Sunday, March 30, 2008

A free bridge from Skype to phone

Do you remember my blog post "A SIP address for Skype? Better the other way around!"? This mission has now been accomplished. As of yesterday you can call me on Skype and I will answer this call on my desk phone or cell phone using SIP VoIP telephony. As I always try to achieve, this is a totally free solution.

I have joined Voxeo's developer program for their Evolution application, a visual design tool for interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Part of the deal is that you get a strange phone number with a +990 country code. There is no country associated with this code and Skype users can call these numbers for free. My Skype account is now being forwarded over Voxeo to a SIP address from Gizmo Project which I manage on Voxalot to make use of it's call connection rules and voice mail.

Have a peek on my settings:

A better explanation can be found at the Voxeo support forum. I wonder what VOIPSA's Dan York would say. In January he started a discussion with his blog post "Skype says "No" to VoIP interoperability - *because customers aren't asking for it!* - Well, I am!". He is, by the way, working for Voxeo and this partly solution for his problem comes from his own company. So I guess he was always aware of this trick.

I am happy now that people can call me with Skype and I don't have to keep me computer running or buy a special Skype phone for this purpose. That's the reason why I nearly never used Skype. I don't like applications which keep me tied to my computer in order to receive messages or phone calls, like Skype or the MagicJack normally do. Let's see which other solutions I can develop with Voxeo. Their visual tool makes the design of VoiceXML fairly easy.

Finally an own country code for VoIP, as I always wanted

I feel quite visionary, now that Voxbone has announced their iNum service. That's a new initiative to make worldwide portable VoIP telephone numbers available under the new virtual country-code +883. VoIP News explains it very well under the emblematic title "Creating A Country Called VoIP":
The new VoIP country number is 883, the counterpart of the 44 one dials to reach the U.K. or the 81 one uses for Japan. Putting those three digits in front of an individual subscriber's number will produce what Voxbone calls an iNum, a portable, permanent global phone number. Calling the iNum will ring the Skype or other VoIP account to which it is registered, anywhere in the world. Only companies such as Inmarsat Global Ltd. had previously obtained country codes based on technology rather than geography.

Voxbone is dealing now with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and with phone companies to make the new number range accessible for cheap prices from every country. "The goal of iNum is assuring free connectivity for all the world's VoIP users, more low-cost connectivity between VoIP and the PSTN, and unique identifiers for VoIP users worldwide", says CEO Rodrigue Ullens. That's exactly what I advocated for in July 2007 under the title "A new number range for worldwide mobile telephony is missing" in this blog:
So I think that an entire new number range is missing for worldwide mobile telephony. The best thing would be a cheap interconnect to the ++882 or ++858 number range, or something similar. These are international codes that don't belong to any particular country, but to ENUM services. It would be great if people could call them from every country for local prices. So you would never have to change SIM card or number for travel. You just had a virtual number, similar to German 032 numbers which don't belong to a particular city but to VoIP.
OK, so +883 is planned for VoIP and I envisioned it for mobile telephony. But companies like Maxroam or United Mobile will surely find a way to make the new number range usable on cell phones and thus slash roaming prices for incoming calls. Be it with multi IMSI SIM cards, which can be local in several countries at a time, or as free call forward from a fixed line VoIP number as they do it today. After all it makes no difference if you have a number from Liechtenstein, Isle of Man, Iceland or a virtual country called +883 on your travel SIM. They are all weird.

Needless to say that I have directly signed up for iNum's public beta test which is scheduled to begin in June 2008. Let's hope that iNum has more success than the +878 initiative had six years ago or the Universal International Freephone Number (UIFN) with country code +800, which has also failed. "Without a strategy to get all the Telcos in the world to set up routing and tariffing for this number range, calls to this number range are going to go nowhere. The problem here is that they have very little incentive to do this", says a user at the VoIP user blog.

I keep my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Call Skype contacts from a mobile phone's browser with Hipsip!

