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September 16, 2005

VOIP galore

Is it just me or has there suddenly been an outbreak of interest in VOIP clients for the mainstream?
You've got Skype, Google-Talk, Gizmo Project, and for the GNU headz, you have the super cool Gnomemeeting.

I suppose that before you can begin to have an appreciation of the technology, one must understand the origins of the simple IM clients. Yes, I was an early adopter of this stuff. Heck, before people fell in love with the GUI, people used text based IRC which was essentially one of the earliest real-time chat software pkgs(circa 1992). If you want to take it a step further, you could argue that the talk utility that is ubiquitous to most UNIX and Unix-like operating systems predated IRC. It gave people the ability to have unimpeded 1-on-1 conversations. Yep, it was pretty cool to be able to connect immediately to your buddy and have a short conversation.

Then something pretty interesting happened that would forever change IP communcation. Let's quickly zoom ahead in time to say 1998, people wanted to communicate from the comfort of their homes. The problem was that the majority were running M$ on their desktop PC. Gates and company had finally discovered the power of the internet somewhere around 1995, and there was a proliferation of windows boxen on the net. Unfortunately, wherever there are M$ boxes, viruses, spam, and trojans are soon to follow. So the various ISPs (AOL, Earthlink, etc), developed a huge FUD campaign which basically told all their customers to get a firewall because they did not want an infested network. So people bit on the hype and began to buy hardware and software firewalls.

Another ill side-effect of having a huge growth spurt of computers was the imminent shortage of IP addresses. So NAT was implemented to address the latter problem.

Soon, many of the more simplistic IP based communication programs no longer worked because they knew nothing about NAT or any other IP spoofing tactics. Straight IP-to-IP conversation ended and ushered in a new method of IP communication. So, now everyone is behind NAT'd firewalls. Many people use a router from their preferred vendor (ie. Linksys, Belkan, etc). As an exercise, I used Smoothwall, and haven't looked back since. Perhaps the only people who aren't using NAT would be the diehard dial-up modem users. Not everyone is very happy with the aftermath of the NAT revolution.
Take a look at John Walker's take on the affects of NAT.

Now that you've had your history lesson, it's time to discuss some of the GUI based P2P chat packages and their successors VOIP client.

Actually, I started with ICQ, I've forgotten my ICQ number, but you can get by visiting my old site. Later, I tried the now defunct firetalk because I wanted to have voice, not just a text chat. It became immediately clear that talking to people via the PC was really cool. I just didn't know very many people that had a clue about making phone calls via the computer. Eventually, people caught on due to the rising costs of telephone long distance. Understand that this was _well_ before the cell phones littered the US.

I especially liked firetalk because it allowed me to use whiteboard, while I conferenced. I talked with my brother in Haiti and people in Jamaica. It was a pretty cool program(albeit for M$ platform).

So, are people ready for VOIP? Not really sure. Some vendors are staking their future on the success of VOIP. Ebay has acquired Skype with hopes of increasing its revenue and stealing the technology. Dunno about you but I don't want to chat with any of the customers who buy my stuff on Ebay. I just want the money. No complaints about seller ratings either.
Not really sure what benefit Skype will provide to EBay customers. Then again, it really never is about customer satisfaction.

Vonage and Comcast offer VOIP service. If you want rid yourself of having to pay a service provider, you could build your own PBX, by using Asterisk. Yeah, Open source saves the day again...

Posted by AG at September 16, 2005 1:24 PM