Thursday, March 29, 2007

Been really busy designing this week

Sorry for the drop out in posts... just been working really hard. So, as a complete dodge of my blogging responsibilities, let me clue you in to Tom's favorite, but probably useless, mashup of the day... Twitter Vision.

Twitter vision mashes up Twitter text messages with google maps, so that when anybody sends a message, it shows up with their picture on a world map. It's really pretty cool, and in some small measure, what it must be like for God to be listening in on our thoughts. (Shoot... God, ignore that last thought.)

I suppose the general concept is pretty cool, and may even have some applications in a battlefield sort of scenario. Each soldier has a headset, it runs through speech to text and a GPS unit, and the commanders get real time, geo located battlefield intelligence. But, for Twitter Vision, it's more about hearing twenty somethings whine about their hangover.

I'm sort of fascinated. I wonder how many ignorant Americans are wondering why there are no Twitter messages coming from Nigeria. Like my friend Auri says, all these personality disorders are an American invention. In Belarus, people are too busy trying to find something decent to eat to worry about being depressed. Suppose they're too busy to Twitter too.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Verizon Patent Analysis

Given the exploits of my ancestors, you might think that I would be a big fan of patents. In fact, I am, but I have to admit, some of the patents I see look pretty darn sketch.

Which brings me to this wonderful analysis of the patents that Verizon used against Vonage. The most troubling one is the thought that Verizon actually patented the TDM to Packet Gateway. Remember that story about the guy who patented the XOR chip that made the blinking cursor? I can just imagine that "Can you hear me know?" guy knocking on every gateway and service provider door saying something different.

I should thank all those customers who have retained me in the last few years to work on their defense against the VoIP patent trolls, but that fact is that I am not, nor will ever be, a patent attorney. (Unlike patent attorneys, I laugh. A joke! It's a joke! You gotta tell them when it's a joke.) If I wasn't so darn busy, I would read it through and figure it out. Anyone out there bored? Let me know.

Is this a joke?

Gosh, I don't even know where to start with this one....

So, my mother calls me up a few weeks ago, before I left Comverse, and says, "Tom, I'm really confused about the differences between the P-CSCF and the S-SCSF... I know one is has something to do with replacing session border controllers, or is it a replacement for the HLR? No, that can't be right, can it? You really need to help me. I gotta get this done before my bridge game tonight."

"Well, Mom... I'm not quite too sure myself, as I don't even know what rev of IMS I'm designing to. Besides, why don't you leave all that IMS development to the Tier 1 NEPs. It's why they invented IMS in the first place, so that the smaller vendors could get locked out, while at the same time, locking in those large carriers to many more years of big, expensive iron. Besides, IMS is just an architecture, not a definitive specification, so why don't you call your bridge game an IMS compliant activity, and everyone will be happy. "

The title is so true, in so many ways.

p.s. I am pretty sure that if you took the entirety of the IMS specifications, in all the variances and splendor, and printed it out and put it in a big pile, the average human being standing upon it would not be able to survive the fall.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Next Generation Communications Primer

Now that I've stuck my foot firmly in my mouth, it's time to come clean on what I think the future of our industry is. I'll put together a comprehensive article about it soon, but as a preface to it, here's my "Next Generation Communications Primer". Each item in the list is critical to understand, because I believe it will have a deep impact on every aspect of our technology and our business. You may not agree with some of the items on the list, but I encourage you to at least become passingly familiar with them, so that your head will be clear when the arguments are made. This list is not exhaustive, and I cannot say which are the most important things on it, but I can say that each is critical to understand.

