Saturday, March 31, 2007

A “Detailed” PBX Explanation That Won’t Go Over Your Head… Hopefully.

A “Detailed” PBX Explanation That Won’t Go Over Your Head… Hopefully.

Hey guys. Today I’m going to talk about Private Automatic Branch eXchange, or “PBX.” Nowadays, it’s referred to anything related to telephony, but the term originated from the telephone exchange that consisted of manually operated switches connecting phone calls. PBX was initially used for a private network, e.g. a company’s office building. Everything connected to a PBX were eventually dubbed “extensions,” which is a term familiar to everyone who was ever asked for an “extension” during a phone call. Connections out of the private exchange are connected through trunk lines (Interesting fact: “Trunk” originated from the thick gray cables used in early telephony that reminded people of elephant trunks, and the telephone poles that were basically tree trunks).

I mentioned that PBX used to be manually operated by operators. You may remember old movies where an operator would actually answer the phone when a character wanted to make the call, and had to ask to be connected. Eventually switches were replaced by automated electromechanical, and then electronic switching systems, called PABX (Private Automatic Branch eXchange). PBX in the industry was then renamed PMBX (Private Manual Branch eXchange). The term “PBX” eventually came back into use in place of PABX because it was such a widely used term, and had familiarity with those who used the new switch operating systems. Those of you at work who have to dial “0” or “9” to dial out an “outside number” are using a PBX line. Now you have a term to go with the system you use everyday.

For those of you reading this and find the information dense, I’ll breakdown PBX’s three main duties:
1) Establishing connections (circuits) between the telephone sets of two users (e.g. mapping a dialed number to a physical phone, ensuring the phone isn't already busy)
2) Maintaining such connections as long as the users require them (i.e. channeling voice signals between the users)
3) Providing information for accounting purposes (e.g. metering calls)
Different manufacturers have developed different features for PBX, which include but not limited to: auto dialing, call forwarding, call transfer, call waiting, conference calling, music on hold, and voice mail.

The advent of the Internet has changed PBX systems with the use of VoIP. Yes, I’ve mentioned VoIP again folks. Right now, IP Centrex (contraction of Central Telephone Exchange) is very popular, but far from the original concept of PBX. We’ll have to see if VoIP technology will dominate this sector of telecommunications as much as it seems to be dominating the residential phone and cell phone industry.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Previewing the iPhone Revolution - Who exactly is Apple targeting?

Previewing the iPhone Revolution

It seems as though I’m going to be a couple months behind, but I have to talk about the Apple iPhone. Everyone on the net is talking about it, so why shouldn’t I?

First off, I want to say that the iPhone is pretty cool, but I personally am not interested. Yah, I’ve said it, I’m not interested in it. Maybe if I owned my own iPod, then I might toot a different story, but I don’t think that would even change my opinion. When the iPhone was announced and every major news source covered the story, I was amazed at the types of things the iPhone could do in the demonstrations. Then I thought about it and realized… “Wait, what CAN it do? Everything they showed are aesthetics.” You know, stuff like non-touch key pad, the look, the cool icons, etc. Well, I’ve looked into it and here’s the breakdown.

Wi-Fi VoIP capabilities: The iPhone will have VoIP capabilities, along with a partnership with Jajah to go with it. Apple also has their iChat, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you were able to call other iChat members for free. The Wi-Fi capabilities may allow VoIP calls done over the Internet through Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution aka EDGE (which probably should be mentioned under the negative section since it’s infamously slow) wireless technology, also allowing cheaper or free calls. I just wonder what Cingular, who is the exclusive cellular provider for the iPhone, thinks of all this.
OS X: The Apple OS is going to be running on the Apple iPhone, which is already a point to check the phone out. Chances are, this will be a limited, if not watered-down, version of the OS X. Mac users can breath easier now because the iPhone will have full compatibility with their computers, as opposed to the Windows Mobile phones dominating the market.
Look and Design: You can’t deny the fact that it looks really cool.
Built-in Advanced Sensors: The accelerometer allows you to rotate the device from portrait to landscape and the phone will change the display automatically. The ambient light sensor will adjust the screen’s brightness depending on the ambient light surrounding the phone.
Screen: The iPhone has a fairly large screen (3.5-inch), and is a widescreen when rotated, with a fairly high-rez so that you can watch videos.

