It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago, some industry insiders were debating whether VoIP was dead.
In some ways, the pessimists had a point: There hadn’t been anything new and exciting in IP communications for a long while. Sure, there were new ways to make VoIP calls using the iPhone and other mobile devices. But for the most part, VoIP in 2010 was pretty much what it had been in 2004.
Fortunately, the industry sprang back to life in a big way in 2011. New hardware set lofty new standards in analog telephone devices and IP phones. Talented engineers broke free of the restrictions imposed by corporate giants, forming smaller companies more agile and willing to take risks. Others returned to the companies they had founded and revived them. New and updated software and services sprang from every corner.
It’s been a good year for VoIP, and there’s much to celebrate. So Voxilla is introducing its first ever Voxie awards to recognize the products and people who disrupt moribund industries by building better, more accessible, technology. We hope, in some small way, the Voxies help foster continued change and innovation.
Consumer VoIP Product of the Year:
OBi11> (Obihai Technology)
If you believe there’s been little innovation in analog VoIP adaptors since Sipura Technology (later part of Linksys/Cisco) released the industry-standard SPA-3000 series (now the SPA3102) in 2004, think again. The $50 OBi110 does everything Cisco’s SPA3102 can do and then some.
For example: Easily install Google Voice’s free calling service and use it with any basic telephone. If you use Google Voice, the OBi110 (or the OBi100, if you want to save a couple of bucks) will totally change your calling habits.
Another example: Bridge calls from any service (a VoIP account, your old PSTN line, Google Voice, etc.) to any other service. Need to make an international call from a cell phone using your Callcentric account installed on your OBi at home? Not a problem. Call a Google Voice account on the device (or even a plain old telephone line) and dial the number through Callcentric.
More: Bridging calls is easy with the help of the OBi Attendant, a voice-prompt menu driven IVR that can be customized in many call-flow configurations. You can set up incoming call menus based on who’s calling or the service the call comes in on. You can even set up complete menu trees your callers can navigate. You can use the OBi to bridge a call from a SIP IP phone to Google Voice or to the OBiTALK network to call any OBi device or smart phone app sans a commercial VoIP service.
So who is behind the most innovative VoIP adaptor to hit the market since the Sipura SPA 3000? Obihai Technology is led by the same team of engineers and executives behind Sipura, and the same team heading up Komodo Technology, the company that virtually invented consumer VoIP when it released the Komodo KF-200, the first analog telephone adaptor on the market, which evolved into the Cisco ATA186.
That the OBi110 would be selected as the “Consumer Product of the Year” for 2011 should come as no surprise. We’ve been writing about this powerful little box since it first hit the market in late 2010. In fact, we’re not even the first to recognize the OBi110 as the 2011 VoIP Device of the Year. Ward Mundy, the brains behind the popular PBX In A Flash software suite gave the device that distinction already in his Nerd Vittles blog. . . back in January of 2011.
Yes, it was that good then, and through Obihai’s frequent over-the-air firmware upgrades, it continues to get better.
We’ve been expecting the demise of the desktop IP telephone as much of its call functionality is more easily integrated on the computer. That hasn’t happened yet, of course. And Palo Alto, CA-based Cloud Telecomputers” title=”CloudTC”>CloudTC is betting it won’t happen for some time.
What CloudTC has done is move in the opposite direction: putting much of the computer’s information functionality on the its desk phone. The company takes a 9-inch Android tablet, adds Ethernet connectivity, attaches a base and handset to it and calls it the Glass 1000. The sleek $599 phone doesn’t just feel like the future of telephony, it’s the most innovative IP phone available, in many ways superior to any Cisco or Polycom product costing three times as much.
The Glass 1000 allows you to make calls without a physical keypad, just drag through your contacts and click, or call up an easy-to-use onscreen keyboard and dial. You can easily accept or reject incoming calls. And while the phone is not in use, you can follow Twitter or any RSS feed you wish. Though you can’t access the general Android market, CloudTC has developed its own small market, with a well-curated group of apps that have been tested on the Glass.
Customizing the phone’s home screen is relatively easy. Download a few apps from CloudTC’s Android market, then run them as “widgets” that appear as small self-contained windows on the screen. For example, with the excellent Android app “Pulse”, you can stream content and graphics from dozens of sources, such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Salon and ESPN. When you’re not using it as a phone, the Glass becomes a personalized graphical information hub.
