Tuesday, June 19, 2007

iPhone: Apple's VoIP End-Game

Update 01/2008: SIP-based VoIP on the iPhone has been coming:

When Steve Jobs first demoed the iPhone in January 2007, he made it clear that reaching someone by typing their phone number onto a keypad was no-longer acceptable, albeit tolerated. Instead, he showed an Address Book interface that unifies the concept of a "Person" across all forms of communications on the iPhone, be it iChat, e-Mail, or a Normal Phone Call. Since version 10.2, Mac OS X has pushed Address Book integration across disparate Applications to unify the concept of a "Person", and iPhone simply builds upon the same philosophy.

While an "Address Book" seems as trivially simple a concept as it isn't new to anyone who's used a mobile phone within the last decade, seeing it executed "The Apple Way" in a larger synchronized ecosystem, helps paint a picture of possibilities that lie ahead.

Picture unlimited free calls over WiFi/IP without even having to "think about it", by simply picking a Person from your Address Book, and hitting "call" ... The same way you'd make a Normal Phone Call. All this powered behind-the-scenes by an outstandingly executed convergence of enabling technologies and open-protocols.

E-Mail addresses define a universal mechanism for a message to make its way into our INBOX, regardless of who provides the sender's E-Mail service. E-Mail functions on-top of open and interoperable standards. As such, there is vibrant competition to obtain "E-Mail Service".

Wouldn't it be nice to enjoy the same type of competitive and interoperable landscape when it comes to actually speaking to and video-conferencing with people? Beyond those silly phone numbers controlled by a handful of phone companies, what if we could pick from a myriad of competing "Providers" to obtain a global address allowing people to "call us" over the Internet, regardless of who their "Providers" are?

This is where SIP comes-in. It's been around and used on computers for a while, but it's been waiting for the right combination of enabling devices and software to truly break onto the handheld mainstream.

iPhone, with its WiFi capability, Address Book integration, and advanced operating system, is getting us one step closer.

A SIP Address looks just like an E-Mail address. A Person's SIP Address could easily be stored in the iPhone's Address Book. Apple could build SIP-capability right into the operating system, pre-configured with a number of existing SIP Providers for one-click setup, while still allowing for custom configuration, following a model very similar to E-Mail.

There are a few SIP Providers out there. But Apple could easily roll out its own SIP infrastructure as part of the .Mac framework, increasing their chances of providing a superior out-of-the-box experience, while promoting the .Mac brand to ... competitive usefulness. From here, the sky's the limit as to what Apple can do, leveraging iPhone's brand and near ubiquitous and still increasing WiFi penetration. Forget about fighting over 3G vs GSM. WiFi and IP are universal world-wide.

SIP call quality can be vastly superior -- think CD quality -- to a Normal Phone Call, as it strives to remain pure data exchange over the Internet Protocol on broadband connectivity, without ever getting wedged thru the codec limitations of any Normal Phone System.

When calling somebody, the iPhone could detect whether WiFi connectivity is available, and whether there is a SIP Address for the person i'm looking to call. If both these conditions are met, the iPhone could perform a "pure SIP Call" over the Internet, without ever touching the carrier's or any phone company's network. Blam. Free call. An icon might indicate to me that this call is a free, un-metered Voice-over-IP call.

Even if the person i'm trying to call doesn't have a SIP address, some SIP Providers offer the ability to relay calls to the Normal Phone System (aka PSTN in industry jargon), at substantial cost savings for unlimited plans, at which point all the iPhone has to care about, is that WiFi connectivity is present.

In terms of user experience, I wouldn't do anything differently: I'd pick the person I'm looking to call from my address book, and push the "call" button. What's behind-the-scenes is magic-sauce I, as a user, don't care about beyond vaguely knowing that the iPhone picked some Internet-WiFi thingie to save me money, and some icon is telling me I can keep talking for as long as I want.

Update 6/21/2007: As pointed out in comments below, WiFi+VoIP on "phones" aren't new, and carriers have somehow "dealt with it". Even if Apple further blurs the line between VoIP and Normal Phone Calls, there are still profit incentives and competitive market pressures that may very well entice AT&T to embrace VoIP.


djfred said...

I love it and it makes too much sense from Apple's perspective not to want to throw it in at some point. I can't see ATT being too enthusiastic about it though. My guess is that if the iPhone snares enough switchers for ATT, they'll decide that the benefits of adding VoIP (even more switchers) outweigh the loss in billable minutes.
It's going to happen sooner or later. The advantages of doing it first and under the protection of an exclusive contract is that everyone else will be scrambling to catch up.

Jeb said...

This is already done for the most part by Nokia and the E series of phones. I can already make great quality VOIP calls using TruPhone. I am able to pick GSM, VOIP, or what ever is available with my preference being either if both are available. Nokia has had this technology for at least a year and I have been making VOIP calls from my E61 at least 6 months ago and now on my E61i. TruPhone also gives me the option to allow calls that come to my TruPhone # which is a 10 digit regular phone number to be forwarded to my GSM Mobile number provided by ATT. All these fantastic options are already out there. Just go look for the Nokia E series of phones.

ngogerty said...

it won't happen for awhile. My guess is AT&T and apple have a deal for X years. then apple will sell an "open" version of the phone letting this happen. SIP makes sense and is consumer friendly but reduces your carrier to a commodity bit shifter. http://nickgogerty.typepad.com/designing_better_futures/2007/06/internet_eats_t.html

Anonymous said...

Yeah, man -- the problem is that mobile devices need to ride networks to be viable in the first place, and any wind of this getting back to the carriers would be a deal-breaker.

I mean, think about Apple trying to pull this with AT&T. Here they are trying to forge a relationship and for Apple to offer the option to bypass them completely would be an utter slap in the face.

I think the people most likely to try this would be someone like Google. They have the balls and resources to try something this major.

Perhaps Google could supply the infrastructure and Apple could ride it? That would be amazing.

Zec said...

yes, that's what I suggest in my article, sort of...

Jeff LaPorte said...

Chris - I think you're spot on in terms of where voice as an application is evolving to, and the role of the address book as a piece of real estate that can be used to deliver new services. The biggest barrier today is the access layer. There's still a long road to ubiquitous wifi, and broad device support. At EQO we've been working to extend the capabilities of the mobile address book in a way that provides the same advantages of wifi calling on non-wifi devices, making use of the existing circuit switched network to deliver calls at the local rate. Wifi will be a reality at some point but it is my belief that pragmatic approaches that are deployable on existing handsets are needed to bridge the gap until we reach access layer utopia :-)

Jeff LaPorte
EQO Communications

Chris Holland said...

@jeb: very cool, I vaguely knew this was being done elsewhere, just never had a chance to play with those phones. Do you have a review

@djfred, ngogerty, daniel: I believe there are plenty of opportunities and competitive market forces that would entice AT&T to embrace VoIP on iPhone.

Look at jeb's comment above, for one.

I posted some more thoughts here.

oliver said...

so what ever happened to the cisco iphone anyways? cisco.. sip.. iphone. hmm.

Chris Holland said...

@oliver: that's a darn good question :)

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