Mobile VoIP OTT is Dead! – Long Live Mobile VoIP OTT!

Fig2-OTT-VoIP-Service[1]

What do the following have in common: Skype, Viber, Whatsapp, Line2, Tango and Kakao? Yes, there are all OTT apps for your mobile phone that enable you to communicate with your peers. Skype, Viber, Line2, Tango and Kakao actually enable you to call one another. Each one dominates a section of the world, where Kakao and Line2 are dominant in the far east, Viber dominates Japan and Eastern Europe and Skype kind’a says: “Look at me bit**es, I’m all of you combined”.

What do the following have in common: VoipDiscount, Nymgo, WiCall, VoIPstunt, Vox Mobile, Cloud Roam, Skuku? All of these are VoIP Mobile OTT apps, similar to the above and yet – no one truly heard about these or is using them. Each one of the above is more or less a replica of the previous one, maybe with one or more added features – but all in general are the same pitch and bit**, make cheap calls over VoIP via our service.

So, what does it all mean? it means one simple thing, no one truly cracked the formula to make money on the Mobile VoIP OTT business – everybody is still looking for the killer business model/VoIP OTT Application. What is the right way? providing low cost calls? providing business oriented services? providing simple roaming solutions? maybe bundling roaming data plans and SIM cards? or maybe, all of these are sooooooo passe that the world just says: “Stop fu**ing about and create some truly new, change how think and how we work completely. Paying 1 or 2 dollars more per month, I’m not gonna change my service for that – it’s pointless.”

So, what are the true killer apps that will truly say: “this is a game changer, from this point onward, VoIP OTT will no longer be the same!” – Here is a list that I believe will make the difference:

1. Make calls completely social – Phone numbers are so 18th century, they are pointless

2. Make your phone aware – Presence and availability is key

3. Drop the stupid things – call recording, visual voicemail, funny sounds, funky tones – stop the bullshit, give me proper services than stupid features

4. Make your service reliable – stop behaving like a website operator and thing like Ebay, every minute your service is down or affected by bad service you are loosing money

5. Make work, then make pretty – application design is important, product design is important, but not more than the product itself

6. Invest in support and monitoring – relying on your suppliers to do it for you is stupid and childish

7. Only blame yourself! – when something fu**s up, it means that you did your job wrong and you cut corners. Don’t start blaming your colleagues or your contractors, they are only doing what you asked them to do

And most importantly, remember the following statement: “I’ve seen the furthest, because I sat on the shoulders of giants.” – don’t tell the world how you’re going to obliterate Whatsapp and Skype, look at them, strive to be them, and then do it better.

I wish all of you good luck.

Building your Asterisk based Business – Part I

** Cross posted from: http://www.greenfieldtech.net/blog/2014/03/building-your-asterisk-based-business-part-i **

Since the inception of GreenfieldTech, back in 2007, we’ve assisted over 20 different VoIP companies to bootstrap their activities and launch their products. During that period, some of these companies had become a great success and some had disappeared from the face of the planet. This series of posts will bring the story of some of them – and we’ll try to analyse what made each company into a success or a failure.

Making the case for Asterisk based business

Let’s be honest and truthful with ourselves, we’re all capitalists. Yes, we are first Open Source evangelists and promoters, but at the end of the day, we do need to pay our bills and make ends meet. Thus, we monetize open source (in our case Asterisk) to the best of our abilities – there is no shame in that, and honestly, we take high pride in our ability to assist companies in monetizing open source tools and project in a productive and lucrative manner.

When people talk about Asterisk based businesses, normally they will consider one of the following tracks:

1. Asterisk PBX Integrator – Integrating Asterisk based PBX systems for companies of various sizes. Normally, this will include infrastructure installation, cabling, server support, hardware sales, etc.
2. Hosted PBX Service Provider – Providing VoIP PBX services, without any in-door server equipment, relying on the Internet or leased lines only. Normally this will include similar activities as the Asterisk PBX integrator.
3. Hosted IVR Service Provider – Providing Hosted Interactive Voice Response services to content providers and enterprises that can’t sustain their own IVR infrastructure.
4. Hosted Premium Services Provider – Identical to “Hosted IVR” with a focus on premium services content and adult content.
5. Telecom Carrier – Whether you are a mobile carrier or a landline CLEC, Asterisk applications can benefit a carrier of any size.
6. Value added services provider – Providing complimentary services to Asterisk and its derivatives.