  1. Web 2.0 : This takes the cake for the most overused marketing term of the decade, I know, but the concepts behind Web 2.0 are absolutely critical and real. Tim O'Reilly wrote "What is Web 2.0" more than a year ago, describing what it really means. Read this article, and commit it to memory. When Om recently said that there was nothing Web 2.0 about Grand Central, this paper describes what Om meant. Even though the paper itself doesn't address voice specifically, it does provide a basic understanding of the current state-of-the-art of web technologies. Web 2.0 does not mean "whatever we do next on the web"... it has a specific meaning for the design and deployment of web applications.
  2. Amazon Turks : I've been blogging on this for a while. The concept behind turks is that it is artificial artificial intelligence; it's a way for a computer program to call a function that is performed by a real, live human being. Even more so, it does so in a way that can use a thousand people for a single hour, and then never again. Amazon Turks makes human labor available at Internet scale. The implication for telephony? Here's a quick one: how about professional receptionists that you rent out for a minute at a time? Another one - do you want to test out your new service with ten thousand people calling at once? Another one - how about near real time transcription of conferences and messages? Another one... do you get my point? The applications are endless.
  3. The rest of the Amazon Web services : It is important that you understand the implications of storage and computing power on demand. So much of our industry depends on capacity... both over and under. With the Amazon Web Services, you only need what you need. You can nearly instantly ramp it up, and down. You may argue that Amazon will not be the final vendor for this sort of technology... whatever. Somebody will.
  4. New Presence : Alec Saunders and his crew at Iotum developed an application that finally gives presence back to the user, and away from the service provider. Presence is so earth shattering because it's the first time human beings can express, in real time, their preferences for how, when and from whom they would like be contacted.
  5. Long Tail : The long tail refers to the phenomenon for large distributions, where there are a small number of very heavily weighted items in the distribution, and the rest of the items in the collection have, by comparison, a small weighting. As an example in music, something like 80% of the sales used to be in the Top 40. Since the Internet radically lowers the barriers to entry and costs of sales, it becomes possible to be profitable with a much smaller audience. In addition, since it's possible to offer a wider selection of products and services, increasingly larger amounts of sales go to the tail than the head. The implication for telephony is clear - services like voicemail which are big sellers remain that way, but the bulk of revenue is in the smaller services, now possible because of VoIP.
  6. Ruby On Rails and The Geeks : The technical and cultural shift of web development outside of our industry is massive. I could go on about how blindingly fast web development has become, but it's only half of that story. Today's geeks live with a different ethos about asking permission, content ownership and architecture, which results in massively scalable applications which are simple to write and deploy. Because of web services and VXML, telephony development is now web development. You don't need a million dollars or months of development to deploy innovative services. No one does.
  7. The carrier-class argument no longer holds. It used to be that innovative applications for telephony were difficult to scale because you could only stack so many Dialogic cards in a server, and so many servers in a rack, before it became silly. Packet based architectures are intrinsically more stable and robust than TDM architectures, scale better, are easier to deploy and are less expensive to develop and maintain. In fact, architectures such as TDM and (in some ways) IMS actually contribute to lower reliability and innovation. Pure SIP, and it's son P2P SIP, are systematically better.
  8. Programmable Web : Please visit programmable web. The web is now the platform, not a 2 million dollar piece of iron. When's the last time you heard of an interesting application being delivered on any other platform? If you think that mashups are the province of geeks, I would remind you that every successful travel site is now a mashup. If you think there are no good web APIs for telephony, I would have you visit PhoneGnome, TellMe, Voxeo, FlatPlanetPhoneCompany, JaJah, Jaduka...

Goodbye to Von : Part 2

I realized I only told half of the story during part one, but before I get to that, a little bird told me that my last post about VON might upset Jeff Pulver. Let's hit that one right away.

If your name ISN'T Jeff, then let me be absolutely clear that Jeff is in every way a decent and talented man, in my own personal pantheon of gods, a visionary, brilliant and worthy of every respect he's given and worthy of every dollar he makes. I have the deepest respect for Jeff, and don't challenge me on that one. I'm a wimpy geek by day, but I'm a Tang Soo Do Cho Dan by night.

If your name IS Jeff, and my post upset you, then I have wronged you in the most egregious way, and please accept my deepest apologies. I draw a clear line between you and the show, and even though the show isn't where I'm at, it is clearly where a lot of people are productive, happy and fulfilled. You are the reason the show exists, and in large measure, why our industry exists. My family, and the families of thousands of others, have, in part, you to to thank for the jobs we have due to your vision, hard work and good character. Truth be told, I am growing more upset by the day that I am not out there in California, as I miss seeing all of you. Andy is quite right - VON is still where business is done. But there are dark clouds on the horizon, and I don't think I'll hang around for the rain to come.