Hipsip is a nice and easy mobile VoIP service which let's you call Skype and SIP contacts from a normal cell phone without a Wifi or 3G data connection. In the last weeks I could try out the service as beta tester and now they open to everyone. Hipsip does basically the same like iSkoot or Mobivox, but is easier to handle. You don't have to install a software on the mobile phone or talk to a computer voice to establish the connection. The user just opens a mobile website where he sees his Skype contacts and calls them with a click on the name. The phone then starts a GSM call to the nearest Hipsip callthrough number where a server converts it into a Skype call. In my case it goes to a landline number in Hamburg, Germany.

Screenshot from the Hipsip mobile website.

One big difference is that Hipsip has no hosted bridge from the cell phone network to Skype. Your computer must always be switched on and you have to install a small software called Hipsip Bridge which has to be running together with Skype. Otherwise the mobile website on the phone says "Please connect your Hipsip Bridge to see your Skype contacts." That is a big disadvantage to the other mobile phone Skype services like iSkoot, Mobivox and Fring. But at least it's cheaper than ideas from SkyQube or VoSky. They not only require you to leave your computer running, but also to buy an extra hardware which hands your mobile phone calls over to Skype. Again, they also let you receive Skype calls on a cell phone.

Call your Skype contacts with one click on a hyperlink.

If the Hipsip Bridge doesn't run, you can still call every SIP address of choice or even email addresses, which will be explained later. I conducted a small email interview to the developer Christian Rees. He comes from Germany himself, where he long time ago used to write about Atari ST computers for the famous c't magazine. On the phone he had told me that they are already considering a hosted solution without Hipsip Bridge, but that's not so easy.

I see that you use HTML code like <a href="tel:+4940306988028">Call</a> on your mobile website. What does it do? A computer's browser doesn't know what to do with it, but a cell phone starts a call.
The answer is, that the so called telephone URL, tel:, is supported on converged devices (in the sense that they support circuit and packet data) like cell phones with a web browser. When a tel: URL link with a phone number is clicked in the browser, the phone starts dialing the number. It works on all phones that are less then 4 years old. It's customary for the phone to prompt the user with the number, as a safeguard. Our users can be assured that we are only returning our local callthrough numbers.

Who is the company behind the Hipsip offer, Inc., the parent of Hipsip, is a California corporation with offices in Menlo Park. The company was founded in 2004, is privately funded and in the process of raising more capital. We are less then 10 people with backgrounds from academia, VoIP and the mobile industry. We consider ourselves an international company, that happens to be located in Silicon Valley.

Our history goes back quite a bit, starting in 1999, with the idea that email addresses will eventually turn into phone numbers. We attempted to raise funding in 2000, targetting the mobile space already back then. However, it took until 2004 for the climate to be right to start again with new ideas. In early 2005 we began developing the Hipsip Bridge for Skype. Due to our funding situation back then, it has taken until now for the relase.

What are your further plans?
We are planning to make Hipsip more useful and convenient for our users. One priority is to improve the Skype experience. We have already put emphasis on providing ISDN like voice quality for Skype calls over SIP, since Skype is so exceptional in this respect and we don't want to loose too much of that. However, there are limitations to the current phone networks. We are not so hot on vaporware, so we'll announce new features when they are available. And we are very interested to hear from users what they need.

When will it be hosted, so that my computer doesn't need to stay switched on?
See above, but it is a high priority for us.

And what about new features?
One novel feature that we provide is EmailCall. With EmailCall, a user can turn their email address into their phone number, so to speak. This is how it works: if the user has verified his mobile number and email address and opts-in to EmailCall, he can now be called by his email address:

  • by dialing the email address on any SIP phone registered on Hipsip, which will ring the users SIP devices (you could say we are sippyfying the email address).

  • from any mobile phone by entering the URL: (as an example). When the URL is entered, the current mobile number of the owner of the email address will be returned. This is limited to other users of Hipsip, and is strictly an opt-in feature. The user can change his current number anytime, while the much easier to remember email address can be used to look it up in real time, and dial immediately.

