symbian/Nokia SMS client rather than needing a separate piece of software and in-box.
So far, so good. So, this is another weapon in the epic fight between the Virtuous Licenced Mobile Operators and Dastardly Upstart Over-the-Top VoIP providers, then?
No. There's a big difference, which really surprised me.
What, I wonder, do most people define as "a mobile operator"? A company owning spectrum? A company issuing SIM cards? A company with a network? Do MVNOs count?
How about this: a company with a mobile operator licence. But no spectrum. Nor MSCs, HLRs or all the rest of it. But with an approved (by Ofcom) tariff plan, and - get this - it's own mobile number range. Truphone is a not a VoIP company competing against mobile operators, it is a VoIP company that is a mobile operator in the eyes of the UK regulator.
Apparently, there's a whole bunch of bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through before this option is open to a new entrant. Apparently , the UK is a bit of a special case because of the regulatory regime. And apparently there's some interesting things this might mean in terms of regulatory precedents in the EU. And presumably as an "official" operator, there's all sorts of implications in terms of regulator-mandated requirements for interconnect, roaming etc. But I'll let someone else fill in the gaps.
(Note: although early Truphone users have got 07624 Isle-of-Man numbers - which apparently the ludicrous-sounding Mobiboo does as well - this isn't the whole story).
In the past, I've wondered whether it was important to have a dual-mode phone with two numbers - a normal mobile number and a fixed/SIP one. Various other FMC-type solutions like the various German cellular HomeZones also give you two numbers, fixed and cellular. Some enterprise "mobile extension" services try and "cloak" your employees' mobile handsets by just giving out a corporate fixed numbers (but SMS knocks this on the head).
But I think this is the first time someone's shown me a mobile with two mobile numbers provided by different operators. (OK, apart from some of the concepts Martin Wren-Hilton mentioned about Coffee Telecom, before he joined the estimable Mr Dunstone at CPW).
I'm still trying to get my head around where this puts Truphone on the overall mobile map. Perhaps the best way of thinking of it, is as an MVNO (which doesn't need a host MNO - ie "virtual" in the sense of no spectrum or infrastructure. But... when in range of WiFi... all the numbering & regulatory benefits of being a "real" operator.
Perhaps not so much "over the top" as "shortcut throught the middle".
(Commercial plug - I do a lot of work on consulting / advising firms around the FMC / VoIP / IMS space, although Truphone itself is not a current client. If this is of interest, please contact me)