The second half of the story is filled with negative emotions. Scared... upset... blind-sided. I feel as though I've woken from a fog. There's a market force that's growing outside of our VoIP world that will wash away those that aren't looking for it, and will challenge those that do. Since the mashup camp this January, it's come into clear focus in my vision, and I'm afraid for my career, and those of my comrades. It's time to move, and move right now. My honest, strong and deep feelings are that the majority of players in our market are really missing what's happening in communications today. From my view of the speaking topics and theme of this VON show, I can only assume that this problem extends to the show itself. I understand why the show has taken the direction it has, especially into Video, and far be it from me to criticize that. There's a lot of money to be made in them hills... I wish all of those involved good luck. My blog, and my day to day work, are to educate those around me about the future of communications. It's what I do.

For me, from the very first day of my career, and I hope every day since, I have constantly sought out ground zero of communications technology. In my opinion, I am sad that it's no longer at the VON show, but I'm speaking more about my needs and opinions than my estimation of others. The VON show, Jeff Pulver, and all of my friends have their own agendas, needs and wants. God bless them.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Jon Arnold on DiamondWare

Fantastic post this morning from Jon, speaking about Keith Weiner's work on second life. You should really check it out to get a flavor of what's new in the gaming space. And, if Brant Helf, Peter Chu, David Lindberg or any of the old PictureTel gang's out there... check this out... they are using Siren!!! Sweet.

End of an era... Goodbye to VON

It's the end of an era for me.... for the first time in a decade, I am not going to the VON show. For the first time since my nine year old daughter was born, I am not attending. And that's not just the US shows, throw a couple of VON Canada's and Europe's in there, too. It's a bit sad, but we all have to move on sometime, and my time has arrived. Although it's partially because I'm doing a lot of traveling lately, and some is because I'm swamped with work, it's mostly because VON has failed to rise above the noise in my technical life. As a (hopefully) cutting edge technologist, the VON show is simply not where it's at, especially with regards to communications. Today's VON show is ruled by business development arms of increasingly larger companies, not by thought leaders driving real communication innovation. I'll miss all my friends, heck... I'll even miss Jeff Pulver's stupid purple shirts. I probably won't miss the Herding Cats. (Are they playing again?) I'll miss Carl Ford's witty banter and I'll miss giving Diana my presentation about five minutes before I give it to the audience. But more than that, I miss the feeling of walking around technologists that are doing things that blow my mind, which is why I'm hanging around the O'Reilly show these days.

And there were some pretty good times :
  • I remember the first time I was a speaker in 1998, where I was director of engineering for NetPhone, and gave the talk for the CEO about RTP header compression in H.323. (Boy, was I wrong. For a goof, I gave the same talk in 2005. That was a hoot.)
  • I remember in Fall 1999, where my teams were doing the user interface work for PingTel, and the H.323 stack for e-tel, the two leading IP phones at the time. Talk about Chinese walls. Ralph Hayon from Congruency would come by the booth for a one-stop-shop for competitive information, which we never ever gave him, but he would try.
  • I remember in the Fall of 2000, when we were working full scale on commercializing the SIP code from Columbia, and I had those horrible talks with a senior manager about why trying to patent SIP was a bad idea.
  • I remember the fall of 2001, where flying to the VON show was the first flight I took after 9/11. You know, that's how important VON was back then.
  • I remember the lean times, where our industry was devastated, but VON was a place to go to commiserate.
  • I remember seeing the market come back in 2005, and seeing the show floor fill back up, and talking about "remember when"
  • I remember last spring looking at the Acme Packet booth, and seeing something like 19 of the top 20 carriers had purchased their equipment, and how good I felt for Andy and Pat, two of the best guys in this market.
I'll see all of you on the other side. Maybe I'm too old of a PictureTel veteran to really get excited about video now, or maybe it's just that I'm more about creating a new world than milking the old one, but either way - I will miss the people.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Happy St. Patricks Day, You Headbanger!

