Daily Payload

The Death of VoIP and the Re-Birth of Multimedia Communications

October 1, 2007

While VoIP is still considered to be a very young technology in the eyes of many, it has made a huge impact on the telecommunications business. What once used to be expensive phone calls across the country or around the world now cost pennies. In many cases, calls are completely free.

However, cheap or free calls are not the reasons why VoIP was created. OK, in all fairness, that is probably why some people were engaged in this business. However, many people were interested in the potential of this technology for another reason: because it offered hope of significant changes in the way that people can communicate.

We have seen some evidence of this already with popular soft phones that can be used on PCs or smart phones. Skype is perhaps a prime example, with well over 100 million registered users and carrying more than 4% of the world's international long distance calls. With technologies like Skype, people have a new way to reach out and call somebody, see their face, and send text messages.

We have also seen web-based application sharing, file sharing networks, distance learning applications, and a host of other related technologies, all of which are very important, but none of which seamlessly integrate at any level. Thus, they operate mostly in isolation from the other applications, most important of which is the telephone.

What most users get from a VoIP service as it is defined and being defined today, including the monstrously complex IMS (see the report "IMS Goes From Hero to Zero"), is "yet another telephone." People want more than that. People expect new technology to bring significant new advantages, not merely a new way to make a phone call. And, people certainly do not want to be tied down to a PC to make a call, either.

VoIP is an unfortunate name. "Voice over IP" is, as the name implies, a system wherein your voice is carried over an IP network, like the Internet. However, experts who initiated work on "VoIP" actually had much higher goals for the technology than simply carrying voice over the Internet. What users were supposed to get was multimedia: the ability to send voice, chat, share an application, send a file, and more. Further, interacting with another person was supposed to be as simple as making a phone call, without the need to open a web browser, entering a sequence of digits on the computer and the phone, etc., in order to see a video or hear a presentation.

While the vision was not fully realized, the dream never faded, either. The industry has been very focused on getting basic VoIP technology working, taking longer than expected. Now that VoIP is working (and it is working!), experts are starting to turn their attention back to multimedia communications and ways to improve the way people communicate.

ITU-T SG16, which is the experts group that defined H.323, H.264, and many widely deployed multimedia standards, recently started a new study item on a new multimedia system called the Advanced Multimedia System, or H.325. H.325 picks up where H.323 and SIP left off. H.325 is intended to be a system that enables people to communicate with each other using a wide variety of applications. What is important is that "voice" is merely one application that will be defined for H.325, with the "core" of H.325 being entirely agnostic to the kinds and types of applications that will be used between two users. In fact, anybody will be able to write or define new applications for H.325. Imagine the possibilities!

H.325 will allow a person to communicate with another person using one or more devices and using one or more applications. A user will not be bound to a PC in order to talk and do application sharing at the same time, nor will the user be required to take extra steps in order to enable multimedia communication. As one example, a user could transfer a file to the person on the other end of a phone call by simply walking over to the computer and dragging the file to a phone icon. This is all possible because the devices are communicating with each other.

Nortel recently launched a marketing campaign that highlights exactly this kind of capability. They call the word hyperconnectivity and, while the word might sound a bit strange at first, it really is a good word. The concept behind hyperconnectivity is that devices should be able to communicate with each other, leveraging the advantages of various devices in order to enrich the lives of users. For example, one might use a stand-alone video terminal in order to have a high-definition video call with another person, during which the user transmits information stored on a handheld computer without having to enter an address or perform unusual steps. The video terminal and the handheld know about the call between the two users and are able to seamlessly work together.

While hyperconnectivity is broader than just real-time, person-to-person communications, it certainly provides an example of a market trend that we are starting to see happen: device interconnection.

This market trend toward interconnecting devices does not only stop with Nortel, other industry leaders are looking at the concept of the connected home and connected car, all of which share a similar objective to interconnect devices in order to make communication more natural and easier to use.

This might just be the death of "VoIP" as we know it today. What we are seeing is the re-birth of multimedia communications.