Sunday, September 23, 2007

Who needs a phone company?

A while back I suggested that the phone company of the future will most likely look a lot different to that of today. In fact, you might not make calls through a phone company at all, but rather it will be just one of many services that you can access when you’re on the network. That day looks like it’s coming sooner rather than later.

A perfect example is Swedish mobile VoIP provider Rebtel, which has come up with a Facebook application called Reb Me. From what I can gather it allows Facebook users to call each other via Reb Me for the price of a local call or in some cases for free. Okay, it’s not that different to the likes of Skype and all the other VoIP offerings out there, but the fact that you can call outside users from within Facebook adds another dimension.

There’s also a bunch of other applications that allow you to do voice communications within Facebook, listed on Dan York’s disruptive telephony blog. Examples include WalkieTalkie, which provides private voice chat for Facebook groups, and Chatterbox, which allows users to leave voice messages on your Facebook profile. There are already a few others, but you can expect a lot more in the coming months given the way application developers are flocking to Facebook.

Another more recent voice app for Facebook is FWD, which used to be called Free World Dialup and which has been around for years. This one is particularly interesting given it has some high-profile backers: Tom Evslin, former co-founder of VoIP provider IXTC is an investor and board member; the CEO of the company is Dan Berninger, a VoIP pioneer and founder of the VON Coalition; while Jeff Pulver, the original founder of Free World Dialup, is chairman. Not a bad pedigree.

According to Evslin, the initial service will allow FWD members to exchange voice mail with each other as well as with Facebook members who install the FWD application. After that they will aim to connect users of other social networks with each other and with the many SIP-based VoIP networks that peer with FWD.

And he says voice mail is “just an interesting opening wedge for FWD on social networks.” Other services that can be expected are real-time communications, messaging and presence management, all of which are existing services on FWD itself.

According to Evslin, the end goal will be to link all of the islands of communications that exist in the VoIP world and within social networking and connect them altogether. “At FWD we believe that real-time Internet-based communication including voice is ready to move from islands of service – think of Skype and Facebook as big islands – to universal connectivity,” he wrote in a posting on his web site. “We think that off-island service will be as free of incremental costs as on-island service is today. This Internet-based communication – unlike today’s islands of VoIP service – is a much more capable replacement for, not an evolution of, the current tolled phone service.”

And of course FWD won’t be the only company out there trying to tie all of the various networks together. If you think the VoIP space is busy now, it will only get more congested.

Just as a small sampler of what the future may hold, imagine if anyone could embed VoIP into their own Flash-based applications. That’s what a company called Ribbet Phone is doing. It has a “phone component” that developers can put in any standard Flash-based browser app, so you can make telephone calls directly from a browser, as well as add other communications services.

Yep, phone service – not to mention your phone company – is going to look a lot different in the next couple of years, if not sooner. – Geoff Long

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