Is mobile VoIP finally ready for the mainstream market?

Mobile VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) has carried so much hype and potential for what now seems forever. But when will mobile VoIP finally pass the threshold from innovative technology to common consumer product with mainstream adoption?

Mobile VoIP began growing sometime in 2006, driven largely by the adoption of mobile messaging, and the introduction of VoIP-capable smartphones such as those running Windows Mobile 5 and the Symbian 8.0 Operating System. During those early days, the devices never touted being VoIP-capable, which suggests that to some degree the capability was inadvertent. But the early days were all about exploiting this capability when the first applications were released by Fring, Barablu and Yeigo.

As a point of clarification, many others would assert that this market began with applications like Jajah, which used a ‘callback’ service for calls — effectively making and connecting two phone calls on the traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN). This also meant that you paid for two legs of a call, which was only feasible in countries like the United States where normal call rates were already very low. In my mind, as no voice was actually connected as data from the phone, it wasn’t really mobile VoIP.

The mobile VoIP market has certainly grown since its early days, with several more players and user figures to boot. However, mobile VoIP is still to ‘cross the chasm’ and the battle is still on to finally present mobile VoIP effectively to the mainstream market. More often than not, mobile VoIP still isn’t considered a ‘proper telephone’, but rather a very interesting toy. The state of mind or reference that all mobile VoIP players have been battling since inception, is that when one really needs to make a phone call, one picks up a ‘proper’ telephone.

Some of the main players have taken strides in the following ways:

Nimbuzz has traditionally positioned itself strongly on instant messaging (IM) across all of the popular chat networks, on-net free calls, as well as value adds like file/photo/video sharing and a cool web application. Just recently they took the first step in connecting to the ‘normal’ telephony world, and added the ability to call into the PSTN telephone network. They have also started exploring their business model through small adverts running along the bottom of the application, as well as offering outcalls to external networks.

Fring has shown a strong focus on IM across multiple networks and free on-net calls, with the value add of sharing files and the ability to add your own SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) provider or a Skype account to call into the ‘normal’ telephony network. Their latest addition of video calls completes their suite.

Truphone provides packages with bundled minutes, and has got involved with wireless network provision to ensure better quality of calls in the UK. With their international SIM business, they have pushed the boundaries to bring real telephony to the mobile IP world.

Whether these strategies will ultimately take mobile VoIP across the chasm between what separates mobile VoIP calls and what is considered proper calls, is in my view based on three factors.

Number One:
There can’t be any shortcuts in providing quality telephony. A significant proportion of quality issues with mobile VoIP (or VoIP in general) are a direct result of under-investment in infrastructure, and going for cheap, cheap, cheap.

Good quality and access to top quality international call routes actually requires significant telephony infrastructure and strong telecom relationships, beyond the readily available IP inter-connects one can get from a million-and-one resellers. In order to operate in the operator world (pun intended), and be able to provide users access to the traditional telephony world, it should be done at nothing less than the standard that peer operators use between themselves.

While it has always been easier to control the quality of on-net calls between users without following convention, one still needs to have quality carrier switches interconnecting with incumbent operators, and therefore the need to straddle both the traditional telephony world and the IP world.

For mobile VoIP to be as effective as traditional telephony, it needs quality calls, visible caller line identification, and everything else people already expect.

Factor Two:
With any application, once you have downloaded it and installed it on your phone, it can actually just sit there and be easily forgotten. An application has to be able to draw us back to it, and repeatedly remind us why it’s useful, otherwise it becomes irrelevant.

In terms of mobile VoIP, a crippling factor has been the issue that if you are not ‘online’ and logged into the application, you cannot receive calls from someone trying to reach you. Or you won’t really make those free calls to other users because you are never both online at the same time.

Mobile VoIP has to be persistent beyond the online world, which means being able to continue accessing the benefits when you are not actively online — i.e. having the option to go online to answer that call when it comes in, not just seeing a voicemail message after you have missed the call. The line between being online and offline has to become thinner.

Factor Three:
The importance of integrating mobile VoIP with compelling data services that are not just cute but that meet real needs, cannot be underplayed. Exactly what the most compelling data services will be, is still largely open to experimentation, but it has to be beyond what the traditional GSM operator can provide.

From video calls, file and media transfers, contact book synchronisation, the list is bound to increase with new ways you can interact online from your phone.

It is now more than four years since the earliest mobile VoIP applications came forth. With the significant maturation of the applications in the market today, further liberalisation of telecoms markets, and better informed consumers who are more keen to use applications (even if they don’t own an iPhone), I expect that the mobile VoIP chasm will be conquered in the next 18 months.

Provided of course, that careful attention is applied to the aforementioned factors.



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