Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Google's VOIP Strategy

Is Google getting set to compete with the telcos – or maybe change voice communication forever? It’s starting to look that way.

Google Talk Beta is a 1.5 MB instant-messenger download for Windows Vista, XP or 2000 whose functions resemble AOL Instant Messenger or Skype: primarily voice, chat and file transfers. Google explains the service in depth on its Web site.

There is currently no Mac and Linux version of Google Talk, although Google says Mac and Linux fans can communicate with Google Talk users via any of several IM clients that support the open XMPP standard. Google Talk doesn’t currently use the SIP standard and its traffic won’t be encrypted until the full release. Google currently lists Trillian, GAIM, iChat, Adium and Psi as interoperable with Google Talk.

If you have a Gmail account, Google Talk automatically loads your contacts as potential persons to call or IM. In addition, you can save IM chats to your Gmail account or specify that a chat be “off the record” and not saved by either user’s Gmail account, although people using non-Google IM clients could potentially save chats on their PCs. (This feature is either a Sarbanes-Oxley blessing or a pretrial-discovery curse, depending on your perspective.)

Google could go in several directions from this first step toward telephony. Most obviously, Google Talk is another piece in Mountain View’s continuing effort to assemble a Google desktop (and perhaps even the fabled Google OS). However, Google’s legions of Ph.D.s may be up to something much more disruptive.

In December 2006, Dave Girouard, vice president and general manager of Google's enterprise division, told Internet News that Google would ride into enterprise settings on the shoulders of people who already use Google apps on their own. Some observers question this strategy, considering some Google tools haven’t had great luck with consumers yet. Om Malik, for one, observed that as of July 2006 only 44,000 people used Google Talk for IM conversation.

Now come the interesting parts: First, Girouard said Google would beef up Google Talk to increase compatibility with traditional telecom systems and other vendors’ VoIP offerings. Second, in the same article, Forrester researcher Charlene Li said Google might make those voice files searchable. Girouard’s and Li’s remarks open up major speculation as both a telco competitor and as a game-changer.

Google the Telco Killer?


First, Google might partner with any number of telcos as a last-mile provider for a branded VoIP network, just as Apple recently partnered with Cingular to finish calls on its new iPhone. Google isn’t saying—but then, it’s not talking about all those unused (“dark”) fiberoptic lines it bought, either, which could enable it to start its own VoIP network with only minimal outside involvement.

Telco ambitions may partly explain why Google is heavily involved in the Net-neutrality debate, battling big phone and cable companies’ efforts to give preferential treatment to certain data streams (their own, their sponsors’, whoever pays for it) while potentially limiting others. Google sees such efforts as a threat to people’s ability to get quick search and other information from Google. In addition, an end to Net neutrality could also threaten relatively bandwidth-intensive applications like Google Talk, which carriers could slow-track in favor of their own voice or VoIP traffic.

But then, why bother trying to be a phone company when your IM client lets users bypass phone companies—even cell providers—for practically nothing? Some companies—notably Nimbuzz —already take advantage of Google Talk’s commitment to open standards. The Nimbuzz IM client lets you call IM buddies worldwide from your mobile, paying only “your cheapest local rate” for the call. As an IM client, Nimbuzz voice bypasses whatever software counts cell minutes or registers international tariffs, although the blog MobileCrunch thinks sound quality could be improved. In effect, the cell-service provider’s role and rate-setting power shrink dramatically in a world of interoperable IM clients like Google Talk.

Google the Game-Changer


If Charlene Li’s speculation bears fruit and future Google Talk revs both capture and search voice traffic, this little IM client potentially changes the telecom business forever. Here are a few ramifications of digitally recorded, searchable phone calls:

The ability to remember exactly what you just told someone is a major boon to consumers, and businesses would suddenly have an incredibly powerful tool for capturing customer information, certainly more powerful than placing ads related to e-mail content as Google search and Gmail do today; but Google and personal and business users could face problems with state or federal wiretap laws, with additional trouble from prosecutors obtaining warrants for Google’s voice recordings of suspect conversations, and Google Talk’s success could convince the FCC that VoIP is now big enough to regulate, and try to persuade Congress accordingly.

Considering the difficulties that Google and others have had in simply creating effective video search, however, comprehensive, searchable voice-call records may be restricted to science fiction—or the National Security Agency—for now.

For more on VoIP, see the VoIP News VoIP Buyers Guide .
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