Jingle’s 1-800-FREE-411 Service on Skype

skype_jingle_logo.JPGJingle Networks, the provider of the free 411 service 1-800-FREE411, is now easily accessible to Skype users in the United States. Skype is a leading Internet VoIP company that is looking to spread its wings and 1-800-FREE411 is a free Directory Assistance service in the U.S. – so this looks like a match made in heaven. Skype users could already access 1-800-FREE411 because Skype allows a user to access any phone number (no 911 support though) for free. This agreement simply makes it easier – Skype users can dial easily by adding “Free411USA” to their contact list.

TechCrunch doesn’t see the value in this:

Personally, I find this deal a little dumb. Skype users are generally on an Internet connected device, and a web search is almost always an easier way to find information on a business v. a 411 call.

I agree that on a large form-factor device like a desktop PC or a Laptop this doesn’t make sense, but Skype is not just on a Computer. Nowadays, skype is available on cordless handsets, WiFi handsets, on PDAs (mainly with WiFi access), and even trying hard to get on Cell phones (but not doing too well). Nonetheless, Skype is trying to get on each and every mobile/portable device and this is where this partnership makes sense.

Also, I would venture out to say that this partnership doesn’t involve a cost to either party. It’s just a win-win for Skype and Jingle. So, why not! I remember in the startup division I used to work in, we had a speech-recognition based system (much like Tellme), and we would make ‘Strategic Agreements’ like this every day (especially the kind that had no value). Seriously, both these companies could use some additional publicity anyway.

What could GrandCentral do for Google?

News is flying around the blogosphere and tech news sites, after TechCrunch broke the news that Google is in talks to acquire or has already acquired GrandCentral, the “one number for life for all your phones” telephony company.

The basic idea around GrandCentral is to give everyone one single number so that your business and personal associates don’t have to know all your numbers. Calls to the single number can be routed to a variety of phones, depending on rules set by the user. These rules can be set depending upon your relationship to the caller and the time of day. This concept is also called ‘one-number reachability”.

There are several strategic areas where GrandCentral fits within Google’s strategy.

  1. Connect to the Telephone Network: Google Talk doesn’t have connectivity to telephone numbers. In other words, Google Talk is a PC-to-PC calling application that only works with GTalk clients and other XMPP-based VoIP services. Enter GrandCentral, and voila! Google can terminate calls to telephone numbers.
  2. Collect User Information: Google knows your email address from Gmail or iGoogle, search habits from Web History, locations of interest from Google Maps, your locations from weather information… You get the picture – Google knows a lot about you. But Google doesn’t have a key ingredient to creating a full and complete profile about you; your phone numbers and who calls you. Incidentally, this is also one of the most private of all public information that people have. For example, I will almost-freely give away my email address (see my LinkedIn profile) but will almost never give my phone numbers unless I know the person well. With GrandCentral, Google has the opportunity to get all your numbers! Why does Google need this? so that one day Google can precisely target ads to you and customize search results not just to the context, but to your profile as well.
  3. Store voicemails and recorded calls forever: Getting a voicemail in your email inbox is easy stuff these days. GrandCentral allows you to record calls too. With GrandCentral, Google can store voicemail and recorded calls forever. Google may be able to transcribe these audio recordings and use it to serve customized ads and to enhance what Google knows about you.
  4. Call from a Web page: Google already has the store front, purchasing, payment, checkout available. All it needs is a way for customers to embed a call button on a web page and Google can take the fight to Skype and eBay.

PS. Although TechCrunch says “We are trying to nail down the acquisition price.”, the title of the post implies that Google is paying $50 million for GrandCentral. See http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/06/24/google-to-acquire-grand-central-for-50-million/.

Fring comes to Windows Mobile phones

FringFring has further expanded its mobile VoIP (mVoIP) community by adding Windows Mobile 5.0 and 6.0 series devices to its list of supported handsets. The software is going to work on around 300 Windows Mobile series 5.0 & 6.0 handsets and PDAs!

Fring is a VoIP-IM aggregation client, that allows fringsters to communicate for free with fring, Skype, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, hundreds of SIP providers, and even twitter. In addition to the 300 Windows Mobile phones and pocket PCs, Fring is currently available for 20+ Nokia/Symbian-based phones over 3G, GPRS or Wi-Fi. Fring is a free, downloadable mobile phone application. Fring also support calls to the PSTN via SkyOut and is enhanced with real-time presence.

While Fring is london-based (hence, the primary support for Nokia/Symbian based phones which is the primary phone type in Europe), adding Windows Mobile support will help Fring grow its user base in the US.