Touchpad: Depending on who you are, you’ll have different opinions on this feature. It looked really cool in the demonstration, but I really wonder about its practicality. Many users want the numeric keypad. Emailing will be considerably slower, and so will texts. The touchpad is part of Apple’s design philosophy of “less is better”, but for an all-in-one phone, less is NOT better.
EDGE: I said it should be here in the negative section, and here it is. With EDGE in place, Cingular can’t provide a true 3G iPhone. The EDGE network can support email and widgets and surfing, but also forces iPhone users to get most of their higher-resolution video through iTunes.
Closed System: Apple won’t allow third-party developers to build software for it. Yes, if you own a PDA, then you’ll understand more than anyone this problem. I think one of the great things about high-end phones is that you can add third-party programs, customize your phone, and have a lot of neat tools added on. Closing the system will make this phone a literal “get what you paid for” item.
Cingular: Don’t get me wrong, I personally like Cingular, but having the iPhone exclusive to only Cingular customers is an issue. Many people with tech gadgets like to have their options, which tie in with the issue of being a closed system, as well. Perhaps there will be an unlocked iPhone down the line for those who want different cellular companies, but as for now, its only Cingular. There are also those who don’t have Cingular contracts that will have to either break their contracts (which costs money in most cases), or figure out a way to switch out of their service.
Limited Storage: iPod users are used to 30GB and 60GB storage space. Will the measly 8GB be enough? Maybe Apple anticipated the new D.A.V.E. by Seagate.
The Price: Now I don’t know about everyone else, but c’mon. $499+ is a bit steep. There are other high-end telephones that are around that price range, more expensive even, but they offer a lot of features iPhone does not. Apple probably kept this in mind since they only planned on a 10-million unit release.

Questions To Be Answered (since it’s a high-end phone I’ll ask “smart phone” questions):
What kind of Microsoft support will be available? (i.e. Outlook, Word, Exel, etc.)
It will have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but can it be used as a laptop modem?
Video recording?
Voice features like voice dialing and voice memos?
Battery life? This is the question that’s on everyone’s mind, and one problem that’s plagued iPod users ever since the first iPod came out. An mp3 player with a dead battery was a bummer, but how bout an mp3 player/cell phone with a dead battery?
I don’t think I ever saw anyone mention features like USB ports, SD and MicroSD slots, etc. Will the iPhone have these features?

The target audience of the Apple iPhone is identical to the iPod’s existing market. I personally don’t see a new version of the iPod coming out, as I believe the iPhone is the newer version, albeit there’s less storage capacity, but tons more features. The only problem is whether the loyal Apple iPod fans will all transition over to the iPhone, not unlike they way they bought every new version of the iPod as they were cranked out. Plus, Cingular’s exclusivity with the iPhone brings up the question of whether or not everyone with different cell companies will switch over with a new two-year plan, and whether Cingular’s current users will all switch to the new $499+ phone.

I don’t mean to bash iPhone, because I know this article sounds like I’m very anti-iPhone, but I do suggest everyone that’s looking to buy a new cell phone to do their research. The iPhone is mainly targeting Apple’s iPod fan base, and may sway more casual cell phone users into the high-end spectrum. This is a cool looking phone that will probably work well. Just don’t expect it to be a business/work extension like a PDA can be. The iPhone’s features maybe enough, or too much for you, but just make sure it’s the right buy for you to shell out half a grand. Maybe save that for the Apple TV coming out.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Nintendo DS update - VoIP and Wi-Fi Internet Capabilities

Nintendo Fans... VoIP and Wi-Fi Has Arrived!

Okay, I have to admit that I’ve talked about VoIP for a while, and every one of my blogs have been about VoIP, aside from my very first, but I have to talk about the VoIP news over from Nintendo. They’re releasing Pokémon Diamond Version and Pokémon Pearl Version for the Nintendo DS. The games themselves are not the most exciting news, but the games having wireless capabilities are! The games will allow up to 8 players to connect, play, and talk trash live via VoIP technology. Yes, the Nintendo DS is integrated with Wi-Fi Internet to allow players to log onto a server to find other plays for competitive play. You can play with anyone around the world now.

