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October 28, 2007

C U at VON

A decade ago the VON (Voice on the Net) show in Boston was where I and others first planned, discussed, and made deals to bring our nascent Voice over IP (VoIP) services to market. This week I’ll be back at VON in Boston meeting with people – you, perhaps (see far below) – in pursuit of a new dream for Internet communication. All it takes is a bunch of dreamers with a penchant for hard work and irrational exuberance to turn a dream into a reality. A little capital helps, too, but we’re OK on that score for now.

My new gig is FWD International (nee FreeWorldDialup). Co-investors are VoIP impresario Jeff Pulver, who founded FreeWorldDialup as well as VON, and Yossi Vardi, whose most well-know achievement was the founding of ICQ and its subsequent sale to AOL but is a man of many other accomplishments (see wikipedia) and also convenes Kinnernet  where Jeff and I were cabin mates. FWD is ably run by CEO Dan Berninger, whose business development feats in VoIP are legendary and include the launch of Vonage, a large part of the early success of VoIP pioneer VocalTec, and a big role in getting me into this VoIP stuff in the first place.

What’s the dream about?

Well, you know this telephone stuff has gone about as far as it’s gonna go; making it cheaper is still important to lots of people, especially residents of or ex-pats from developing countries, but not nearly as interesting as replacing it. With a landline you are restricted to communication via live voice (and voice mail for a small extra fee). With a landline your directory information belongs to a service provider who, in the US, charges you for NOT displaying the directory to all or sundry. With a landline you must have a service provider which is a big part of the problem. With a landline you call the number of a device in hopes that the person you want to reach is near it.

With a mobile phone, since it attaches to its owner, the chance of reaching the right person goes up. Interestingly most of use our directories (names) to dial from our mobile phones rather than numbers. Mobile phones are a step in the right direction. Since they’re really portable computers, they can even be used to communicate with text, still pictures, and video. And connections between cell phones and social networks are growing: twitter anyone?

But cell phone networks are over-priced islands. Some services don’t work across networks. The most exciting new phones come locked to specific networks (altho they’re not staying that way). The owners of the networks, who paid big bucks for the right to build over-engineered services on specific frequencies, are fighting a desperate rear guard action to keep you from bypassing their networks with VoIP in general and voice over WiFi in particular. You need a service provider to use a cell phone.

The directories of social networks like Facebook are exciting. YOU own your directory entry; YOU decide what it says about you. Most important YOU decide who has access to which information in your directory entry and who can communicate with you. FWD’s built a voice mail application for Facebook; others have built video apps and real time voice. You can communicate with pictures. You can voice tag the pictures with FWD’s Facebook app. Facebook itself supports a crude hybrid between IM and email and people are building better ways to communicate on the platform all the time. Social networks, especially their directories, are enablers of the next big thing in communication.

There is no incremental cost for each communication on Facebook or other social networks. It’s like email: you’ve got to have access to a computer and you probably pay for Internet access but, unless you’re paying for access by the byte, communicating with other people is “free”. Physical distance from and location of your friends are not factors at all in your cost.

But, so far, the social networks are largely developing as islands. Apps that work on one don’t connect to another. All your friends don’t live in the same city and they don’t all live on the same social network. They move around in cyberspace the same way that they do in physical space.

That’s where FWD comes in. We’re a service enabler – not a service provider. Just as the original FreeWorldDialup connected (and continues to connect) networks, FWD is a way to connect the participants in both social and other types of communications networks. FWD will enable any new services to add communication without development cost, to support directory services, and – most crucially – to connect their subscribers with subscribers to other networks SO LONG AS both parties are willing to be so connected.

Who should come see us in our VON booth?

  • People who want to sign up for our free voice mail app on Facebook. Apps aren’t really our game but they’re needed to demonstrate and surface what we do. You can sign up here if you’re not coming to VON.

  • People running SIP networks which haven’t yet peered (free) with FWD. Peering brings value to your subscribers today and positions your network to deliver much more value in the future. Over 190 networks with some three million users are peered with FWD now. Peer here if not coming to VON.

  • Application developers who’d like to include our connectivity and capabilities (like voice mail and voice clients) in their products. The APIs aren’t there yet but they will be and they’ll be open. We’d love to talk to you about your needs.

  • Networking (broadly writ) site developers and operators who’d like to incorporate our capabilities and help their users connect not just on the site but to all their other friends as well. Again, the APIs aren’t there yet. We’re doing some large sites like Facebook by hand now and want to be able to tell you as soon as we have the tools for you to incorporate as much of our stuff as you want in your site.

  • Communication device manufacturers, especially those who want to go beyond black phone voice and cheap minutes.

  • Old friends.

C U at VON.

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» Owning Your Social Graph from Aswath Weblog
In a post yesterday, Tom Evslin identifies the directories of social networking to be exciting. He says: “The directories of social networks like Facebook are exciting. YOU own your directory entry; YOU decide what it says about you. Most important... [Read More]

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