IP phone or Internet phone?

IP telephony was all the rage at NetWorld+Interop ’99 Atlanta. But it is far from clear whether some of the people pushing this technology know all that much about IP networks.

A lot of old-line telephony people see IP as just another control and data path that can be used by their existing telephone infrastructures. Some of the same people also understand that IP can be used to decompose traditional phone switches and PBXs into distributed systems, turning what were once very large and expensive boxes into collections of smaller and less expensive boxes. Using IP as a connectivity path and permitting the decentralization of telephone equipment are quite useful things to do. They could even facilitate a more efficient and less expensive telephone network.

Replacing the corporate PBX with a workstation that operates as a controller for inexpensive Ethernet-connected desktop telephones is an attractive idea. But most of the IP telephony backers cannot see past the existing telephony architecture and are reproducing it in an IP environment.

The telephone industry calls that architecture the “Intelligent Network.” This is in direct contrast to the Internet, which commentator David Isenberg has called the “Stupid Network.” Those who want to reproduce the Intelligent Network on top of the Internet may be achieving some efficiencies. But they are missing the most important factor in the success of the Internet and, in the long term, will suffer because of that.

Services in the Intelligent Network are provided by the network – actually by servers in the network. But in the Intelligent Network, the servers are seen as part of the network and are run by the same company that runs the rest of the particular Intelligent Network. E-mail and other Internet services, on the other hand, are provided in a peer-to-peer fashion between end users. Or when Internet services are provided by servers, the servers don’t have to be run by an outside network provider.

Historically, it has been quite hard for new services to arise in the Intelligent Network. The service provider has to be convinced that the service will be profitable, determine how to integrate the server functions into its network and deploy the service. In the Internet, new services show up all the time. Individuals can download new applications and independent third parties can create and offer new applications servers anywhere within the ‘Net.

New revenue comes from new services in the telephone business. Without new services, phone companies are just in a food fight over how low they can go with their long distance fees; some companies are now even talking of “free” long-distance if a customer agrees to pay for an Internet account.

If the phone companies stick to the traditional Intelligent Network architecture, they will be marginalized as more agile third parties invent new services and profit from them.

Disclaimer: Marginalized and Harvard do not belong in the same dictionary, and the above view of phone company “clue” is my own.

( Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems.)