The idea behind this is, that we will eventually see a convergence in the addressing space just as we are seeing it with networks becoming all IP, so that a single SIP/email/URI address will be sufficient for all the different modes of communications for which we have to remember identifiers today. This day is not here yet, but we believe that it will eventually happen. Today it is already possible to dial a URI on the Nokia N-Series and E-Series phones, which works very well over WLAN and 3G. Things will only improve when pure packet networks like Wimax and LTE come online.

My take: we have to wait and see how Hipsip develops. The market for such services is already crowded. But nobody has built yet the perfect bridge from Skype to SIP. Hipsip has potential if they get the service hosted, but then they would have to cover higher server costs. The EmailCall is funny but nothing new. Jangl already does it for nearly a year.

Side note:
Respect to blogger hero Russell Shaw who unexpectedly passed away last weekend when he was on his way to cover the Emerging Technologies Conference and VON.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Watch Qik mobile live videos on your cell phone!

Qik is the latest favourite gadget of famous video bloggers like Robert Scoble, Jeff Pulver, Steve Garfield, Loren Feldman, Laura Fitton, Cali Lewis and others. They can simply switch on their mobile phone's video camera and yet they are sending live videos onto their viewers' internet browsers.

When I met with Qik's VP Marketing and co-founder Bhaskar Roy, he said that they were planning to bring these videostreams also to mobile phones. "Qik is developing a new live streaming to other mobile handsets", says Bhaskar. "You won't even need a browser to watch a livestream. We send a Realvideo stream directly to your friends' cell phones." The cell phone will not only be a camera for mobile live video streams, but also a tv set to watch them. Everyone is a sender and a receiver, because Qik plans to stream its videos in 3GP format to mobile handsets.

Well, they can stop now their development or should at least consider this blog post (just kidding!): I am already able to stream my Qik live videos as 3GP videos to mobile phones. And I am not even a techie. I just did a mashup with another hot startup in mobile space: from Berlin, Germany. Here you can see a screenshot, showing a Qik video on a Nokia E61:

Screenshot from a Qik video stream on a mobile phone
Qik offers and RSS feed to every user's account which can be subscribed in So the Qik streams don't come as live videos to the phone, but they are fairly often updated. "The more often a video RSS feed is updated, the more often we send it to the phones", explained CEO Michael Merz when we met this week. His service is basically a content aggregator for mobile phones. They bring tv shows and video podcasts into 3GP format which basically every mobile phone understands. So is also a good way to watch video podcasts in weird formats which only an iPod can handle. The Symbian Freak wrote a good introduction into the service:

The mobile phone television service,, started a TV push service just in time for the CeBIT, that automatically brings video files and podcasts to subscribers's mobile phones. DailyME is the simplest way to have mobile access to premium TV content and a wide range of Videocasts. Users have the opportunity to be their own TV manager: register, program your own TV and video channel and have it updated automatically, whenever you are online with your mobile phone (WLAN, UMTS, GPRS, HSDPA).

One can choose from a wide selection of different channels and divisions, offered by the service provider. There is no live streaming and content can be downloaded over an internet connection and currently there is only client for Symbian S60 3rd edition phones. Thanks to the unique transmission technology (patent pending) on the basis of the technologies on-hand today, an individual program can be made available for mobile phone users 24 hours per day.

A fast internet connection over Wifi or 3G is necessary for GPRS could also be used, but then you should expect longer loading times. The videos have a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels, and picture quality is reasonable at 350 Kbit with 12.5 pictures per seconds. What I like most about is that they are able to transcode every video format, even the *.flv Flash videos from Qik. Over Wifi it doesn't even suck much battery. From time to time the handset connects for very short to download the latest videos. A drum sound of the Devicescape software reminds me that again started a download.

I can watch the videos later in idle times while commuting. "From April on we will start to offer also for Windows Mobile 5 Phone edition and Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional Edition", says Michael Merz. "Then we will send our videoclips also in WMV format." I think he should also talk to Qik, which has great XML interfaces. They already offer one click integration of their videos into Twitter, Seesmic, Mogulus, Blogger,, and Youtube. Great names, but none of them has such a cool application for mobile video.

