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Hot on the Web

Michael Robertson stakes out more new turf

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 22, 2005
(Issue 2329, What the Doctor Ordered)

The man who brought MP3 format music to the mainstream, and helped drag Linux to the home user's desktop, has now set his eyes on another online arena: Internet telephony.

Michael Robertson has stepped away from his day-to-day duties running Linspire (formerly Lindows), the friendly, easy-to-use flavor of Linux that along with Xandros is making a serious push to get Linux adopted by ordinary folks for their home computing use.

While Linspire and Xandros have yet to make a serious dent in Microsoft's market dominance for operating systems, both offer a low-cost alternative to Windows. For folks on a budget who nevertheless want to take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer, both Linspire and Xandros offer versions of Linux that are as easy to use – if not easier – than Windows XP.

But Robertson is a restless soul – he built up into a major player in the music business, offering unsigned bands a way to reach an audience without needing the music labels – then sold it off to start Linspire.

As we reported in this space a few months ago, Robertson has already been busy with his new Internet telephony company, SIPphone. But within the past few weeks, he's stepped away from Linspire to focus his energies on building up SIPphone.

The baby bells are unlikely to be any more pleased with Robertson's innovation and aggressiveness than were the music labels or Microsoft with his earlier ventures.

The promise

As data compression techniques have improved, the concept of making voice calls over the Internet has become feasible. Early attempts featured fairly poor audio quality, especially those efforts that used the Web. Rather than a one-to-one conncection between caller and receiver, Web-based data transfer involves breaking the data up into numerous small packets and sending them each via the fastest route at the moment they are sent – and then reassembling them at the end.

But that technology has improved, too – and now Internet telephony is so serious a technology that the traditional phone companies have sought permission to charge different rates to access their phone lines depending on whether you're transmitting a phone call or e-mail. (So far the courts and government regulators haven't bought into that argument – for the time being, data is data.)

This voice over 'Net technology has gained its widest acceptance among online gamers – anyone who's played CounterStrike online has heard his teammates' tinny voices screaming out of the speakers or headphones.

What's needed

Consumers are only now getting accustomed to the possibility of having their home phone service via the cable company instead of the local baby bell. Getting used to having it over the Internet is going to take some sort of big splash to gain widespread acceptance.

And that's exactly what Michael Robertson is good at – creating both workable business models and a buzz.

The online telephony is obviously not going to replace traditional local phone service – because most of us still use our phone company to get online! Although one could use one's cable connection and then get Internet telephony to replace the baby bell. So an existing cable or telephone connection is still a must.

But what Internet telephone service can do is replace traditional long-distance service.

Robertson's SIPphone, for instance, includes a service that allows you to call standard land line and cell phones (as well as folks getting their phone service through the cable company). So Robertson – and many of his competitors, to be honest – are developing the technology to plug Internet telephony into the existing telephone infrastructure of land lines, cell phones and cable phones.

Internet telephony isn't mature or stable yet – but it does seem likely that it's here to stay. With Robertson focusing his efforts and energies on developing it, betting against online telephone service doesn't seem too smart.