Monday, September 3, 2007

Imitate Skype or die

Earlier this year I was informed that I could make free calls to China, mobile or fixed, over the Chinese New Year. Aside from the fact that most Chinese were too busy eating to pick up the phone, it was quite an offer. In fact, I’m getting so many of these freebies of late that I could do the bulk of my communications for almost no cost. Of course it’s not quite that simple, but the message is appealing nonetheless.

I’d had a similar offer of free calls from AsiaXPAT if I signed up for its web site. Turns out that both offers were via the same company, a VoIP provider with the obligatory odd-ball name, in this case ZoIPPE. Zoippe, a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s e-Kong Group, was only launched at ITU Telecom World in December last year, so no doubt the flurry of activity is to boost its membership base in a very crowded market.

Skype wasn’t the first free VoIP provider on the scene, but somehow it had the right ingredients to catch the public’s eye (or ear, in this case) and succeed. Ever since then its imitators have come thick and fast. Zoippe also has a “Zoippe Out” category in homage to Skype Out, where users pay VoIP rates rather than get free calls. It’s not the only one to flatter Skype with the imitation either, with Italy’s Skypho also fairly blatant about where its influences came from.

Another provider that has cropped up on my radar is the Gizmo Project, although in this case it was being recommended by other users who wanted to communicate with me – always a good indication that it’s catching on. Like Skype, Gizmo is being praised because of its better-than-average voice quality. And both are also moving into the mobile world, with Gizmo partnering with Nokia on its N80 devices.

These are just some of the new offerings that seemingly sprout up every other week in the alternative telecom patch. Another I’ve mentioned here in the past is Fon, which is backed by the likes of Skype and Google and is rolling out what it calls the world’s largest wireless network through a concept dubbed “user-generated infrastructure.” Users buy a Fon wireless router, then agree to share their home broadband connection with other users. In this way, Fon users have free access anywhere they go in the world, or at least anywhere there is an open Fon router.

The latest news on the Fon front is that it might be teaming up with BT in the UK. According to one report, BT users would be able to use Wi-Fi phones at any Fon hotspot. Whether that happens or not, Fon already has a new challenger in the form of Meraki Networks. It’s using a similar “user-generated” concept but it’s based on wireless mesh routers. Another similarity with Fon is that it got backing from investment firm Sequoia, announced last week, and yet another is that they both could as well fail.

Wireless and VoIP are both sectors with fairly high attrition rates. In the case of VoIP, I stumbled across an interesting list dubbed the VoIP Graveyard recently. With almost 100 deceased VoIP providers, it’s a fairly obvious warning to others that Skype is the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps one way that providers could tap into new markets is to attract user communities – the way Zoippe is doing with the AsiaXPAT portal. Also in the case of Gizmo, it’s derived from the SIPphone platform, which was developed so that groups such as communities, universities and telcos could offer VoIP themselves. Today, partnering and peering is still one of the main aims of the Gizmo Project.

And then look at Skype, which has recently found its own user community thanks to new parent company eBay. So maybe providing branded services to different user constituencies is the way forward. We’ll keep an ear on Zoippe to find out, but in the meantime let’s hope it doesn’t end up in the VoIP Graveyard.


Anonymous said...

I found out that this ""odd-ball" name company can also do Jajah-type calls without downloading any software. Cool!!

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