Raketu Integrated Social Networking, Communications, & IPTV offering shows a bleak picture

Raketu company logoRaketu combines social networking with integrated communications (VoIP calling, IM/SMS, info feeds) and media content (IPTV) – a one-stop shop for online socializing, communication, and entertainment from the desktop PC and mobile phones.

Let’s look at where Raketu stands in each area of social networking, communications, and IPTV.

For VoIP calling, Raketu has phone-to-phone and PC-to-phone calling. Phone-to-phone calling is initiated by entering the “Call to” and “Call from” from a web interface. Raketu plans to launch a mobile application that users can install on a mobile phone to make VoIP calls and send SMS and IM. These guys have really cheap calling rates; free unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles within the US and to 42 countries (limited time offer). Since I call Sri Lanka quite often, I know that the Raketu’s rates to Sri Lanka are really low. If Raketu can offer real cheap calls to Sri Lanka, they can offer cheap calls to anywhere!

However, the VoIP landscape has some well known players such as Gizmo, Fringland, Skype, Jajah, Google Talk, MSN. One could expect new players as well, given the low entry barriers associated with all things Internet.

Now, let’s look at IM and SMS. Raketu can talk to pretty much any IM client (Yahoo, MSN, AIM, ICQ, Google, Skype, Jabber), with conferencing across IM clients. Their secret sauce appears to be very simple; The Raketu application can speak every IM client’s protocol. Again, many of the IM players could easily do that.

When it comes to social network, again, Raketu is very limited. With much better known social networks such as Friendster, Linked In, myspace, and Facebook, Raketu just doesn’t have the momentum to be a leader.

Looking at IPTV, the story is similar. Joost and Babelgum have far better IPTV applications and much better content.

Many companies focus on one service, but Raketu is trying to carve out a niche by integrating social networking, communications, and video. Raketu has the right vision, but the problem is the competition.

Companies such as Joost are well positioned to do the same thing; Joost has a highly coveted IPTV service and has integrated IM (Jabber and Gmail) and news feed services and a “Widget Menu” to house a variety of future applications. Joost is formed by the experienced founders of Skype, who’ve been there and done that when it comes to Peer to Peer technology, VoIP, SMS, and IM. These companies tend to have more market recognition as well.

With all this competition (With Joost and Babelgum and other IM/SMS and VoIP providers), is there room for Raketu? Right now, Raketu does not look well positioned to lead the integrated service offering space.

Related Articles

Raketu review
Raketu to add mobility to Web-based VoIP

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4 Reasons you wont have Skype on Cell phones anytime soon

Skype has been an amazing success in the wireline domain, with over 171 million registered users, availability in 28 languages, and a large eco-system of WiFi handsets and Cordless Phones (Netgear WiFi Phone), Telecom gateways (iSkoot), and ATA/Gateways (VoSky). However, Skype has a very limited presence on cellular networks.

Its not for lacking of trying – Skype probably has engaged cellular service providers, but with very limited success. For example, Skype has a partnership with the cellular provider ‘3’ to offer Skype on cellphones, but using a gateway from iSkoot rather than installing a Skype client on the mobile phone. This allows ‘3’ to utilize its voice network capacity and measure minutes of use. More importantly, it appears to be a great ploy to use Skype buzz to promote ‘3’s services on the X-series handsets. Likewise, even Skype’s short lived promotion with German cellular operator E-Plus was to promote its 3G service via Skype. Similarly, a partnership with Motorola to develop a Skype client has gone nowhere.

The primary reason wireless operators baulk at Skype is the fear of cannibalizing voice ARPU and over-utilizing its data network. Skype’s wireless ambitions haven’t succeeded, so Skype has resorted to complaining and petitioning the FCC. I’m sure wireless operators will welcome Skype into their backyard now!

For the following reasons, Skype will not be a mainstream cellular application anytime soon:

  1. Most mobile phones are closed. It is virtually impossible for a user to install a Skype client without the cellular operators support. These are the run-of-the-mill phones that comprise about 90% of mobile phones in the US (PDA’s, Smartphones, or Blackberrys are not in this category).
  2. Most users couldn’t install applications in mobile phones. Even if the users could install applications on a phone, many users don’t know how to do it. In theory, users could install applications in Java phones, but difficult in practice for ordinary users. It is much easier to install an application on a PDA, Smartphone, or a Blackberry, but still few people do it.
  3. Cellular networks are not geared for Peer-to-Peer (P2P). Skype uses P2P, and if a Skype application on a mobile phone acts as a ‘supernode’, it can be sending and receiving transmissions even when the user is not on a Skype call. This can clog up todays wireless networks quickly (even 3G), reducing the service experience for other wireless users as well.
  4. No quality guarantees. Skype is a VoIP technology, and in packet data networks, transmissions have to compete with other transmissions. In most cases, voice communication requires constant transmission in both directions, but this cannot be guarateed without Qualty of Service (QoS) guarantees.