As you've probably noticed, I love to find an image to go with my posts. Often, I can't really convey my emotions so well in words, and pictures seem to do the trick.

Anyways, I thought I'd post something for St. Patrick's Day, as I am now "Irish-by-marriage", and I wanted to show my Irish pride and spread a little cheer. So, I'm searching for a good picture of a leprechaun, and I'm not satisfied. You get the stupid line-art leprechauns, first of all. They look really dorky. Sort of this awful combination of twelve year old girl cute and trailer park dorky. (If ANY person who reads this lives in a trailer park, I apologize. However, I think the chances of that are vanishingly small). Then, you get some pictures of a drunk guy in a green suit passed out in front of a bar. Not cool for St. Paddy's day. But then, genius hits. Lucky.

In my Irish house, we have two visitors: Lucky and Seamus. Lucky is the evil one. He tips over chairs, turns the milk green... stuff like that. Seamus is cool, and leaves gold chocolate coins all over the house. So I thought, hey! Lucky. Lucky charms. Always after me Lucky Charms. So, I search for it, and that's when I find me pot of gold.

How cool is this picture? It's like I want to make that devil sign with my hands, nod my head up and down, and remember that time in 1987 when I saw Ronnie James Dio at Oxford Plains, Maine in the Monsters of Rock Tour. It's so cool that I forgot all about those kids chasing Lucky, and that's how cool I want your St. Patrick's Day to be.

The New Voice Over IP Mantra

As I restart my consulting and custom development practice, I find it useful, at all times and everywhere, to chant my new mantra. After being in the traditional carrier space for so long, feeling the suffering that only comes from seeking satisfaction from something inherently unsatisfying, I feel as though I have finally achieved enlightenment. Just like Buddha, after achieving inner clarity, I spent a few weeks ambivalent, just sort of hanging around with this new knowledge. But now, my compassion is getting the better of me, and I wish to share this inner knowledge with all you, Buddhas to be.

Sit down in a quiet spot, turn down the lights and center on your breath. Feel the breath on your upper lip as you breath out. As you sit, repeat the following mantra, keeping it close to your heart.

Integrating real time communications with the business process makes businesses faster, saves money, and increases customer satisfaction. Integrating real time communications with the business process makes businesses faster, saves money, and increases customer satisfaction. Integrating real time communications with the business process makes businesses faster, saves money, and increases customer satisfaction.

Remember, pain is unavoidable, but suffering is your choice.

Why JetBlue Will Succeed

Seems as though everyone wants to jump on the current "JetBlue really screwed up" bandwagon-to predict its imminent demise. You know, I don't think so.

I'm sitting in the Oakland Airport waiting for my flight back home to Cape Cod. I've been away quite a bit lately, and I miss my bed, my wife and home cooking. Unfortunately, I also missed my flight. You see, today is the 15th, and yesterday was the 14th, and my ticket said 14, not 15. For Caeser and I, the ides of March suck. Et tu, Brutus?

Armed with a long and honorable past of high school screwups of this very nature, my dog face was on. I shuffled up to the agent, threw myself on the counter and asked for mercy. Now think with me. If you had to pick ANY airline in the world in this situation, who would you pick? I am willing to bet that anyone who's flown JetBlue more than twice would pick JetBlue. Of course, they got me on tonight's flight, window seat and all, even though it took the manager's permission, a baggage handstand and some quick typing. Ruthie, my agent, tried to help me. She really did. And even if she couldn't pull it off, you could tell she's trying.

JetBlue isn't going anywhere but up, because Ruthie and all her clones work there. Good service is all about caring about the customer, and having the power to make them happy. For me, this is what JetBlue is. So, when I go up, I'm going JetBlue.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


The one thing I have noticed about myself is that, in a strange situation, I go back to what works. For instance, I practice Karate, and for fun, I attend a Judo class. If I'm in a Judo class, and I just can't seem to find a good way to throw my opponent, I just might punch him. Karate is good at that.