Disclosure: I am not on a payroll. I just like their service and that it comes from Germany. Qik is also a mostly Russian company, only the head office is in Silicon Valley.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Truphone's new pricing not as I thought

I have to admit that I was wrong in my last blog post about "Truphone's new pricing". I had bet that Truphone would offer free calls for another two months, as they always did when their free offer supposedly ended. But now they came up with a new pricing, called Tru Zone, that in the words of Stuart Henshall's blog "fails to motivate". Here is an example:
You can call any of the 40 countries in the Tru Zone for a tiny 6c to landlines and 30c to mobiles. Some countries such as the USA, Canada and China are double special. Calls to both landlines and mobiles are a flat 6c! Calls to much of the rest of the world are flat and simple too – just 10c to landlines and 30c to mobiles.
That makes Truphone now one of the most expensive VoIP services I know. But at least I was partly right with my bet: "as a big thank you for being one of our early supporters, you can continue to enjoy your existing Launch Offer pricing (that means free calls to 40 countries) until June 1st", says the email I got last week from Truphone.

So early adopters can still enjoy free calls. I guess that Truphone was afraid of a big wave of signoffs and criticism in VoIP blogs. New customers have to be attracted by Tru Zone's easy pricing and new features which you can't find at cheaper VoIP services. If you meet James Body or other members of Truphone's staff sneak a peek on their handsets! They always have much more advanced Truphone versions installed than normal users. The last lab version I saw in Barcelona was quite promising and solved a problem I was always nagging about.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Phone company Jajah enters wholesale business

The VoIP company Jajah is entering more and more markets and now they are gearing towards the wholesale business. That's what I learned at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, where I met a company which had been approached by the Austrians who wanted to sell them phone minutes in a big scale. "Roman is flying high", said my contact about Jajah co-founder Roman Scharf. "He is moving on Tier 1 carrier level and wants to have his part of the phone card business." A similar impression I got from my interview in Barcelona.

Roman tells that so many new users are signing up to the the company's latest callthrough service, Jajah Direct, that there has to be a shift in business. After beta testing the service in Germany, UK, USA and Austria there will be a big rollout in 30 to 50 countries. In some weeks we should see it in every European country. Jajah Direct assigns local numbers from your country to contacts abroad for cheap phone calls over the internet. People can save a lot on international phone calls. That's why the Swedish company Rebtel had invented the same business model yet two years before, as they point out in their blog. "With Jajah Direct we found a way to make VoIP as easy as a normal phone call: dial a number, press the call button and start to talk", says Roman Scharf. Even his grandmother in Austria has a number in Salzburg that she can call to make his office phone in the US ring.

The technical part is tricky because Jajah relies on shared phone numbers. "We can serve millions of customers with just 99 numbers per country", says Roman. Therefor Jajah has to know the caller's number. Users have to tell their home, office and mobile numbers before they can assign up to 99 consecutive Jajah numbers to their contacts from abroad. Jajah knows that when caller A dials number B he has to be redirected to number C abroad. Another caller, D, who calls the same number B, will be connected to number E. Only anonymous callers, who don't transmit their phone numbers, can't take part in this game.

Roman sees Jajah Direct as great chance to grow dynamically in the important telecommunications markets. About the companies former flagship service, which relies on callback, he now says that it's only useful for people sitting in front of their computers. With just one click on the Jajah button in Outlook or the browser you can start a call. "Other technologies we have also tried, like Java or Symbian software or SMS bridges, were too different from normal telephony", says Roman. Too few people installed an extra software on their cell phones for international calls.

Also the telephony backend has its quirks, Jajah had to learn. When the company was young they didn't have own networks and had to send all traffic to wholesalers, always chosing the most competitive offer. Until Jajah learned that this was an Achilles' heel. They just couldn't guarantee for voice quality, but customers expected their calls to sound like normal phone connections. Also the price margins were razor thin for Jajah. "That's why we started to build up our own infrastructure at the beginning of 2007", says Roman. "You will hear a lot about it in the next weeks and months."