Without cooperation from cellular providers, Skype may be limited to either complaining and petitioning the FCC and working with gateway providers such as iSkoot

IPdrum has a clugy way to use Skype from a cell phone.

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Skype’s Wireless Strategy – Complaining

Skype is well known for its innovative technology and low cost strategy that has propelled it to be a VoIP darling. And I am a big fan of Skype. However, Skype has had difficulty in cracking the wireless (cellular) industry, so Skype has adopted a unique strategy – Complaining.

Skype petitioned the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission that governs telecommunications in the US) in February seeking a ruling that the Carterfone principle applies to wireless networks and asks the FCC to create an FCC-guided, industry-led forum “to ensure the openness of wireless networks.” (a form of Network neutrality). In other words, Skype wants the FCC to apply the famous 1968 Carterfone decision that allowed consumers to hook any device up to the phone network, so long as it did not harm the network, to the wireless network as well.

Skype’s interest in this matter is crystal clear – it wants wireless carriers to allow any software or application (including Skype, of course) to make calls over their network. Some Wireless carriers explicitly prohibit users from using certain applications such as Skype in their customer agreements (does anyone ever read them!), but not all do. Others have circumvented this potential problem by keeping their devices closed – by preventing, if not making it utterly impossible, to install applications on a wireless device.

There is a certain important caveat associated with the Carterfone case that such an action should be “privately beneficial without being publicly detrimental.” Now, I can bet you that wireless carriers such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile will fight this tooth and nail claiming that opening up the wireless network to any application could be very harmful to the overall network. Imagine some kind of virus application, or malware being installed on the network, which starts pinging all the other mobiles in the wireless network. This could easily bring down a wireless network and even prevent emergency calls from getting through.

Skype recognizes that its proposal would pose some thorny technical issues. That’s why Skype is suggesting the creation of an FCC-guided forum to handle technical specifications, one that would operate transparently and would involve all stakeholders in the issue. Skype’s view is that such a forum would ensure that “no entity can enforce techniques such as blocking, locking, or certification requirements that have the intention of preventing consumers from modifying or installing software unless it is reasonably proven that such software harms the network.”

I say good luck to that. Why should be FCC get involved in handling technical specifications for wireless carriers and vendors? FCC doesn’t do that for other industries, so why should FCC get involved here.

Part of the problem is the belief that there isn’t much competition, but there is healthy competition, as indicated by the steady decline of voice ARPU. In its filing, Skype argues that the arrival of 3G services could offer “tremendous new sources of price competition provided by entities such as Skype.”. It’s difficult to argue that the wireless industry lacks competition when numerous wireless carriers, including Amp’d mobile (see related article Amp’d Mobile in Bankruptcy), have entered the market in the last 5 years. Plus, if competition is a real issue, the FCC could grant more wireless licenses so that more wireless carriers can operate in any given area (not an easy thing).

Interestingly, in January 2007, Skype was complaining that high carrier data charges was preventing the use of Skype on wireless.

So far Skype has had little luck with this strategy. So Skype’s newest complaint is that mobile phones are ‘locked’. Skype also complained that “Carriers are using their considerable influence over handset design and usage to maintain control over and limit subscribers’ right to run software communications applications of their choosing.”

While most phones are in the ‘locked’ category, Skype doesn’t point out that not all phones are locked. Advanced Devices such as Smartphones, PDAs, and Blackberry devices that comprise a small but growing share of mobile phones are ‘open’. Interestingly, Skype doesn’t seem to have made much ground in this category. Of course, Skype will say that cellular contracts prohibit customers from using VoIP applications. First of all, I think only T-Mobile does this. Second, Skype is a Peer to Peer technology that assigns TCP/UDP ports dynamically and hence cannot be isolated and blocked successful. However, the difference is that Skype software is rather network intensive, so naturally wireless carriers are wary of Skype.

Interestingly, even Skype doesn’t allow any device to connect to the Skype telephony network. Tom Keating talks about an example here.

There are several reasons why Skype is not ready for cellular today. In a future article, I’ll articulate those reasons.