Monday, April 23, 2007

Cure for Vonage's Woes?

Interpid reporter Andy Abramson digs this one up... Perhaps there's some movement in the Vonage patent matter, as 3Com apparently filed a patent in 1996 (patent number 6,529,501), which references the same approach, but might be considered prior art. I'm not a patent lawyer (don't even play one on TV), but if it's true that the Verizon patent's don't even list this one, it might mean trouble for the patent defense. It strikes me as a little odd though, as it was trivial for me to use google to figure out what patents it itself referenced, or those that mentioned internet telephony. Why didn't the lawyers see this one coming a year ago?

Here's an answer : it's muddy. A few weeks ago, a blogger gave a quick history of Voice Over IP. Trouble is... it's basically wrong. VocalTek no more invented voice over IP than Gutenburg invented books. (And that's giving a lot of credit to VocalTek, whom I respect nonetheless.) Just like Ana Nicole's baby, VoIP has many, many fathers - and it mucks up prior art big time. Let's look at some of the happy fathers not mentioned by the bloggers, and probably not mentioned by the patent attorneys, either :
  • H.323 was finalized in November 1996, written by many of my fellow employees at PictureTel, firmly establishing that nearly all of the ideas it contained were known in the community for at least two years prior, including naming conventions, gateways, etc.
  • Of course, H.323 was not born in a vacuum. It's father, H.320 was developed in the late 1980's, introducing packetized media and call control over WAN networks. It's where most of the G.7xx codecs come from. H.320 has gateways, and admission controls, conversions between synchronous networks.... sound familiar at all?
  • And of course, H.320 wasn't the first one either. How could it be? Px64 predated H.320 and was used as a major part of the spec, along with tight integration with Q.931. Yes, that SS7 spec. Anyone in Peabody at that time knew all about voice, video, packets, synchronous streams. I'm pretty sure that Regan was president.
  • I remember listening to "geek of the week" in College around 1985-1986. Audio? Yup. Internet? Yup. Real time? Well, maybe not. I'll give you that one.
  • Who could forget the ATT PicturePhone in 1970?
  • World's Fair anyone?
I could go on all day, but I have this funny eating habit, and I need to go make some money to keep it going. Engineering and technology is much more like a Wiki than a Word document. No one person invented voice over IP, and it's been here forever. If anyone tells me that the new thing with Voice Over IP is video, I'm going to barf. Literally. I've been at this since the early 90's at PictureTel, and I know people who I think are the old timers - and they view me rightly as a newbie. Expect a patent lawyer to understand that one? Yeah, me neither.


Thomas Howe said...

Jeff Pulver puts his two cents in -

Thanks for posting this, Jeff. I'm with you here.

Constance Reader said...

Actually, that history of VoIP I posted is not incorrect. I verified the invention of VoIP in Israel by Alon Cohen and Lior Haramaty with a dozen different sources because the story was just too compact and I was skeptical. But it was verified by source after source, none of which were Wikipedia. Cohen and Haramaty founded VocalTec almost immediately upon filing the patents. I'm not saying VoIP wasn't obvious, it was, and if Cohen and Haramaty hadn't done it someone else would have. But they got in first. You could argue it as another Tesla vs. Marconi situation, however, in all of my research I never found a single citation for any other company or persons working on VoIP prior to Cohen and Haramaty. If you truly believe they weren't the inventors, please cite names and dates.

Thomas Howe said...

Certainly. Here's three, but I could go on all day:

1964, Paul Baran, "On Distributed Communications Networks", IEEE Transactions on Systems".

C. J. Weinstein, "Exoerience With Speech Communication in Packet Networks", IEEE Journal on Selected Areas of Communications, Vol. SAC-1, No. 6, Dec. 1983

Johnson et al., "A Local Access Network for Packetized Digital Voice Communications", IEEE Journal on Transactions on Communications, vol. COM-29, No. 5, May 1981

By the early 90's, the practice of packet voice had become so common that major industry players decided to standardize the approach through the H.323 process.

Saying that any two people "invented" voice over IP is just too silly to consider. I admit to VocalTec's contributions to our industry, but you were right to be skeptical.

The more depressing part is that a dozen different sources had no idea of what an electrical engineer in his senior year of college should be able to determine. I suppose it speaks to how far our industry come from hardcore technology and technologists.