If you were to invite a product manager at Cisco or Polycom to design the ideal IP phone, this would be it. But these companies are weighed down by fuddy-duddy legacy customer expectations and long-calculated product line evolutions, making this kind of innovation difficult. That’s why companies like CloudTC need to be around, so that great new products like the Glass 1000 see the light of day.
Budget IP phone:
Grandstream Networks has been manufacturing SIP devices since 2002, and the company’s inexpensive VoIP adaptors have been adopted by many consumer VoIP companies over the years. The Grandstream GXP1405 does not break the company mold of manufacturing low-cost devices that, while not as flashy as its competition, offers a lot of bang for a few dollars. The two-line phone features HD voice quality, built-in Ethernet switch-port, a programmable 128×40 LCD display and POE in a package that sells for about $60. For businesses and home users on a limited budget, Grandstream’s GXP1405 is a bargain.
Performance IP phone:
Polycom VVX 500
Until a better and more integrated solution comes along, desktop phones are still proving useful and, though priced at less than $250, Polycom’s VVX 500 might be the most flexible and easy to use IP phone we’ve seen.
This powerful HD Voice phone can register up to 12 SIP lines, and sports a small but very usable 3.5-inch touchscreen. At a glance or a touch, the screen offers a look at synced calendars and contacts (Microsoft Exchange-only), streaming news, sports, weather and stock market information. If your desktop computer is Windows-based, Polycom’s Desktop Connector allows you to access the VX 500 from your computer.
Billed as a “performance business media phone”, the VVX 500 is built for customization, and provides ample evidence that Polycom continues to be a VoIP hardware leader.
— Nathaniel Miloszewski
If you haven’t heard about the OBi line of VoP analog telephone adaptors by now, where have you been? For less than $45, the OBi100 (released in April 2011 by the same people who designed the Sipura and the Cisco SPA series of adaptors) gives you full access to Google Voice’s free calling services and can be used with any SIP network (provided you have a user name and password).
The OBi100 allows for two IP calling services, and incoming calls to one can be bridged to the other or hair-pinned into themselves. Free Obihai iOS and Android apps let you make calls through the device over WiFi or a high-bandwidth cellular data connection. The OBi100, and it’s somewhat higher-priced and better-appointed brother, the OBi110 (Voxilla’s Consumer VoIP Product of 2011), have ushered innovation in VoIP consumer hardware not seen in many years.
Budget Phone System:
PBX in a Flash
The open-source Asterisk PBX is battle-tested, highly configurable, powerful and free. It’s definitely a very good choice as a phone system for a small business. But Asterisk is also difficult to set up and finicky to keep up.
Ward Mundy’s PBX in a Flash greatly simplifies the installation and maintenance of Asterisk, by combining the installation and configuration of Linux, Asterisk, the Free PBX Asterisk GUI front-end and dozens (and we mean DOZENS) of add on features. To be up-and-running on PBIAF, only basic networking knowledge is required.
Mundy’s Asterisk distribution got its name because it was originally released as a full-featured PBX that could reside on a USB Flash drive. Mundy updates his distribution regularly, and it keeps getting better. You can still run it on a stick drive, but it will work — and provide even greater functionality — on a basic hard drive.
Business Phone System:
It may not have seemed like a great idea when Cisco killed the popular small-business-oriented SPA9000 Voice System and replaced it with the more expensive UC320 in March 2011. But the newer system, with it’s support for up to 24 extensions, GigE ethernet router and WiFi, has turned out to be a very capable performer. The box, a bit larger than a standard home router, supports up to 12 simultaneous calls and, with a couple of inexpensive hardware add-ons can provide up to 12 FXO and FXS ports. At a street price of $700, the UC320 is one of the best small business all-in-one network/voice solutions on the market.
Android VoIP App:
Goji is not, yet, a full-featured VoIP app in that it does not allow a user to make calls to a standard telephone number. But it does so much else that it’s definitely worthy of our recognition. The people behind Goji are also behind Telio, the largest SIP-based Internet Telephone Service Provider in Europe. So at any moment the company can turn on the switch and give full calling abilities to Goji users.
