Video conferencing was a lot more interesting to watch in 2011 than was VoIP. It wasn't that nothing happened in VoIP during the year. It was just that a lot more happened in video conferencing. This was especially true in the SMB space. Early summer saw a slew of significant announcements from vendors and providers. These announcements figured prominently in the VoIP Evolution report "SMB Video Conferencing: Getting Beyond Clouds & Interoperability."
A new report by Infonetics Research shows that sorting through mobile VoIP options won't be simple anytime soon, even as user numbers explode. It starts with the fact that there are two main methods of delivering VoIP to mobile devices. One is over-the-top (OTT), in which the voice calls travel over carrier-provided data networks. The other is via LTE (long-term evolution), a technology that lets carriers themselves deliver voice calls over IP links to the handset. Prominent OTT providers include Skype, fring, Line2, Nimbuzz, Rebtel, Truphone, Viber, Vopium and others. Verizon Wireless will introduce native mobile VoIP over LTE in 2012.
After starting as the year of HD voice, 2010 ended as the year of video communication. Video in fact became so prominent that it earned a place in the title of this list. Announcements about new video communication products and services were so numerous they became routine. As the year progressed, it became clear that video conferencing/calling was no longer a luxury for the corporate and government elite, but was well on the way to becoming a commodity for the masses. Ordinary individuals will soon be making video calls with little more thought than they now give to picking up a telephone. Making that happen, however, will be a complex challenge for vendors and service providers.
A variety of other factors shaped voice and visual communication during the year. Chief among these were developments in mobile VoIP and video calling, along with an acceleration of the move to cloud-based voice services. Politics and the weather played unusually high-profile roles as well. So did the negative: Unlike last year, not all the important developments were advances – some were downright problematic. But even the negative developments had some constructive aspects. Skype of course figured prominently in many of the developments. So pervasive was the influence of the Internet VoIP pioneer that it seemed that the corporate slogan of "Skype Everywhere" applied to its appearances in headlines as well.
From the viewpoint of video communication, two of the most interesting startups at the just-ended TechCrunch Disrupt conference didn't present on stage. Rather, they had displays in the "Startup Alley" area that attendees passed through on the way to the presentation hall. Significantly, both involved non-real-time video communication. Both also worked through Web browsers, Web cams and e-mail rather than through specialized software or equipment. As such, they highlighted one of the most prominent trends in video communication: the push for simplicity, ease of use, flexibility and breadth of availability.
The recent unconfirmed report that Cisco was interested in buying Skype got a lot of attention. Many analysts and pundits pronounced the idea a good one. They pontificated about how Skype service could complement Cisco products and services. Some focused on video communication as well as voice synergies. Few, however, mentioned the fundamental long-term threat Skype poses to Cisco's video conferencing business – and not just Skype, but any Internet-based video communication service. That threat will only grow as time passes. Acquiring Skype could help Cisco cope with the threat.
Given the names involved, many observers unsurprisingly expected whatever deal Skype and Verizon Wireless planned to announce at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to produce a major breakthrough for mobile VoIP. But when the announcement came, it turned out to be less than overwhelming. It involved an application that will allow mobile users to make Skype calls over the Verizon Wireless network using smart phones. The deal does little to alter Verizon's traditional cellular model. It doesn't transport VoIP over the 3G data network, and it won't be a major money-saver for users. The main change it brings is making Skype somewhat more convenient and accessible for Verizon customers.
Verizon Wireless was for a long time the most conservative U.S. carrier. It did everything it could to keep even mildly disruptive applications and services off of its network and handsets. In the last year, though, it has claimed to be changing, saying it planned to make its network as open as possible. In October it said it would introduce two handsets running the Google-developed Android operating system, and with Google Voice installed. It subsequently announced a deal with Google to jointly develop and sell products, including such Android-based devices. Now it appears set to announce a deal with Skype.
When fring and iCall announced recently that they were introducing iPhone 3G VoIP calling apps, it seemed a turning point for mobile VoIP. The apps, which recent changes in the Apple SDK made possible, made it clear that there's no turning back: VoIP over cellular data connections will soon become commonplace. What was less obvious was that, at this point, 3G VoIP won't have major impact, at least in the U.S. That's because under existing major mobile pricing plans, it won't produce significant savings for most users.
XConnect's recently announced plan for a trial HD voice peering federation marks a significant advance in the move to HD communication. The trial, to take place between April and June of this year, will directly connect providers offering HD voice services. That will let them pass HD calls, which provide audio quality superior to that of conventional PSTN phone calls, to one another rather than just among their own customers. The trial thus represents an effort to start building a critical mass of HD-capable voice subscribers. As such, it is as much a commercial effort as a technical one.