The above is a very short list, as each item on that list can be expanded to 6 more sub-categories – however, these represent the major business types (not including consultants and developers, who fall under category number 1). There are similarities between these and significant differences as well. What may be true for one, maybe completely wrong for another – it all depends on your business goals and product development life cycle and life span. We will limit ourselves to discuss options 2 through 6.

Case I: Long Distance Calling Cards Operator in the US

June 2007, a representative of a calling cards operator in the US approached. The operator was back then using a hosted service from a company called Solegy (long gone) and was fairly unhappy with the service. Their main complaints were: lack of support responsiveness, lack of feature set, inability to expand existing feature set – and most importantly, inability to sustain a proper business model (unlimited calls), due to high termination and hosting prices.

At that time, the calling card operator had put the following restrictions as to creating the service:

1. Bootstrap pricing should not exceed the $10,000 USD.
2. All existing customers should be migrated to the new system.
3. All existing access numbers should be migrated to the new system.
4. New system should be based upon ready-made software – not customized development.
5. New system should enable additional service development and scalability.
6. New system should allow hosting on hosted servers, without any need for proprietary hardware.

The solution that was chosen (after all, it was 2007) was a mixture of OpenSER, coupled with Asterisk 1.4 and A2Billing. Calls will hit the OpenSER SIP proxy, which will then load balance to the various Asterisk servers. The solution met the various constraints listed above – and later on included a monthly support/maintenance cost that was sustainable for the business. The company continued on to provide direct DID numbers, VoIP termination services, Roaming SIM cards solutions, Hospitality Mobile phones and additional services. In 2010, the company had sold its operations to another company – which was a disaster. During the recent changes in the roaming market in the US and other regulations, the company had seized its operations and is no longer operating.

Was this company a success story? – Complicated Answer

Between the years 2007 and 2010, the company had grown from 1000 customers to a whopping 15,000 customers, paying a monthly service fee ranging from $15 USD to $59 USD. Roughly calculated, that’s an average of $550K USD per month turn-over. In deed, termination costs and operational costs rose up to around $450K USD a month, but considering the fact that the company had only 4 employees and two additional outsourced support resources, a monthly Net revenue of $100K USD is not bad – we can surely mark this as a success. The company realized that in order to sustain its business, they would require proper customer care and support services and they made sure these resources were clearly managed and sourced.

Following the company’s purchase in 2010, the new owner had decided that customer care and support structure aren’t really required, as the sales staff can handle customer care and support can be rendered by an outside resource on a per-incident base, with no binding SLA service.  Within less 12 months, the company customer base shrunk from 15,000 to around 3,000, bringing the entire operation to a stand-still. The new owner tried focusing on new business tracks, without preserving and maintaining the existing lucrative tracks.

So, what went wrong here?

The primary answer would be: failure of the new management to understand the business. Calling cards and VoIP services are customer oriented services. This applies to Mobile VoIP OTT services as well. Asterisk is a solid tool to use when building your business, it will take you a long way and make sure your ROI and TCO will remain as low as possible, while preserving your knowledge and experience in-house as much as possible. When a successful company is acquired by a financial outfit, that has no valid experience in the market sector, in many cases – it will fail. The lack of understanding of customer care structures, proper support, proper monitoring, proper NOC, ticketing handling, NOC liaising and proper technical escalation are the main attributes of a successful service and product in this industry.

In our next post

In our next post we’ll discuss the world of “ad-revenue financed calls” and the “call-back industry”, as it was in 2008, 2010 and what happened to it today.

 

Hardware Review: Allo.Com GSM Card

** This post is cross-posted on www.greenfieldtech.net **

Honestly, this is something I should have already done a long time ago. About 4 months ago, Allo.Com approached us (GreenfieldTech) to write a review about some of their products. After they agreed to the terms – mainly that they we’ll publish our findings, good or bad – we had to move offices, so everything kind’a went into limbo. Last week, finally, we got around to start reviewing the hardware. We currently started with 2 products, the Allo.COM GSM card (http://www.allo.com/gsm-card.html) and the Allo.Com MegaPBX (http://www.allo.com/megapbx-line.html).

