VoIP over the 3G data channel comes to the iPhone

I discussed last September how AT&T was considering opening up the 3G data channel to third party voice applications like Skype. According to Rethink Wireless, Steve Jobs mentioned in passing at this week’s iPad extravaganza that it is now a done deal.

Rethink mentions iCall and Skype as beneficiaries. Another notable one is Fring. Google Voice is not yet in this category, since it uses the cellular voice channel rather than the data channel, so it is not strictly speaking VoIP; the same applies to Skype for the iPhone.

According to Boaz Zilberman, Chief Architect at Fring, the Fring iPhone client needed no changes to implement VoIP on the 3G data channel. It was simply a matter of reprogramming the Fring servers to not block it. Apple also required a change to Fring’s customer license agreements, requiring the customer to use this feature only if permitted by his service provider. AT&T now allows it, but non-US carriers may have different policies.

Boaz also mentioned some interesting points about VoIP on the 3G data channel compared with EDGE/GPRS and Wi-Fi. He said that Fring only uses the codecs built in to handsets to avoid the battery drain of software codecs. He said that his preferred codec is AMR-NB; he feels the bandwidth constraints and packet loss inherent in wireless communications negate the audio quality benefits of wideband codecs. 3G data calls often sound better than Wi-Fi calls – the increased latency (100 ms additional round-trip according to Boaz) is balanced by reduced packet loss. 20% of Fring’s calls run on GPRS/EDGE, where the latency is even greater than on 3G; total round trip latency on a GPRS VoIP call is 400-500ms according to Boaz.

As for handsets, Boaz says that Symbian phones are best suited for VoIP, the Nokia N97 being the current champion. Windows Mobile has poor audio path support in its APIs. The iPhone’s greatest advantage is its user interface, it’s disadvantages are lack of background execution and lack of camera APIs. Android is fragmented: each Android device requires different programming to implement VoIP.

Apple iPad has proprietary processor

Well, the Apple iPad is out. Time will tell whether its success will equal that of the iPhone, the Apple TV or the MacBook Air. I’m confident it will do better than the Newton. The announcement contained a few interesting points, the most significant of which is that it uses a new Apple proprietary processor, the A4. Some reviewers have described the iPad as very fast, and with good battery life; these are indications that the processor is power efficient. Because of its software similarities to the iPhone, the architecture is probably ARM-based, with special P.A. Semi sauce for power and speed. On the other hand, it could be a spin of the PWRficient CPU, which is PowerPC based. In that light, it is interesting to review Apple’s reasons for abandoning the Power PC in 2005. Maybe Apple’s massive increase in sales volume since then has made Intel’s economies of scale less overwhelming?

The price is right, as is an option to go without a 3G radio. The weight is double that of a Kindle, and half that of a MacBook Air.

I am disappointed that there is no user-pointing camera, because as I mentioned earlier, I think that videophone will be a major use for this class of device.

Update 3 February 2010: Linley Gwenapp wrote up some speculations in his newsletter.

Skype’s international traffic growing fast

At CES last week Josh Silverman, Skype’s CEO mentioned that Skype’s international voice traffic went up 75% in 2009. This has now been approximately confirmed by Telegeography, which now puts Skype’s share of international voice traffic at 13%, up from 8% in 2008. That’s an increase of over 60% year on year.

Josh Silverman also mentioned that Skype was being downloaded at a rate of well over 300,000 downloads per day. Yes, per day. This number matches CKIPE’s observation that Skype added 2.5 million new users in the 11 days after Christmas 2009.

If you are interested in Skype numbers you can get more at CKIPE and SkypeNumerology.

Developing for Android: Promise and Reality

When Android came out a couple of years ago, Matt Lewis of Rethink Wireless saw it as an opportunity to avoid the fragmentation that open source projects are prone to:

Google is not a handset OS company. Android is simply a means to an end – the end being to create a vast new expanse of real estate which Google can beam its advertising inventory to. This demands a level of consistency and interpretability from Android so that, regardless of who implements the platform on whichever device, application compatibility is maintained.

Alas, Matt was over-optimistic (or under-cynical). Here’s what Rethink said this week about Android:

As for Android developers, many are angry that there is no SDK as yet for Nexus One. This, in turn, has highlighted the issue of fragmentation, with different OS releases and even different devices requiring different SDKs, with limited compatibility between apps written for the various versions. Until there is an SDK for Android 2.1, the latest OS upgrade, which so far runs only on Nexus One, programmers cannot be sure their apps will work properly with the new handset.

HD Voice – state of deployment

At the HD Voice Summit in Las Vegas last week, Alan Percy of AudioCodes gave a presentation of the state of deployment of HD Voice, citing three levels of deployment: announced interest, trials and service deployment.

Percy’s take was that in the “Crossing the Chasm” technology adoption lifecycle, HD Voice is right at the chasm.

Here is his list, augmented with input from Jan Linden of GIPS,Tom Lemaire of FT/Orange, Doug Mohney of HD Voice News and Dave Erickson of Wyde Voice:

Category Company Stage
PC VoIP Skype >500 m downloads
QQ (China) >500 m downloads
Gizmo5 (now Google)
Wireline telco France Telecom 500K HD users
British Telecom Trials
FT/Orange Spain Deployed 1Q09
FT/Orange Poland Deploys 1Q10
Mobile Orange (Moldova) Production
Orange (UK) Deploys 3Q10
Orange (Belgium) Deploys 2010
CLEC VoIP Alteva Production
SimpleSignal Production
Ooma 25K HD users
8×8 >70K HD users
OnSIP Production
Phone.com Trials
US MSOs CableVision/Lightpath Limited Trials
Conferencing ZipDX Production
ClearOne Production
Citrix Production
FreeConferenceCall.com Production
Global Crossing Limited Trials

The main codecs in each of these deployments are: Skype:SILK; QQ, Citrix, Freeconferencecall:iSAC; mobile:AMR-WB; all others: G.722.