I'm here in San Jose (loving it, not loving the distance from family), and I think I'm going back to what works. Or should I say, I am continually amazed at the extremely high level of technical savvy out here, and I think I overcompensate by going back to my East coast roots - back to the money.

If I hear about another Web 2.0 company that's going to create some sort of social network virally, and then see someone wave their hands about monetizing through advertisements... I'm going to barf. Not that I don't like the services I'm hearing about, because I do. Not that I don't think these guys are wicked (like that Boston word?) smart, because they are. I'm going to barf because to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To the valley entrepreneur, every company looks like MySpace. I just want to hear somebody out here say "I'm going to have this new website that's so valuable that I'm going to charge the mother f*ckers for using it." Just once. Humor me. There's somebody out there in downtown San Jose with the cajones to suggest that somebody other than Google AdSense pay for a service. It's almost this sort of pathological self-esteem issue, where they value the service less than the subscriber. No - sorry - it's probably more accurate to say that the service exists only to attract the subscribers, so I can do stuff to them later on, but don't really ask what that might be.

Sort of funny for a VoIP guy to say, huh? Free calling? VoIP? Hello? Internally, I'm quite clear about the dismal failure telecom companies are in technology, especially web technologies. But, declining ARPUs or not, I gotta love their business. People make a call, and they bill them. So, sweet. Lovey, let's open a bottle of bubbly and toast to our West coast brothers.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Your Blog and a token will get you on the T

As I was cruising the blog-o-sphere tonight, I happened upon a blog that had this banner from Technorati, claiming the blog I was reading was worth something like $4,221.00 or something. When I clicked on it, I was sent over to Technorati and it asked me for my blog address to value it. I mistyped the URL, and this is what came back. Rather than putting the real URL in there, and actually figuring it out, I think I like what this says better. Like they say in Boston, your blog and a token will get you on the T.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Podcast : Sean O'Sullivan and MySay

Just completed a podcast with Sean O'Sullivan. At the recent E-Tel Show, I had the pleasure of hearing about an upcoming service called MySay. MySay is a sort of community mailbox, where you can leave voice mail messages for others to hear. Sean was such a good speaker, with a really interesting service, that I wanted to share it with you.

Why Packet Networks are More Reliable than the PSTN

Hard to believe? Give me a minute of your time.

In a recent post, Patrick made a comment about Van Jacobson's work at Cisco, and provided a link to a recent presentation called "A New Way to Look at Networking." I looked at this video a while ago, and it was a watershed moment for me. If you are unfamiliar with Van Jacobson, here's a section from Wikipedia:
Jacobson is best known for his work in IP network performance and scaling; his work redesigning TCP/IP's flow control algorithms to better handle congestion is said to have saved the Internet from collapsing due to traffic in 1988-1989. He is also well-known for the TCP/IP Header Compression protocol described in RFC1144, mainly meant to improve performance over low-speed links, popularly known as Van Jacobson TCP/IP Header Compression. Furthermore he has co-written a few widely used network diagnostics tools, such as traceroute, pathchar and tcpdump.
Now, Van Jacobson is working on the next generation Internet. In particular, the current generation of IP networking is based on the ideas of peer to peer communication, where pair wise conversations dominate the usage patterns, and we focus on the endpoints. The next generation of internet needs to focus on the data, not the endpoints. I deeply recommend that, if you are CTO or technical professional in the communications field, that you watch this video and commit it to memory.

In this talk, he makes an excellent point, which I want to amplify here. Since the topology of the phone network depends on concentrating ten thousand pairs of wires at the central office, it became really important to make the equipment at the central office bulletproof. Why? Because you had a physical concentration of wires at one place, and it was basically impractical to run a second set of wires somewhere else. Notice that in packet networks, this isn't the case, and there are several paths to the same point. The PSTN was basically unreliable, so you needed to make the elements reliable. In data networks, this is exactly opposite.

