As the VoIP (which these days means something like 50% SIP, 40% Skype, 5% IAX and 5% Other) provider service industry has matured over the last 5 years the providers that have manged to survive have come to the realisation that a business based on transitting voice, which is the foundation of the telecoms industry, is actually a tough business to be in. Without the advantage of owning the single wire that runs into the customer premisis VoIP providers are competing not just on a global stage but also with a product that is rapidly converging towards a cost base whereby big players can offer it for free. Google Voice is the classic example with a service that currently offers free calls to the US and Canada and undoubtedly more destinations to follow as the service picks up steam. It makes it pretty tough for other North American based VoIP providers to compete with…

What the surviving organic VoIP Providers have realised is that the most attractive segment of the market is business customers, not because they spend more on calls but because they are more likely to be interested in extra features like a hosted PBX or an IVR. Residential customers are more interested in cheap/free calls with no bells and whistles and that results in razor thin margins. At the moment smaller VoIP Providers that have their own number ranges have the advantage that in most countries porting numbers is still onerous however as regulators and technology improves number porting inertia will quickly dissolve as customer retention mechanism, which is of course a good thing.

Ultimately voice services will come to resemble email services. Traditional telcos and ISPs will bundle a basic service into their broadband products, web portal companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft et al. will also offer a basic voice service that will integrate with their other offerings paid for by eyeball ownership when people check their voicemails etc. Dedicated VoIP Providers will continue to exist but will be thinned out to those offering specialist services to power users and business customers who will compete with the less nimble traditional telcos who will always be a couple of steps behind snapping at their heels.

The other thing that will happen is that a voice service won’t actually be a product at all instead it will evolve into a personalised media service starting with video which is already available on Skype, the eyeball portals via their IM networks and the more advanced SIP providers. Eventually it will reach a point where each person has multiple streams under their control and where at least one will be permanently connected. Personal streams will replace broadband connections, 99% of the population aren’t interested in IP addresses and routers, what they are interested in is being able to control the media on their TV, IP Phone, computer display etc. whether that media happens to be an interaction with another person, watching a movie, playing a game, attending a business meeting etc. is what people are interested in. Where the successor to the SIP protocol comes in will to be handle the signalling that makes switching the content of people’s streams seamless, the mechanism to place a call to talk to someone will be the same as a call to watch the latest movie rather than all the different controls and applications that currently exist.

That’s the future but how will it call come about? In the near future writing streaming media applications will become the same as writing a web application. Once that happens there will be an explosion of new voice/media applications, beyond click-to-call and video blogs, and VoIP Providers will be assimilated into software consultancies or vice-versa since they will be the same thing, instead of “web apps” we will have “web streams” undoubtedly coined as “Web S.0” or something equally geeky. In order for streaming media applications to reach the same level of ubiquity as static web applications new application servers are needed. The likes of FreeSWITCH, Asterisk, Wowza and Voxeo are leading the way – the likes of Sun, IBM and Microsoft also use all the SIP buzzwords in their niche products – but at the moment they and similar products require a higher level of expertise than the average web developer possess and more importantly they are not suitable for web hosting providers to deploy in their farms. Once the latter problem is solved the former will closely follow and when it does internet applications will break out of their browsers and expand to include, IP Phones, fax machines, the PSTN, mobiles and any other digital device or analogue device that is worthwhile enough for someone to have produced an Analog-to-Digital converter for.

While these streaming web application servers are gestating a bunch of specialised but limited services have sprung up to attempt to fill the void.

And there are undoubtedly more similar services around and I’m always interested to hear about them if anyone knows of any.

All of the services listed are limited in the types of web streaming applications that can be developed due to the tight integration between the development environment, signalling platform and media gateway. In addition the business model employed in a number of cases is too restrictive, for example forcing applications to adopt a per minute charge for users severely restricts the appeal to developers and in turn the users they are developing for who are all used to the much more flexible web application models: freemium, content, subscription etc.

The experience from mysipswitch/sipsorcery which due to the flexibility of Ruby dialplans are a type of streaming media application server has demonstrated that the key to such applications is to separate the signalling from the media which surprisingly is something none of the above services do, well it’s not so suprising given the business models employed, if you’re charging applications by the minute it’s the media you’re billing for not intelligent signalling. There are two huge advantages to a streaming application platform that has separated the signalling and media.

  • Media capabilities are limited by end-user devices rather than the application server. Softphones, IP Phones and smartphones such as the iPhone advance at a rapid rate and will invariably introduce media related features that are not supported by an application server. The signalling layer tends to be more stable, there are only so many ways to initiate, transfer and hangup a call.
  • Advanced media service providers can be cherry picked. Different service providers offer specialist services: text-to-speech, face recognition, speech transcription etc; and an application developer would benefit enormously from being able to use different services in their application rather than being constrained to the offerings or lack thereof from a single service provider.

All in all it’s an exciting time to watch the evolution of the streaming web.

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