Google Talk’s Secret Mistresses

Talkin' 'bout a googlution, sometimes...

Just about anybody reading this blog has probably heard about Google Talk (beta) already.

Nonetheless, let me recap for you. Google Talk is Google’s new foray into Instant Messaging and Voice over IP, using Jabber for the IM side and SIP for the VoIP.

Currently, Google Talk users can only IM and call other Google Talk users. Ha, just what the world needed, yet another IM/voice chat service.

Actually, this could be just what the world needed.

You see, although Google Talk only connects to itself today, Google is using open standards… which means it’d be pretty darn easy for them to open it up to talk with say, I dunno, DreamHost customers.

And actually, not only would it be pretty darn easy, Google’s even said that’s exactly their plan! Before the thing gets out of beta bobstires12@gmail.com should be able to IM bob@bobstires.com, and vice-versa.

They also mention they’re already working on VoIP interoperability with Earthlink’s upcoming free offeringas well as SIPphone.com. But more on that later…

Remember when AOL users could only email other AOL users?
And Prodigy users could only email other Prodigy users?
And Compuserve users could only email other Compuserve users?
All the online services of the day were like “walled gardens” for their users to play with each other in complete security and comfort under the watchful eye of a responsible organization.

That sucked.

Email never became mainstream until the real Internet took off and provided a clear open standard for all these disparate systems to hook up. It took a while for all of the big providers to come on board though, because if everybody could talk to each other there’s less of an incentive to sign up for a big provider!

But as the Internet grew, not allowing Internet email (not to mention access), became so much of a liability that even mighty AOL was finally forced to open up. So now bobstires1234567@aol.com can email bob@bobstires.com without a second thought. And the world is a better place.

The IM and VoIP landscape as of August 22nd, 2005 looked a lot like the email landscape did on August 22nd, 1993. There’s AIM, MSN, and Yahoo!, for IM and none of them talk with each other. There’s Skype, Vonage, BroadVoice, and a number of other VoIP providers, and none of them talk to each other.

But wait.. haven’t you ever heard of Trillian?

Okay yes, there are some hacks out there right now that let you be on all three IM providers at once, by signing up for an account with each one. This is feasible because, unlike the email providers of old, all the IM services are free!

But there are problems with the way things are now. For one, good luck starting a competing IM system. For anybody to use it, you’ve got to be able to interface with the big three… and since they all have their own secret way of doing things, you’ll be constantly reverse engineering and hacking things together just to get basic communication going. Whooeee, and good luck supporting file transfers, chat rooms, video conferencing, smiley plug-ins, and whatever else is all the rage with the kiddies today!

Google’s Secret Mistress

The annoying (though excusable) thing is that there IS an open standard for IM that all the services COULD be using… she’s called Ms. Jabber, and you get to use her free with all our hosting accounts.

Ms. Jabber’s address looks exactly like an email address, which means you can run her on your own server and have complete control of your IM-ing destiny. Unfortunately, Ms. Jabber doesn’t speak the same language as the 99.999% of the world who uses AIM/MSN/YIM. Fortunately, people write little plug-ins for Ms. Jabber called “transports” which let her speak French, Spanish, and German all at once, and thereby communicate with the big three IM services.

But Ms. Jabber keeps losing touch with them!

Why? Because, like Navajo code-talkers, AIM/MSN/YIM are always creating new languages to use, and when they do they feel no obligation to keep Ms. Jabber in the loop! I don’t blame them though… Ms. Jabber is the new girl on the block. When ICQ first showed up he had no choice but to come up with his own language, and then later MSN and Yahoo had to do the same because there was no way ICQ/AIM wanted to hear anything those bozos had to say!

And what do you mean VoIP providers don’t talk to each other? Haven’t you ever heard of telephone numbers?

It’s true, VoIP providers are forced into interoperability because they’re trying to break into an industry that’s already standardized. Vonage would have exactly no customers if you couldn’t call non-Vonage telephones with their service! Skype gets away with only allowing you to call other Skype customers because it’s free (and you can call real phone numbers too if you pay).

However, these providers are still creating artificial barriers to VoIP’s broader adoption because they don’t interoperate on the IP-level. Yeah, they can all talk to each other over POTS (plain old telephone system), but that’s not really the point. That’d be like if the old Compuserve allowed emailing AOL users… by just printing out your emails and snail mailing them over to AOL’s headquarters. Then charged you $30 a month extra for the convenience.

VoIP’s Secret Mistress

Her name is SIP, and the mainstream VoIP providers don’t want you to know about her.

SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is basically the Jabber of VoIP. Big surprise, a SIP address looks just like an email address, and in theory you can connect to any other SIP address and do any sort of voice/video/text chatting (IM can use SIP too) for free (well, just the cost of bandwidth) over the Internet.

And, all the big VoIP providers (except for Skype) already use her. So, does that mean if you set up a SIP server and get a free SIP client (like maybe from Xten or SJphone) you could call Vonage phones for absolutely nothing?