As Eric is still evaluating the MegaPBX, we’ve decided to publish our findings regarding the GSM Card for Asterisk.

Hands on the product

So, the product itself is nicely packaged – in terms of the electronics involved. I’ve examined the soldering quality, and it would appear that it provides a fairly consistent 60% coverage of soldering, which is fairly acceptable for a card of this scale and quality. One thing I didn’t like was the usage of external wires, however, as this is not the first time I’ve seen that, I can accept it. The card itself is available in 2 form factors, so in general, the “hands on” evaluation passes nicely.

Installation

“Patches? Patches? We don’t need to stink’n Patches!” – I admit it, there is nothing I hate more than patching DAHDI drivers (Old OpenVox Style) or adding some 3rd party middleware for DAHDI to make things work (Sangoma). This card takes a slightly higher road. Yes, you are required to have the Asterisk (I do mean Asterisk) source code available. However, it will compile the “channel driver” and an internal resource, very much like the SIP channel – not requiring you to patch Asterisk or DAHDI at all – so in that respect – KUDOS !

To be honest, it took me about 2 days to get the card running, but I was at fault – well, not completely. While the compilation of a “native asterisk” channel driver is a wonderful idea, the documentation kind’a sucks. They still have milage to go with that, however, after contacting their very professional and helpful support staff – it was compiled at ease.

Operation

One thing to get used to – this card is slower, and I do mean much slower, than a normal analog card. The reason isn’t the card, it’s the GSM network. It takes about 10-30 seconds for the card to become fully active, mainly due to the fact that the SIM cards need to register with the GSM network. Once fully active, it will present a channel type GSM, which operates very much like its DAHDI analog equivalent.

The Fire Test

How the hell do you test a card? you make it work really hard – and I do mean hard. So, in order to do so, I’ve created the below Asterisk dialplan:

[from-ipphone]
exten => _X.,1,Set(TIMEOUT(absolute)=${RAND(600,7200)})
exten => _X.,n,Answer()
exten => _X.,n,Wait(${RAND(10,30)})
exten => _X.,n,Dial(GSM/2/050808XXXX,120,R)

exten => h,1,Originate(Local/111@playback-loop,exten,from-ipphone,1111,1)

[playback-loop]
exten => _X.,1,Answer()
exten => _X.,n,Wait(1)
exten => _X.,n(loop),Playback(demo-congrats)
exten => _X.,n,goto(loop)

This dialplan is designed to create random length calls, with a random waiting period between calls. I then issued the following command from the dialplan, to kick it off:

noc*CLI> channel originate Local/111@playback-loop extension 222@from-ipphone

The above will start dialing over and over and over again. My test was really simple, generate X number of calls from my Asterisk host, receive X number of calls on my other SIP gateway. Calls will traverse the GSM network, always playing back the same message and information.

Final Result

Ok, so the test I devised was fairly harsh, specifically due to the fact that I left it running for 5 days !

My origination gateway had originated over 1000 calls in 5 days, sorry to say, only 500+ calls were accepted at the other side. Primary reason appears to be GSM network related and not card related – so it’s hard for me to attribute the result to a specific issue. However, in general, the card performed as I more or less expected it to perform.

Who should use this card?

If you plan to build a GSM gateway – this card isn’t for you, you need something with a bit more control and variability. For a mobile office or as a cellular backup to your PRI line in the office, this will make a nice addition, at a reasonable price range.

Overall mark: 7.5 out of 10

Technology? Religion? or just pure Ego?

Open Source – What really drives it? is the desire to change and create something new? is it a firm belief in the idea that knowledge wants to be free and that software should roam the world? or when you boil down – is it just plain Ego?

