I’m getting more and more fond of Gizmo. If you haven’t met it, Gizmo is very similar to Skype, but based on open standards. It hasn’t always got Skype’s firewall-traversing capabilities and sound quality, but it’s pretty close, getting better all the time, and in some ways is nicer to use.
It’s hard to argue with Skype’s 60M registered users, though, 6M of whom are typically online at any one time, and I use and like Skype too. So why do I think Gizmo is important?
It’s because I see a fairly clear analogy here between Skype and the walled-garden approaches of online systems such as AOL in the past. David Beckemeyer made this point in his e-Tel talk; AOL could never hire enough people to compete with the innovation happening on the internet, and in the end they had to let their customers out of the garden. Skype is in the same position, and they are smart enough that they must know this. In fact, they may even be using AOL as their model: start closed, get a few million on board, and then open things up when you’ve built a big enough brand.
In the meantime, most of the innovation in telephony is happening around Asterisk, which is to telephony what Apache is to the web. Everything that happened with text and graphics in the early days of the web is starting to happen now with voice. I can do all sorts of really fun stuff with the Asterisk server I have at home, and the e-Tel conference has been full of other people doing other fun stuff with it.
But I cannot connect to it using Skype, not without paying, anyway, and it cannot connect to my Skype session. Gizmo, on the other hand, is perhaps the Netscape/Mozilla of this new world, and I can do so much more with it. I have UK phone numbers which will forward to my Gizmo session here in California. For free. I can use Gizmo to call up my Asterisk server and listen to MP3 files and podcasts stored on my hard disk. For free. I can connect directly to Google Talk, or to dedicated VoIP phones. For free. Some of this I would have to pay for with Skype – much of it I could not do at all.
The Skype guys deserve their success, for showing people that VoIP works, and can work well, and doesn’t have to be complicated. But as with the web, open standards will win in the end, and keywords like SIP, IAX, Asterisk and XMPP are the ones to watch out for if you want to see the next big thing coming.