I’m a Phone Weenie

Send to Kindle

OK, I admit it. Rob Page, CEO of Zope Corporation officially coined me a phone weenie a number of weeks ago. He’s right. Of course, he also directly benefits from that feature in me, since I am the primary Asterisk PBX administrator at Zope Corp. 😉

So, what does it mean to be a phone weenie? Basically, it means that I get excited about every possible way to interconnect phone systems, even where there are little practical uses for doing so. 😉

For example, here are a variety of ways that I have at my disposal to “speak on the phone” (and by phone, I often really mean headset connected to my laptop). First (and in this case foremost), I run multiple Asterisk PBX servers. One in my house, one in my apartment, one on opticality.com which is in a data center in Virginia, one at Zope Corporation (which I’m in charge of), and one or two other ones that I’ve set up for friends. This is my primary way of getting phone calls. It’s also the only way (other than her cell phone) that Lois makes phone calls.

I (on the other hand), rarely make PSTN outgoing calls via Asterisk any longer (though I certainly used to, for years). In addition to Asterisk, I’ve had accounts with a variety of VoIP providers (mostly SIP) for years, including: FreeWorldDialup (FWD), SIPPhone (also providers of the Gizmo Project), etc. Of course, I’ve also had a Skype account for years.

Being a phone weenie, I eschewed the use of Skype for a long time, and only launched it when someone else specifically asked me to have a conversation via Skype. Why? Because Skype isn’t standards compliant and therefore can’t interact (easily) with other systems, including SIP, Asterisk, etc. That said, everything that people said about Skype was also true, namely that it was easy to use, had great sound quality, could get through most firewalls (which is why corporate America rightfully hates it!), etc.

Last year, Skype offered 7 months of unlimited calling to any US or Canadian land-line or cell phone (using their SkypeOut service), if you were a US or Canadian based caller. Who could pass on free calls? So, I used Skype a number of times for that. For the most part, the quality was good, so when I remembered to, I’d use it for long-distance calls. The only downside was that I wasn’t sending my own Caller ID. To some, that’s a positive, but since I am not a telemarketer, I don’t mind people knowing that it’s me that’s calling. 😉

In January of this year, Skype stopped the free service, but for $30/year, gave the same unlimited calling. But, if you act now (or rather before January 31, 2007), you could get the same service for $14.95 for all of 2007. I did. It works. I like it.

But, I still didn’t launch Skype unless I was about to make a long-distance call, or someone asked me (typically via email) to get on Skype. Lately, I’ve been doing some business with a company in Europe. Of course, no one wants to pay for International calls. It turns out that they are all Mac users, and all had Skype installed already. So, rather than fighting the tide, I now launch Skype regularly (still not automatically at login), and I speak to them on the phone frequently, and use Skype IM more than I thought I would. It’s still a very nice package with excellent sound quality.

But, that’s not really the purpose of this post. As usual, I type way too much before getting to the point. I don’t mind, because I’m only blogging for myself at the moment, and these are the specific thoughts that I want to capture for myself for posterity, for now…

Here’s the point of this post 🙂

When it was first announced, I got very excited about Google Talk (Gtalk). I thought it would be a formidable opponent to Skype, but would be more standards compliant and therefore interoperable. Well, there may be a ton of people using it, but none of the people that I interact with have ever asked me to have a conversation with them via Google Talk! Ironically, Gtalk licensed the same codec that Skype did (from Global IP Sound) so their sound quality is pretty exceptional as well.

In any event, Gtalk was supposed to be more interoperable because they were based on XMPP (which is the protocol underneath the fantastic Jabber IM service). That has finally turned out to be true, but it was a long time coming. The fact that it can interoperate with other Jabber servers is of minor interest to me personally. I run my own Jabber server, and can interact with any other Jabber server on the planet that turns on that feature.

What has been interesting to me (in theory) is whether Gtalk can be a client with critical mass distribution (like Skype is already), but be able to work seemlessly with things like Asterisk (and other existing and as yet to be developed services). Google has the brand and the muscle to move as many free clients as Skype, so my dream lives on.

So, the latest version of Asterisk (1.4.x, which just became 1.4.1 this week) has support for Gtalk built in. I don’t know whether it works well or not, because I run the more proven 1.2.x branch (now at 1.2.16 as of this week). That doesn’t have the support.

Today, I read a posting on the Asterisk mailing list by someone who used a new service to connect the two, without installing any software on my server or my client! What? Yes, that’s right, and I have to say that I got it working pretty easily, and it’s usefulness is much greater than simply connecting Asterisk to Google Talk.

The service is called gtalk2voip. It’s extremely cool, and completely free for basic services, which is all I am interested in! It is a gateway service that knows how to communicate with Google Talk, MSN Live Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger. In addition to being able to send IM (through gtalk2voip) between the services (I know, big deal), they can connect voice calls between the three services. That alone would be cool, though I suspect that over time, the services will connect to each other (as many IM services have done in the past, reluctantly). But, what this service can do (and trivially!), is connect any of the three services to any SIP address on any arbitrary SIP provider (including Asterisk, which has built-in SIP support).

So, I clicked one button on the home page of gtalk2voip.com and typed in my gmail address (which is tied to my Gtalk service). One second later, I had a message in Gtalk asking me if I wanted to add a new Contact “service@gtalk2voip.com”. Once I said yes, the new service IM’ed me with instructions on how to use the service (cool). I made a 2-line change to my Asterisk configuration (many wouldn’t need to even do that), and I was able to make a call from Gtalk to my home phone, entirely through SIP (Asterisk controls all of my phones).

I was then able to add a new extension in Asterisk, and when I dialed it from my home phone, Gtalk started ringing. It just worked. No downloads, no real work. If you have a SIP address on any service (FWD, SIPPhone, GizmoProject, or your own server, etc.), then you have zero configuration after you’ve accepted “service@gtalk2voip.com” as your new contact. I wasn’t publishing a SIP address to the world, since my Asterisk gets called when people dial my real PSTN number, so I had to add a few lines to expose a SIP address…

OK, so this is way cool, except that I still don’t think Gtalk has really caught on yet. But, if it does, I’m already ready, which is wildly exciting.

Now for a bit of irony to conclude this long post. For the past 10+ years, perhaps closer to 15, I have been a member of a computer book club which has had a number of names, now called Computer Books Direct. It’s a pretty darn good book club, but since I stopped working as a programmer, I haven’t bought a book from them, which has been 9 years now. I haven’t canceled my membership because I have 38 member credits which I can use for either free books, or greatly reduced pricing. Some day, I suspect I’ll use them. In the meantime, I have to watch my snail mail like a hawk, to ensure that I don’t forget to cancel this month’s selections. I haven’t missed in at least 8 years, so I’m good at it.

Today (that’s right, today!), after I started writing this post, but before I finished it (obviously), the mail came, and in it was my monthly selection that I needed to cancel. There were two selections today, both about Google. The top selection was a book called Google Talking, I kid you not! Here is a link to their page. I’m not buying it, but somehow, somewhere, the universe is nudging me in that direction… 🙂