Yes!

Er, actually… NO!

It turns out, if your Vonage phone number is 1-323-555-1212, you have a SIP address of 13235551212@sip.vonage.net! Or rather, you did. Apparently sometime last year they started hiding SIP from the outside world. So, even though she’s all set up and they in fact use her when making Vonage-to-Vonage calls, they just choose to block the rest of the Internet from her.

How intriguing!

What are they so ashamed of?

Beats me, but I think it’s a little bit of the old AOL mentality. As far as they can see, there’s really no money to be made in direct Internet-to-Internet calling… nobody pays for email or IM, and nobody pays for Skype-to-Skype, so ain’t nobody going to pay for SIP either.

And unlike the AOL of lore, they’ve got nothing else they can charge for besides telephone calls. The sooner the world starts using SIP instead of telephone numbers, the sooner Vonage has got to find a new business model.

So right now their thinking is probably along the lines of “SIP who?”

But… SIP has another lover, one who isn’t ashamed of her. They parade her around for the whole world to see, even shout her name from the top of their web site! They’re SIPphone.com, and they’re the opposite of Vonage.

I think they also plan to make their money on the SIP-to-POTS transition, but at least they’ve resigned themselves to the inevitability of a SIP phone world. When you sign up with SIPphone, you get a phone number in the 747 area code that is also a real-deal SIP address @sipphone.com, totally for free. Like Vonage, they also sell VoIP routers so you can use a regular telephone with your new flame.

So, why hasn’t anybody heard of them? Besides the lack of cool orange TV ads, I think it’s because they don’t offer an unlimited domestic calling plan, and you can only get phone numbers in the 747 area code. C’mon guys, get on the ball! We’re pulling for you over here!

SIP has some other boyfriends too:

There’s Stanaphone.com, who’s sort of like the worst of Vonage and SIPphone put together… you can only get a 517 area code phone number, there are no unlimited domestic calling plans, AND they seem to block SIP from the rest of the world. But they do have the best looking web site.

There’s also FreeWorldDialup.com who is a totally free SIP-only provider. Like some sort of deadbeat hippy, FWD can’t make calls to the regular POTS, but hey, ten years from now nobody will need to, yeah?

There are also some funny characters like KallFree.com who will provide a disguise for SIP when she goes out in public. KallFree.com will map a real POTS phone number (in this case a 360 number) to SIP (if she’s not locked up by Vonage or Stanaphone).
But you can’t call out with it.
Which I guess is useful for mutes.

Finally there’s Skype, who actually made their own pretty cool P2P VoIP implementation (without SIP!), allow you to get lots of area code phone numbers, and are by far the biggest VoIP provider in the world. However, without the loving tenderness of SIP, I think they’re headed for a cold and lonely demise.

But WAIT… just two days ago Skype announced they were creating the “SkypeNet API”! That is, they are committed to opening up their protocol to the world. Theoretically this would allow somebody to make a SIP-to-Skype service (and vice-versa), which hopefully won’t be as flakey as some of the Jabber transports we know and love.

But WAIT again… that’s kind of WEIRD how Skype announced the opening of their protocol so recently, no? I wonder if it could have anything to do with, I dunno, GOOGLE TALK?!

Methinks it might.

Skype’s no Google, and even though as of Monday Google had exactly no VoIP or IM customers, I don’t think anybody would be too surprised if they had more than 20% of the market by August 22nd, 2006.

And since Google’s making the right move (ironically also the easy move, because by using the pre-existing open standards they probably saved themselves butt-loads of work) they’re forcing the rest of the industry to think long and hard if they should fight to keep their customers locked inside their “walled gardens,” or whether they should open the doors and get to work making their gardens the best on the Internet.

There are already rumors that Yahoo! is working on Jabber-fying their IM system. It makes sense that they’d be the next to do it, since they have the second smallest market share (after Google). Next will probably be Microsoft, and finally AOL; last as usual because they’ve got the most to lose. But they’ll switch over (or at least make an ultra-reliable Jabber-to-AIM gateway) eventually, or risk losing all those great young eyeballs.

The same thing will happen with VoIP, but I think even faster. The VoIP market is still much tinier than the IM market, and much less mature. The providers are all (except for Skype, who’s opening their API) already in bed with SIP and Google will probably grow pretty quickly to be the #2 provider (after Skype).

I’m 100% certain that by August 22nd, 2015, the entire world will be using SIP addresses for entirely free wireless phone calls. And if I’m wrong, I swear to God I’ll deny the whole thing.

In summary, all of this is a roundabout way of saying, DreamHost is going to start working on providing SIP service @yourowndomain.com. I can’t give you any sort of timeline, but if we don’t do it soon, we’ll do it later. In a few years a web host without SIP and Jabber support will be as rare as a web host today without email support.

Just so that for $100/year you can have a phone number like bob@bobstires.com instead of bobstires12@gmail.com!