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Something funny in the Voice 2.0 ether

Being a developer with a focus on SIP I take a lot of interest in what’s going on in the Voice 2.0 space (I actually dislike the whole Web/Voice 2.0 terms but they get the message across). Over the last 6 months I would say there has been a marked pick up in activity with new web-based voice services coming out on an almost weekly basis. Two years ago you would have been lucky if could provision a SIP account online or update your voicemail to email address. These days drag and drop GUIs for building IVRs and REST APIs for managing voice resources are becoming the norm.

This morning I came across a blog article that waxed lyrical about a new piece of software from a company called Twilio. The post was very complimentary towards the software but it was two claims that the post made that roused my skepticism. First it claimed that the software was what Asterisk should have been. The second claim was that Twilio and Voxeo are competing neck and neck for developer mind share.

I have a love hate relationship with Asterisk. In a previous existence it allowed me to start a service provider business and I lived and breathed Asterisk for 4 years. When I started Asterisk was pre its 1.0 release so it really was frontier stuff and great fun. As the business grew the shortcomings of Asterisk became more and more acute and the disinterest of the Digium developers to fix defects that were critical for providers using Asterisk and to incorporate features that were needed was extremely frustrating. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t asking for a free ride and was looking to either sponsor developement or do it myself but in the ned I couldn’t get buy in from Digium and patches that don’t get absorbed into the main source tree wither and die. All that aside there is no doubt whatsoever that Asterisk is a brilliant product that I’m pretty sure is responsible for enabling more people on the planet to adopt VoIP than any other piece of software except Skype. So to claim that a new piece of software is better than Asterisk is a big claim. I’ve had a quick look over the new Twilio product. I also downloaded it but didn’t install it as the dependencies would take some time to set up. In essence it seems like a sort of client web application to the Twilio service offering albeit requires PHP and MySQL to run. It doesn’t process media let alone ISDN/SS7/MGCP etc. etc. as Asterisk does and in fact appears intended to operate with Twilio’s service as the only provider of incoming and outgoing calls. I can’t pass judgement on how good Twilio’s new software is but I can very confidently say that it’s not even close to the capabilities and flexibility of Asterisk and to claim it is what Asterisk should have been is completely absurd.

As I’ve posted a few times previously Voxeo’s Tropo service is the best voice application development platform available. The feature set and depth it gets from building on top of Voxeo’s Prophecy platform coupled with the fact that it’s very developer friendly with usage being completely free pre-production mean it’s very impressive to work with. It’s not perfect by any means and I’m more than happy to moan about the fact that they don’t allow SIP calls to be easily taken back once sent to them and thereby leave the meter running at $0.03 per minute. But at least they support SIP which is something Twilio don’t do. The majority of developers writing voice applications are going to focus on SIP. Why? Because Skype aside it’s the protocol with the biggest user base and developers develop for users. Sure some applications will be better suited by the narrower constraints and pre-canned features offered by Twilio and equivalent services, of which there are quite a few, but if there’s an alternative service that’s cheaper to develop on, more open in its protocols and more powerful in its features where are developers likely to end up. I know of a number of sipsorcery users that have messed around with bits and pieces on Tropo and even come up with some pretty powerful applications. I doubt there are any sipsorcery users who have written an application on Twilio and if they have they would have to go out onto the PSTN to be able to use it. So while Twilio and Voxeo may be slightly closer than Twilio’s new software is to Asterisk they are still a very very long way apart. Rather than neck and neck Twilio is not even on the same lap.

The title of this post about something funny being in the ether is because the blog post about Twilio’s new software was not isolated and in fact it cropped up on 2 other voice/VoIP related blogs I follow. I only follow about 10 so that’s a 30% coverage rate which is pretty impressive and one of those 3 blogs linked off to another article so that’s 4 seemingly independent posts within 24 hours. The other blogs didn’t make the same absurd claims as the ones discussed above but they did give glowing reviews to what is not exactly a revolutionary product. There have definitely been more worthy recipients of such coverage in the recent past, Anveo’s Call Builder tool or even Voxeo’s biometrics integrations to name just two, but they generally didn’t rate a mention. I suspect such glowing coverage stems from a bit of a chummy relationship between the influential bloggers and Twilio. Personally I don’t have a problem with that, I’m happy enough to run my eyeballs over any new voice related service or product, but if a blogger is going to claim that a product is good enough to pants both Asterisk and Voxeo then I’d expect something pretty special. That is definitely not the case here. I wish Twilio all the success in the World and hope that they will one day support SIP but I’m guessing at this point their marketing skills are far outweighing their technical ones.

Update 22 Jun 2010: Stumbled across another new voice application service provider called Teleku that seem to have not only duplicated Twilio’s API but have also put up instructions on how to commandeer their new open source product; it’s getting nasty out there.