The business ramification? You have Verizon's thousands of central offices full of multi-million dollar switches. Yahoo! Thousands of $500.00 PCs. When a Verizon switch goes down, you hear about it on the 6 O'clock news. When a Yahoo! PC goes down, well... who cares? Lots of other servers to serve you that web page.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Amazon Web Services in Telephony

With all this talk about Amazon Turks, I wanted to push another idea out there which I think is just as important : EC2 and S3.

EC2 stands for the "Elastic Computing Cloud", which is Amazon's rent-a-server service. Need a server for an hour? Rent it for an hour. You package your standard web-like program in their image, upload it, and off you go. Need a thousand servers right now? Go get them. Not now? Get rid of them. I remember a few years ago I worked on this application for a "get out the vote" effort in Utah, where we had crazy traffic, but only for a few days.

S3 is the same sort of deal for storage. Need storage, go get it. It's fairly inexpensive too. This is a pretty interesting thing for a different reason: cash flow. As a service provider, you don't need to scale your resources until you scale your business. From a technical standpoint, nothing changes. All good.

Does the name Erlang ring a bell? If you happen to be a telephone engineer, it should. Mr. Erlang figured out how many telephone lines you needed to handle the traffic from a set of subscribers. For instance, everyone doesn't pick up the phone at the same time in a town and talk at once. On average, maybe one in a hundred people are using the phone at any one time. To be safe, telephone switches are typically setup to handle ten times that amount, just in case everyone decides to let their fingers to the walking. In Israel, they call it a "Scud Event". When a Scud missile flies across the country, all the grandmothers call to make sure everyone's OK. So, you actually have about ten times more hardware than what you would typically use, just in case somebody decides to start a war, or the equivalent.

How does this apply? Well, consider EC2. If you could deploy servers "on demand", then you could ramp up capacity when you needed it. You might think that it takes longer than a few seconds to deploy a server, and it does need a little more time than that, but peak usage actually grows rather slowly on the phone system, as the growth comes not only from new calls, but longer ones. The impact? One tenth the amount of hardware? Not bad.

Doesn't stop there. A big thing in telephony is resilience, which typically means redundant hardware. (Note to self : this is the wrong time to get on a soap box about how idiotic it is that telephony guys are always fighting a fragile network through making each element stronger instead of making the system stronger. They never watched that Borg episode in Star Trek, apparently.) If you could ramp up other servers, you could radically increase reliability at a lower cost. In this, don't let your head stop at failure of hardware, keep it moving to think about distributed denial of service attacks, or military applications. For this, EC2 and S3 shines.

Web 2.0 Expo, here I come!

In a surprising lack of judgement, the nice folks at O'Reilly have asked me to join them in San Francisco from April 15th to April 19th to handle a session called "Writing Voice Mashups with Mechanical Turks and Maps". Brady Forrest asked me if I would extend the nurse's interface so to include geo-location and maps, and since I've been really fascinated with Wheel of Food, I couldn't resist.

Here's the abstract :
A few short years ago, communications applications required millions of dollars, teams of highly skilled engineers, access to networks and many months of time. Telephony Mashups rewrite that equation, and make it possible to blend communications services into applications quickly and easily.

In this workshop, led by 2007 O'Reilly Mashup Winner Thomas Howe, we look at how these mashups are created, and at the implementation details in depth. Using After Hours Doctor's Office as an example, every part of the mashup will be reviewed in code-level detail, including a Voice XML front end, the software interfaces to the Amazon Mechanical Turk nurses, and mapping displays to help direct the patient to a local health care facility. The attendees will leave with a good understanding of the technology and effort required to write their own compelling application.

A picture of my desk?

In general, I hate chain letters. It's the imperfect combination of superstition (I hate superstition), annoyance (I hate annoyance) and this sort of anxiety-control behavior (I'm not even going into that one so early in the day). However, in a temporary change of heart for a friend, I have responded to Moshe's request to blog a picture of my desk. And here it is.