In the meantime, there are plenty of reasons to download the free Android app (or its iOS companion): Text. call, or video chat with anyone else on Goji; and call anyone using standard SIP URI dialing. It’s like Skype on a mobile without the bloat. If and when Telio turns on VoIP calling for Goji, it may be the only communications app you’ll need on your mobile phone.
iOS VoIP App:
There are many IP Phone offerings in the Apple app store ranging in price from free to $10 or more. But few are as powerful as 3CXPhone. If your office is using the terrific 3CX Windows-based PBX, then putting this app on your iPhone is a no-brainer. Connect your phone to the same LAN the PBX is on, and 3CXPhone is provisioned automatically for you. But even if you’re on a different PBX (Asterisk, for example), 3CXPhone works just as well, once you manually enter your credentials and other parameters.
The app makes use of your iPhone’s contact list, but that’s where similarity to the iPhone’s built-in cell dialer end. The 3CXPhone’s dialer is just as easy to use and way more powerful. It takes advantage of the Notification Center included in iOS 5, it can handle your GSM cell calls, and includes useful toggles for dozens of features, including in- and out-of-office settings. And the best part: it’s free.
Personal Cloud VoIP Service:
When SIP aggregator Voxalot announced it would be shutting down at the end of 2011, VoIP geeks all over the world began to scramble for a new cloud service that would allow them to centralize their calling accounts in one virtual location. SIPSorcery, based in Tasmania, Australia, came to their rescue. SIPSorcery allows Voxalot users to easily import their settings and gives them countless new customization opportunities. The $35/yr. service is not for everyone. In fact, it’s only really useful to VoIP power users and tweakers who like to maximize international call routing options. But if you fall in this group, or have been stranded by Voxalot with no where to install your accounts, SIPSorcery is an excellent option.
Business Cloud VoIP Service:
2600hz is a powerful and elegantly designed cloud-based carrier-grade communications platform. It is the first major commercial platform based on the open-source FreeSwitch, an Asterisk alternative designed from scratch by former Asterisk developers Anthony Minessale, Brian West and Michael Jerris.
2600hz is named for the tone sent by whistles packaged in the 1960s as kid gifts in packages of Captain Crunch cereal. Old-school blue-box hackers found these whistles could trick phone carriers into giving free access to unused long distance trunks. The humorous naming convention doesn’t stop there. The control layer the company developed to give access to Freeswitch is called “Whistle”. Ironically, anti-carrier flashes of the past notwithstanding, 2600hz hopes to sign on today’s established carriers as customers with its turnkey approach.
But the platform lives in the cloud and is available to businesses (and even individuals). And it’s basically free. At its core, Whistle lets its users add their own SIP accounts to make calls through a very well-designed drag-and-drop HTML 5 web platform. The company’s business is not unlike that used by several Asterisk-based systems vendors: to develop, sell and support useful latch-on applications and services. Time will tell whether the model works, but in 2011, 2600hz is the most ingenious cloud-based communications platform on the market.
VoIP Industry Leader:
In the ancient days of VoIP — back in 2003 — there were only three US companies offering IP-based calling services directly to customers: Packet 8, Vonage, and Voice Pulse. Though all three were viewed as welcome relief from years of telco monopolies and price gouging, the smallest, VoicePulse, developed a strong reputation among VoIP’s earliest adopters as the most open and innovative. For example, while Packet 8 and Vonage required its customers to use company-provided telephone adaptors, VoicePulse, led by experienced network engineer Ravi Sakaria, offered flexible plans that encouraged experimentation with the open-source Asterisk PBX and numerous SIP devices.
The industry has changed plenty over the past eight years. Packet 8 has since been sucked up by its corporate parent, 8X8, which no longer offers consumer phone services. Vonage chugs along, though it is no longer nearly as dominant as when it could afford to spend millions of dollars each month on national advertising campaigns. And VoicePulse, following Sakaria’s departure as CEO, for a while lost its luster among VoIP cognoscenti as competitors entered (and left) the market offering increasingly cheaper calling plans.
In 2011, Sakaria returned to head up the company he founded, and VoicePulse has nimbly regained its footing as a leading innovator in the consumer and business VoIP arenas. Though not the cheapest VoIP alternative ( significantly less expensive than incumbent carrier services from the likes of AT&T and Verizon, however), VoicePulse is, again, delivering one of the most powerful and flexible VoIP platforms on the market.
Voice over IP continued to flourish in 2011, and Sakaria’s VoicePulse has been one reason why.