According to his plans, other Internet companies, competing VoIP services, cable TV providers and incumbent phone companies will realize that this infrastructure doesn't have to be only useful to Jajah, but also to them. Roman says that Jajah is already terminating international calls for a Canadian telco company. With two big US cable companies they have similar contracts. "We are negotiating with seven or eight big European players", he says. "We have the most interesting infrastructure of the industry", touts the Austrian high flyer. Then he explains how Jajah can power even the most outdated fixed line phone systems, every kind of mobile phone network (GSM, CDMA, UMTS) and the latest freaky services like Emobile's data only cell phones. They don't even have a voice channel, but the Japanese users can make cheap VoIP calls over SIP with a preinstalled Jajah client.

Why I am disgusted with Plaxo Pulse

I don't like Plaxo Pulse. It feels scary and gives me a sense of lost privacy. For years Plaxo was just an address book service in the internet. I could store my friends' address data and access them from whichever computer. From time to time I sent automatic emails which asked the to update their information.

But all of a sudden I got emails from Plaxo that someone commented on something. On what please? Wasn't Plaxo my private address book, available only for me? How could someone comment on that? Plaxo's weekly update started to tell me that friends had updated their blog or started discussion groups. Again that was information I didn't ask for. Today I received an email which took me to a comment on a Plaxo website. There someone writes about a photo of mine "It's interesting how one's imagination about a person changes when we see a photo. I imagined you very different." Scary, isn't it?

Why does my private address book make me get comments about my appearance from people I interviewed only once, on the phone months ago? I don't like that. I would like to turn all this Pulse crap off at Plaxo. But it seems that in this case I would also loose the address book update functionalities. That's what I have learned from the forum entry "Re: Plaxo Pulse violates privacy policy"

Why must this Web 2.0 crap invade everything? I don't want my address book to autonomously "connect and socialize with one another". That's much more abilities than I ask for! An address book is a very private thing and a social network is something public. I don't want these two worlds to mix. I don't want Plaxo to automatically publish my private connections and exploit them for their company purposes.

Maybe I have to dump Plaxo at all.

German Chancellor Merkel about Sony Ericsson's Xperia X1: It looks like the iPhone!

It was fun when I was at Hanover's computer fair CeBIT this week, and saw how German Chancellor Angela Merkel stopped by the booth of Sony Ericsson. Again she proved great repartee. With few words she made the crowd crack up laughing and the suit wearers of Sony Ericsson got long faces. Axel Kettenring, General Manager of Sony Ericsson Germany, proudly introduced the new top model Xperia X1, allegedly "a seamless blend of mobile web communication and multimedia entertainment within a distinctive design". That's what at least the press release in February said. But when our Chancellor held the touchscreen mobile phone in her hand, she only said: "Ah, like the iPhone". And again Apple could be happy for free advertising.

German Chancellor sees no difference to the iPhone

Kettenring was so puzzled, he could only say that the Xperia X1 is also great for phone calls and short messages. But you don't need a $1140 smartphone for that, and our passionate SMS writer heading of the state of Germany knows that. With pleasure she asked next: "And where do you produce?", wherupon Kettenring proudly replied "everywhere". After one second to take a breath he had to add "but in Germany" which got him a grim look from Mrs Merkel. The globalized company produces its handsets only in distant countries like Malaysia, Japan, and China.

The Chancellor's round tour over CeBIT is always a media highlight of the world's biggest electronics fair. Big hordes of photographers, TV crews and reporters followed the head of state through the exhibition halls. The eleven companies where Merkel stopped over were honored to receive her. Among them were pack leaders like Deutsche Telekom, IBM and Microsoft as well as smaller companies like Funkwerk Dabendorf or Komsa.

Also network operator Vodafone had to put up with Merkel's criticism. Germany CEO Friedrich Joussen actually wanted to proudly present a new picture search engine for mobile phones. Instead of entering a search term, you shoot a picture with the camera phone and load it on a server. In response you get information about the depicted buildings or the person photographed. With images of the Berlin Cathedral it worked flawless at CeBIT. But not with a mobile photo of Angela Merkel. "Your sought after motive is not yet in the Otello database", the Chancellor read from the display. "That's a serious void, I think", she added. Although Friedrich Joussen could play down the embarrassing situation with a laugh, he later must have bawled out his employees heavily.