I was going to clean it up before I posted this, but then it wouldn't be MY desk - it would be some cleaned up desk formally known as my desk. May I draw your attention to the details: my favorite Blue Snowball microphone in the top right, below, a single LL Bean Duck Boot on the floor identifying my as a died-in-the-wool New Englander, my wife's crazy big calculator on the left, on top of my very excellent HP reverse Polish calculator from my undergraduate days nearly twenty years ago. And, at the center, my trusty Power G4 Mac, at one time export restricted as a munition, because it's just that fast.

Phones? Find my Nokia E-62 for day to day use, my nameless $25.00 Nokia I bought at WalMart when I need to test an application using a dumb phone, and a two line ATT handset connected to Verizon PSTN and Vonage. On the desktop, Skype is open, with Gizmo in there somewhere.

Now Moshe, I hope you are happy.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

New Version of Iotum Talk Now

I think the real definition of a killer application is when you'll purchase the platform just for the app.

I think the new version of Iotum's Talk Now might qualify here, as I do not own a Blackberry, but am getting to the point where I would purchase one just to use Alec's service. Iotum's talk now takes presence from a number of connected users, and allows them to express the desire to speak with each other, and the presence to tell them when it's possible. Essentially, when you use this service, telephone tag goes way down, along with interruptions from those people you do most of your communicating with. Get the details here while I think of some way to convince my wife not to kill me for buying three phones in four months.

Surprise Dialer : My Favorite "Should Be A Service"

Hats off to Anh Nguyen for his Surprise Dialer, my favorite of the student mashups (not as psychologically jarring as Summer's) at the ETel show. Surprise Dialer accepts voice mail messages from a number of people, then delivers them all at once to someone on their birthday. Having been a recent victim of a 40th birthday surprise party, it's really hard to deny you are loved when there's a crowd of people screaming it at you. Anh used PHP and Asterisk for his mashup, and if you look at his web page, did a great job of packaging and explaining. I really enjoyed seeing it, and I would use that service, all the time.

Maybe if we took Anh's business sense, with Summer's creativity.... quick. Get a VC down there.

Monday, March 05, 2007

It's not my Imagination - Canada is cold

It's not my imagination, Canada is cold. Just had dinner with Jon, where I paid my dinner debt. Silly me - I thought that I could get away with a suit coat in Toronto in March by running from car to building, and from building to car. Jon came over, and we decided to walk up the block to a restaurant. I figure hey - I can walk three blocks anywhere, any time. I suppose I did, but it was d*mn cold.

A fine bottle of Cotes du Rhone later, we left the Vietnamese restaurant and walked back to the hotel, and frankly, it took me about ten minutes to get my voice back. Why? Because Canada is cold. D*mn cold. How cold? -26 degrees Celsius. I am now convinced that those crazy Canucks use Celsius so that they don't freak out when it gets cold. -26 Celsius is -15 degrees Fahrenheit, which would freak out anyone with half a brain. Of course, anyone with half a brain would bring a down coat to Toronto in March, now wouldn't they?

The Most Overlooked Speaker of ETel

The most overlooked speaker of E-Tel? Moshe Maeir of Flat Planet Phone Company.

Moshe was part of Om Malik's very excellent launchpad event, and presented his company to the audience. In the talk, I think the most exciting idea of the show was lost, and I wanted to point it out. Moshe was speaking about his company's ability to setup a phone system in a matter of minutes, and used as an example Yahoo stores. Let's just dwell on that one for a minute.

Can you imagine what an insane paradigm shift this would be, to provision a phone system when you would start a Yahoo! Store? Click a box, and you have the complete communication setup for your new business. No PBX to purchase, no phone lines to order, nothing. You would get an 800 number and an IVR. You could setup your own SIP phones, or make them point to your existing cell phone. Who would do this? In this case, Yahoo! might do it for you automatically. But, it could be any web designer with a talent for Java script. From where I sit, this would be a radical decrease in both capital outlay and schedule - a good deal for everyone except PBX manufacturers.