Alan pointed out the conspicuous lack of involvement of the cable companies (MSOs), even though Cable Labs has done a good job of creating HD specifications for them.

How 3D TV works

Web searches reveal tons of different technologies, so many that it’s hard to figure out which ones are actually used. It also appears that the format wars are well under way.

At CES last week I stopped in a booth lined with LCD TVs from several different manufacturers, displaying 3D images to people wearing polarizing glasses. According to a person manning the booth, the technique used in these TVs is to encode the images on alternate scan lines, and to have a polarizing filter attached to the screen, arranged in horizontal stripes, one stripe per row of pixels, with each row polarized orthogonally to the adjacent ones. The effect was very good, roughly equivalent to cinema 3D.

The booth also had a DLP projector projecting 3D onto a screen. This required bulkier glasses. According to the person in the booth, the technique used here was to encode the left and right images in alternating frames, with shuttering in the glasses synchronized with the display, occluding the right eye when a left frame is showing, and vice versa. This flavor of 3D didn’t work for me – maybe my glasses were broken…

Confirmation that these are currently the two primary methods of doing 3D on TVs comes from an excellent series of blog postings by Lenny Lipton.

HD Voice Numbers

50% of consumers say they would change their telephone service provider to get better sound quality, according to Tom Lemaire, Sr. Director of Business Development at Orange/France Telecom North America, speaking at the CES HD Voice Summit this week (Orange/France Telecom has the largest deployment of HD Voice of any traditional telco). Rich Buchanan, Chief Marketing Officer at Ooma, said at the same session that his surveys show that 65% of consumers would change their provider to get better voice quality.

Bearing in mind that we know from observation that consumers value both mobility and price above call quality, these survey numbers fall into the “interesting if true” category.

Lemaire and Buchanan also said that their logs show that the average call in HD lasts longer than the average narrowband call, though they didn’t give numbers.

Top ten uses for an Internet Tablet/Web Slate

The tablet wars are imminent, with Microsoft, Google and Apple breaking out their big guns. Here’s what you will be doing with yours later this year:

  1. Internet browser of course: think iPhone experience with a bigger screen. It will be super-fast with 802.11n in your home, and somewhat slower when you are out and about, tethering to your cell phone for wide-area connectivity. You don’t need a cellular connection in the Internet Tablet itself, though the cellcos wish you would.
  2. TV accessory: treat it as a personal picture-in-picture display. View the program guide without disturbing the other people watching the main screen. Use it for voting on shows like American Idol. Use it as a remote to change channels and set up recordings.
  3. TV replacement: a 10 inch screen at two feet is the same relative size as a 50 inch screen at ten feet. Use it with Hulu and the other streaming video services.
  4. Video iPod, but with a much nicer screen. Say goodbye to portable DVD players.
  5. VideoPhone: some Internet Tablets will have hi-res user-facing cameras and high definition microphones and speakers: the perfect Skype phone to keep on your coffee table. How about on your fridge door for an always-on video connection to the grandparents? Or in a suitable charging base, a replacement office desk phone.
  6. Electronic picture frame: sure it’s overkill for such a trivial application, but when it’s not doing anything else, why not?
  7. eBook reader: maybe not in 2010, but as screen and power technology evolve the notion of a special-function eBook reader will become as quaint as a Wang word processor. (Never heard of a Wang word processor? I rest my case.)
  8. Home remote: take a look at AMX. This kind of top-of-the-line home control will be available to the masses. Set the thermostat, set the burglar alarm, look at the front door webcam when the doorbell rings…
  9. Game console: look at all the games for the iPhone. Many of them will work on Apple’s iSlate from day one. And you can bet there will be plenty of cool games for Android, and even Windows-based Internet Tablets.
  10. PND display: Google Maps on the iPhone is miraculously good, but it’s not perfect. The display is way too small for effective in-car navigation. It’s possible that some Internet Tablets will have GPS chips in them (GPS only adds a few dollars to the bill of materials), but for this application there’s no need. Tether it to your cell phone for the Internet connectivity and the GPS, and use the tablet for display and input only.

2010 will be the year of the Internet Tablet. The industry has pretty much converged on the form factor: ten-inch-plus screen, touch interface, Wi-Fi connectivity. What’s a little more up in the air are minor details that will provide differentiation, like cellular connectivity, cameras, speakers and microphones. Apple will jump-start the category, but there will quickly be a slew of contenders at sub-$200 price points.

Several technology advances have converged to make now the right time. Low-cost, low energy ARM processors like the Qualcomm Snapdragon have enough processing muscle to drive PC-scale applications, and their pricing piggy-backs on the manufacturing scale of phones. 802.11n is fast enough for responsive web-based applications and HD video streaming. LCD screens continue to get cheaper. Personal Wi-Fi networks enable tethering and wireless keyboards for when you need them.

This also the perfect form factor for grade school kids. Once the screen resolutions get high enough books will disappear almost overnight. No more backs bent under packs laden with schoolbooks. Just this.