I’ve been an Open Source advocate and evangelist for the better part of the last 20 years. I’ve started my days with Slackware Linux, moved to RedHat, then to Mandrake, then over to CentOS – which is now my choice of OS for the desktop and server. During these 20 years, I’ve seen various project come and go, companies rise and fall, technologies adopted and abandoned. A recent post on facebook from Dovid Bender got me thinking about this issue again:

Now, let’s put aside the grand discussion on the way the OpenSIPS project came about, their domain hijacking tactics, their overall confusion in the initial stages in regards to the difference between OpenSIP and OpenSER/Kamailio – let’s just put these apart for a second. Honestly, I can’t really tell the two apart, they use the same general configuration syntax and in most cases (over 95%), you can use the same configuration on both and it would work exactly the same. So, what does it boils down to? it boils down to Ego. Do I want to be considered traditional and stable and work with Kamailio, or would I like to be perceived as cutting-edge and work with OpenSIPS (although that isn’t true at all).

The same issue can be attributed to the ever growing battle between Asterisk and FreeSWITCH. Now, each one was built for a totally different class of operation (although, Asterisk 12 does introduce new functionality that makes it shine much harder than FreeSWITCH). People repeat the old “You’re melting our switches” FreeSWITCH urban myth, but again, I still hadn’t seen one installation that truly did everything with FreeSWITCH and is truly focused on using FreeSWITCH to leverage something else. So, if FreeSWITCH is only used as a media/application server, then I see no difference between it and Asterisk in that regard. More than that, if the added value of using FreeSWITCH is just a mere 5-10% increase in performance, it just isn’t worth my time to do so. Now, I’ve used FreeSWITCH in the past, don’t get me wrong – it’s a wonderful tool in that respect, and for Class-4 switching it is a massive tool. But when it comes to Class-5 and high-level services, sorry to say, Asterisk will always be my choice – not because it is better, not because it’s support and community is far more experienced, not because it out-performs FreeSWITCH - it will always be due to one simple reason – it is the one I know will require the less amount of ongoing support and maintenance and will bring me to my target much faster than FreeSWITCH.

A few weeks ago, I put the following status on facebook:

Now, the two have direct correlation – When a CTO/VP R&D isn’t a telecom’s guy – and he takes decisions for development of the platform – simply based upon the writings of others on the net – which is purely influenced by a religious war – he is incapable of making the right decision. Take Jajah for example, when Roman and Daniel started Jajah, they only tool they used back then with Asterisk@Home – because that’s what they had. When the company grew, they could have easily moved to new grounds – FreeSWITCH was already around. Why didn’t they? Why did Jajah remain with Asterisk – adding OpenSER/Kamailio into the mix later on? Why didn’t they move to a new platform? was it because they have loads of code developed? companies throw away code like dirty socks every other day – they had the resources. Fact remains, the service was alive for a long time, the company was bought out by Telefonica Digital at a price of $215 Million.

On the other hand, let’s take a company like Truphone (and pardon me James, I know you’re gonna kick my ass next time we meet). Truphone had changed technologies over the course of times many times. Each time, abandoning the previous tech and going for a new one. So did companies like Rebtel, Spikko, Skuku and others. Amazingly enough, none of them could be considered a massive success. Word on the market currently says that Truphone is looking for additional investors, as their existing ones aren’t willing to put in more cash. Spikko’s original model is totally gone and the company literally caved-in on itself – and same applies to many others.

So, what does it boil down to? is Asterisk better? is OpenSIPS better? – these are the wrong questions. The questions should be:

  1. Is your R&D lead actually knows the arena he’s treading in?
  2. Are your decisions based on actual investigation or just by whim?
  3. Are you completely aware of the various obstacles and challenges you’ll meet?
  4. Are you building your development and product on rapidly changing technology?
  5. Who is backing your choice? a proper business entity? or a mere group of people with an idea?

When it comes to choosing between Asterisk and FreeSWITCH, here are my reasons for choosing Asterisk over FreeSwtich any day:

  1. The ability to rapidly prototype any application is 5 times faster and 2 times more economical than FreeSWITCH
  2. The installation path for FreeSWITCH is much more complex and convoluted than Asterisk, making future maintenance a nightmare
  3. Digium is indeed a young company, but it sticks by its products and makes all efforts to make it the best it can – I always have someone to talk to
  4. Barracuda Networks is a well established company in the Storage/Security market – if you go to their website, their support for FreeSWITCH (CudaTel) isn’t there at all – does that mean something?
  5. Asterisk is a very reliable, dependable, predictable piece of code – it is something I can put my money on and know exactly what I’ll get, FreeSWITCH still isn’t

Good bye Symbian, Hello Android

A Nokia E90 (open).