Amazon Turks and Phones

Many of the people who approached me after my talk at O'Reilly emerging telephony were interested in the use of Amazon Turks in the mashup. An Amazon Turk is a real human being, found through the Amazon Turk Web service, hired to do a small job. By small, I mean something they can do in a matter of minutes. In most cases, Turks are unskilled workers, and are given simple jobs to do like choosing the best picture from a series, or identifying if an item is in a picture. A poetic example is the recent, failed search for a Microsoft Fellow, lost at sea off of San Diego. Real time satellite pictures were posted into the Amazon Turk service, where real people would l look at them searching for any sign of the missing scientist.
My example used skilled workers, in particular, nurses. Voicemails left at doctor's offices by patients were reviewed by nurses, and were determined to be urgent or routine. Urgent messages were forwarded to doctors, routine messages were saved until the morning. Voice mails were automatically retrieved, and jobs for Turks were automatically posted. Amazon Turks have a facility to qualify workers using a number of methods. Some qualifications may be done online using a simple test. Qualifications may be assigned to workers, as would be appropriate for this example, as medical certifications and other licencing issues exist. Nurses would be paid for their work directly by Amazon, once the assignments were approved. A history of successful assignments provides a platform for establishing and measuring quality metrics.
Economically, this is a win for all parties. Most sole practitioners cannot afford a full time nurse to handle calls when the office is closed. For them, they only pay for the nurse when there is a message to handle, and is therefore affordable. Since most visits to the emergency room are unnecessary, and cost nearly $900.00 more than a doctor's office visit, prompt returns of urgent messages are in the best interest of both patients and health care providers. Nurses now have a high paying, work at home option. In Web 2.0 fashion, the service gets better the more doctors and patients use the service.
This mashup was only an example, and there are many other examples of skilled workers that can be used in a Turk deployment. Accountants may use it for error detection for tax forms. Software engineers can use it for code reviews of recently written software. This mashup used Turks to transcribe the voice mails, so that they may be added to the permanent record. Services that use Turks have the singular advantage that large workforces can be delivered "just in time", with measurable quality and controllable costs. Workers have advantages as well - they may live anywhere, work any hours, and spread their employment risk over dozens of employers at the same time.
This is also an excellent example of computer-to-human interfaces, where people become part of the program itself. I can recall many times, at tradeshows and in conference rooms, when I wished I had some component that had a functionality I could describe, but couldn't possibly implement. With Amazon Turks, anything I can describe, and a human can do, can be part of an application. Ultimately, this will be the unique contribution of the technology.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Human Race - ETel 07

There were so many fantastic people, technologies and presentations last week at the show, that I probably won't have time to blog about them all... but a few I just have to dish about.

The Human Race is a student project by Summer Bedard presented at last week's O'Reilly Emerging Telephony Show, and at first I loved it, then it made my stomach twist, then I REALLY loved it. The Human Race is a voice application that you put with an IVR for people on hold. It gives them something to do while they are waiting for their turn. This part I loved.

"So, Summer...", I asked with a jet lagged voice, "tell me about the game. What do the people do?" With a smile, she told me that they have to answer a series of questions with a psychology/personality bent, looking for inconsistencies. Consistencies are rewarded - inconsistencies are not. People who are consistent wait less; people who are inconsistent wait longer. For instance, a caller on hold is asked if they get mad when they are criticized. I press 1 for no. Then, it says, "I hate your shirt. Does that make you sad to hear me say that? "Yes, you automated piece of sh*t. This is a mercerized cotton Oxford with..." Back in the queue I go. Then my stomach twists - I realize I'm never, ever, going to speak with a human. I'm reminded of that George Carlin piece where he thinks beauty pageant contestants should be forced to come back, year after year, until they win.

My head clears, as the coffee replaces the lag. Of course, I DO love this. I would love a world where IVRs are a thing to be briefly tolerated, but that's not happening anytime soon. There probably is a pretty cool set of games you could write for IVRs, and have some benefit to the person for playing. Maybe you could educate your customers in a way they would enjoy, instead of making them listen to inane music or obnoxious commercials. Now, I don't know if Summer has Dogbert for a teacher, but if we could only turn her ideas into a force for good, she'd be cooking.