The crusty John C. Dvorak has been a fixture in PC Magazine for many years. This week he penned a piece about Google Voice and free calling. In the opinion column John raised a few points that need to be expounded upon, and I'm in the kind of mood to do just that!
Now that Google is behind the latest push for free calls, the whole process will likely be accelerated worldwide. Soon enough we'll all be wondering why the whole process took so long, and why Google had to be behind it. Where was Microsoft? Or IBM? What about the almighty Apple? None of the CBG (Came Before Google) companies seem to have any telecom vision whatsoever.
Oh this is a juicy one, John. And you're right. Where is Yahoo? Where is AOL? Where is AT&T?
All of them were in VoIP long before Google. Let's start with Yahoo. They had the world by the balls. First of Yahoo Messenger is global in distribution and uptake. At one point it was the largest and most widely installed Instant Messaging client that had real voice and video capability from one of the majors (MSN, AOL being the others.) Under Brad Garlinghouse (now at AOL) and Jeff Bonforte (who built Gizmo on the sly while working for Michael Robertson-but that's another story) Yahoo made a key acquisition, and one that has ties to GrandCentral/Google Voice. That purchase was of DialPad, which at the time was led by Craig Walker and Vincent Paquet (now of GoogleVoice-the duo that founded GrandCentral). Dialpad, was purchased by Yahoo back in 2005 which in Internet Time is akin to the ice age now.
DialPad enabled Yahoo to immediately have a proven platform that delivered least cost routing, the Dialpad engine that routes international traffic and enables termination plus gives them the billing, OSS and capability to make a Pre-Paid offering that terminates and possibly originates PSTN calling. Clearly this meant that Yahoo was going after the international audience and is looking to go right after Skype. With DialPad, Yahoo also got major anti-fraud and fraudulent call detection, which was the core piece of Dialpad's engine.
That, along with Yahoo Messenger, cheap rates, low priced Dial In numbers (DIDs) and PSTN calling poised Yahoo to be a Skype rival and at the same time put them at odds with their biggest partners. The USA regional Bell companies-Verizon, Quest, SBC, AT&T, Bell South, Pacific Bell--whomever was branded whatever, back then. Basically, Yahoo was the engine behind many consumers DSL lines. And those lines were sold in partnership with the Baby Bells. So, all of a sudden someone at Yahoo, likely Garlinghouse who was regularly flying to New Jersey to see two of the Bells, got religion. And for all intents and purposes VoIP at Yahoo, despite all the great work and technology they had acquired, built, launched and promoted, went into the cancer ward. Today, Yahoo Messenger still has all the bells and whistles that Walker, Paquet, Garlinghouse and Bonforte (now with XOBNI) have built, though Yahoo has outsourced to Jajah, what Dialpad was purchased to do for the most part. But the promotion of Yahoo calling is nil.
Now let's look at AOL. Talk about killing something great before it even gets going, that's what happened at AOL with Voice. Back in 2005, AOL launched their VoIP service under the direction of strategy lead Jim Tobin (now with Comcast where most recently he was the head of voice strategy) and Ragui Kamel (most recently COO of Momentum Telecom.) They had built a very robust and complete calling service, which as quality goes, was the closest rival to AT&T's CallVantage, which to this day, was the best sounding VoIP calling service in the pre-HD era. The AOL offering was priced competitively and was feature rich. What's more Tobin and Kamel had a vision of where the market was going and were charting that course. Then New York came calling. It seemed that the top execs at Time Warner Cable had another idea. They wanted to be the voice kings inside AOL/TimeWarner as Voice would be the keys to their freedom, which by adding on revenue to their cable customers bills by adding on telephone services was going to be the key to a spin out and an IPO of their own. Almost overnight, the much ballyhooed AOL phone service died. AOL, being one of the most disfunctional companies around, now rivaled by Yahoo, back then decided to launch something else though. AIM Phone Line, which made a lot of sense. Instead of needing an ATA, just use the Instant Messaging Client. Perfect thinking, and much in line with what Yahoo was doing. Same kind of features, easy to use interface, a plug in architecture that was developer friendly. So AOL launched AIM Phone Line and then three years later, put it out to pasture also.
Which brings us to MSN. Actually, years back MSN Messenger worked with Net2Phone to deliver cheap VoIP calling using h.323, but that never really was something Microsoft chased and in reality, Voice and Telephony at Microsoft has never been a front burner issue. Voice in general is a feature to them, not a core business, and since Microsoft looks at the game much differently with their online services than either AOL or Yahoo ever did, they were always the company that was around the voice game, but never a big bucks player. That's different from EarthLink, which had a very good voice service called TrueVoice, and which for many of the Earthlink customers who used it, found that it was much like CallVantage. While it is still around today, as a bundle with DSL, Earthlink too has given up the VoIP ship it would seem.
So that sums up the history of the OTG players and VoIP historically.
Now what does this mean? Well back in 2005 I pointed out to AOL at a session that was supposed to be about the future that their scuttling of WASTE (a P2P technology) and lack of vision where they could have combined that with ICQ (remember that one) opened the door for Skype to become the winner in the new pipe game of distribution. With the demise of AIM Phone Line and AOL's Voice service, they pretty much took themselves out of the game not once, or twice, but three times. Talk about waste of shareholder dollars.
Dvorak sums things up well when he writes:
Yahoo might have been able to create such a service, but the company lost its way when it went Hollywood under Terry Semel, and it has failed to reset itself. Yahoo could have done Google Voice.
Once it dawns on everyone what Google has really done here, you can be sure mediocre clones from companies like Microsoft will suddenly appear. But those products will almost certainly be polluted with notions like "free phone calls for $10 a month!" and other idiocies.
Once again Google has managed to make other tech companies look foolish. It's a recurring theme.
He's right. The politics of VoIP and the lack of permissible competition in the USA has led to this. In many ways, VoIP is to the first decade of the 21st century, what DSL was like in the last decade of the 20th. If they can't smother it one way, they buy it up and kill it another. That's why Skype going NOMAD this week via their independence, and Google buying up Gizmo is so much a breath of fresh air. If you look at who is lobbying on Capital Hill the most for a change in how Voice and communications is regulated you'll find Google and Skype right up front.