Image via Wikipedia

For those who had been reading this blog for some time now, you may have stumbled across my blog post from 2008, regarding me buying a Nokia E90 - http://www.simionovich.com/2008/06/06/i-finally-purchased-a-nokia-e90.

Well, it’s a fact, since the year 1998, I’ve been an avid Nokia fan. I think I’ve ranged from the old Nokia 51XX, through the 6XXX up to the E61, E62 and E90 – if it was some funky Nokia phone that gave me some new feature, I most probably had it. I guess that the time I spent at m-Wise, working closely with various mobile content technologies had put its toll on me – and I became a Nokia Cell Phone addict. For many years I couldn’t imagine myself digressing from the Nokia clan. Even when my friends moved from their Nokia/Motorola/Ericsson phones to a star spangled iPhone – I remained faithful to my old habits – and remained with my trusty Nokia.

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic showing Wikipedia's mai...

Image via Wikipedia

About two years ago I promised myself this: “If you ever decide to move to a touch screen phone, don’t go ala iPhone, stay for a Nokia phone” – so I waited. The initial Nokia touch phones came out. The first Nokia touch phone that came out, I believe shortly after the iPhone was the Nokia 5800, also known as the Nokia XpressMusic.

I’ve got one thing to say about this phone – “What the hell were you thinking???” – it’s a phone, not a bloody MP3 player – if I wanted an MP3 player, I would have bought an iPod. Apart from being the slowest phones I’ve ever encountered, its touch interface was annoying and disruptive.

So, I didn’t buy the Nokia 5800 – I simply had no use for it. At that point I decided to wait a bit more, and see what Nokia cooks up. Shortly after seeing the 5800 in dis-action, I met a new member of the Nokia clan: the Nokia 700.

The Nokia 700 was a totally new thing, not really a phone, not really a PDA – somewhat of a cross between the two. It was big and bulky, and I couldn’t imagine myself walking around with one of these – however, it showed some promise. Sure, it was big, bulky, slow and anything bad you can say about a device – however, it had one thing – it showed potential – something to look for. At that time, I decided that I needed a proper smart phone and purchased the Nokia E90 – and I was fairly happy with it till 8 months ago.

You are probably asking, why would an avid Nokia fan become displeased with his trusty E90 phone – the answer is simple – the plastics. The plastics are of such low quality, that after 18 months of usage, the paint job starts to peel away from the phone. As you run more and more applications, or store more data, the phone becomes sluggish and slow – to the point where you have to reset it.

So, 2 months ago I gave up, I said to myself: “that’s it, time to move forward and leave the Nokia clan” – but I still didn’t want to put myself with the iPhone clan – or to be more exact, the iPhone cult movement. While at the Amoocon convention, I came across some people who were using HTC phones, specifically the HTC Evo. Well, I was somewhat taken with this snazy piece of hardware. It was fast, it was fluid and for some funky reason, I felt at home with it. Could it be, have I found a new clan for my mobile needs? I returned back home starting to examine my options. The HTC Evo isn’t available in Israel, the next best thing is the HTC Desire.

The HTC Desire is also known as the Google Nexus-1, basically it’s the same phone. I tried using the Nexus-1, but I didn’t like it. Specifically, I didn’t like the fact that the four keys are touch based – on the HTC these are real keys, making my life much easier.

So now, I’m equipped with the HTC Desire, and apart from the occasional Android crash (not too often to be honest) – it is one of the best phones I ever had. It’s fast, syncs my life into a manageable construct and most importantly, it’s become a second nature to me. The only disadvantage of owning such a phone is that you need a massive Data plan with your carrier – this little machine can gobble up ten’s of megabytes on a daily basis. My old Nokia E90 was using 25MB of data per month, with the Desire, I consume that much in less than a day – that is an amazing number.

In order to get better into Android development, I’ve ordered an Eken M002 device. This is a 7″, Android based tablet PC. I’ll be posting information about that once it arrives.

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