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Monday, March 26, 2007

VoIP is about more than telephony... but not multimedia

Last week's VON stimulated thoughts about the nature of VoIP, and especially wireless VoIP. I think that the voice market will become increasingly fragmented, going beyond today’s normal expectation of conversational “telephony”. Voice calls/sessions will be embedded within many other applications, many of which may not need to use the same telephony-centric features like phonebooks, voicemail or call registers. It seems likely that, far from having a single “operator” that mediates all voice traffic going to or from a user, that most individuals will avail themselves of multiple providers or applications.

To some extent this already happens – not just because many people have two mobile phones, or a mobile and a fixed line or corporate PBX extension, but because they obtain “voice connectivity” in other fashions.

Networked voice has already been embedded into myriad non-phone platforms and software: PC-based applications like IM, gaming consoles, camcorders and CCTV, alarm and security systems, medical alert systems, baby monitors, conferencing systems, podcasting and so forth. In all these cases, voice traffic does not have to involve a traditional “phone call”, involving numbers and regulation, but can exist in a completely parallel fashion to the user’s telephony experience. In many (but not all) cases, these techniques use IP connectivity.

In theory, it would perhaps be appropriate to divide the world between “Telephony over IP” and “Non-Telephony Voice over IP”. It is a matter of one’s personal viewpoint as to whether PC-to-PC based Internet calling (eg on-net, fixed Skype calls) would fall into the first or second category.

There is no reason to believe that this will be different in mobile, especially for applications like

- Gaming
- Corporate
- Entertainment / communities
- Conferencing

Of course, this fragmentation will not happen smoothly, or without definitions being blurred. This will lead to problems. Nobody would suggest that a piece of software enabling player-to-player chat “inside a game” should also be able to call emergency services in the real world. But on the other hand…. maybe it should be open to lawful interception? And how do you define something like Second Life – are the rules for a “game” the same as the rules for a “virtual world”? And how does this fit with the operators, and their capabilities, or terms of service?

As far as Disruptive Analysis is aware, nobody has yet quantified the volume of traffic involved in “non-telephony VoIP”. If one excludes PC-to-PC calling within clients like Skype, Yahoo, MSN and Google, it is probably still less than 1% of all overall voice minutes. It will probably never get beyond 10%, simply because of the sheer volume of plain-old boring voice calls used for mundane applications, by billions of users around the world. Interestingly, though, the proportion in 3G (and over DSL lines) may well be higher, reflecting the richer and more application-centric devices at the end-points (PCs, handhelds, smartphones, high-end featurephones and so on). But the overall value and profitability of those voice-embedded apps is likely to be disproportionately high, and not subject to the usual fierce competition & commoditisation of telephony.

One thing is certain – many such application-embedded voice calls will exist, at one end at least, outside of operators’ control. A Second Life avatar-to-avatar conversation may be between a PC user on a cable modem, a mobile phone via 3G, maybe even bridged into the real telephony network. Now in theory, an operator would love to have a Second Life-equivalent virtual world running as an IMS application, and in some cases this will probably happen. But in others, it seems inevitable that the application will run on a standalone basis, especially in the business world or in instances where software development has initially been more PC-centric.

The interesting thing is that the IMS community appears to have got the whole concept inside-out. It is pursuing the notion of "multimedia telephony", which seems largely predicated on the notion of adding in elements like video or messaging to a voice conversation. In my view, this is 1980s-style thinking reminiscent of ISDN. It's much more important to either add context to voice calls, or as discussed here, add voice in to other applications.

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