Now because the company is Nintendo, kids are still the main target audience, which would explain why the technology coincides with a Pokémon game, so Nintendo won’t let the user connect to just any stranger, and possible pedophile, online. Otherwise, we might see a new edition of How to Catch a Predator. The only way you can connect to another player is to be around a Wi-Fi connection and enter your Friend Codes into the handheld gaming system. With VoIP technology on the Nintendo DS, players will be able to use a built-in microphone to talk to friends before, during, and after games. It’s pretty much like a VoIP cell phone for kids, because you can “call” any of your friends by dialing their Friend Code and viola! As long as both parties are around a Wi-Fi connection, The Nintendo DS headset (sold separately) is an accessory you can buy to make conversations easier.

"The amazing wireless and voice chat features of Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl offer gamers something completely new," says George Harrison, Nintendo of America's senior vice president of marketing and corporate communications. "We make games for everybody, and these Pokémon titles are sure to be a hit with new and returning players."

About 9 months ago, Vonage announced their release of a portable VoIP phone that can be connected to a USB port of any computer connected to broadband Internet, and make VoIP calls instantly. Looks like Nintendo is literally making child’s play of VoIP telephony by going wireless. Of course, you can’t make actual phone calls with the Nintendo DS, but who knows, the basics are there already.

Just goes to show you how fast VoIP technology is spreading to other aspects of our lives. VoIP technology is now in handheld games! To think, just 10 years ago, I had to use a standard telephone to talk to friends while gaming. I’m amazed. What’s next? With companies like Apple releasing its iPhone with rumored VoIP technology, others are sure to follow. I’m sure VoIP will eventually establish itself as a feature on many, if not most phones in the future.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

VoIP Telephony Part 3: The Downside and Security Flaws of VoIP Telephony

VoIP Telephony Part 3 of 3

In the last two weeks I talked about VoIP telephony, and all its advantages (lower prices, portability, etc), but there is a reason it hasn’t caught on like wildfire, and why you’re not scrambling to get it for yourself.

The beauty of VoIP service is that it runs like “another program” through your computer, or through a gateway if you use an IP phone. This beauty is also where the problem lies. Using a telephone service over the Internet will expose you to all the Internet security issues currently floating around the cyber world. A comparison used a lot is between Broadband Phone and emails. Emails are sent through the Internet and are vulnerable to anyone trying to exploit security holes. As with emails, VoIP telephone calls can be attacked by a hacker so that the attacker can gain access to your computer, personal information, and system access.

Spamming can occur, or DoS (Denial of Service) maybe sent to the system network. DoS can wreak havoc to businesses, especially ones that aren’t equipped with security features that protect against security exploits. A network can be shut down and phone lines, which are part of the network in this case, will be out of service until the network can be restored to working order.

Eavesdropping is also a possible problem. The problem may be worse than eavesdropping on a standard telephone line. With VoIP telephone, a hacker can gain access to more than one telephone line once the network is broken into. Through the use of the right tools and programs, a hacker can use their laptop and tap into anyone’s VoIP conversations by redirecting their IP packets to their computer. This may lead to more compromising situations like intercepting phone calls containing sensitive information with a bank, or even rerouting a genuine call to a bank so that the hacker can easily impersonate the bank. A form of “phishing” can happen in this case. A popular form of “phishing” is with PayPal. Emails are sent to unsuspecting users asking for login information or credit card information. The emails look legitimate and gullible users will pretty much “hand” over severely damaging information over to these Internet thieves. With an IP phone number, hackers can make cheaper calls (one of the upsides remember?) to the correct numbers, and sucker in the owner of the number with similar phishing tactics as the PayPal scheme.

There are ways to help minimize the threat through the use of firewalls or encryption of VoIP traffic through a VPN Service. you can minimize the more common security threats VoIP and emails share. Microsoft had to release many patches to secure their Outlook program, which still suffers from constant security issues. You can expect ITSP and networking companies to start putting in as much work as Microsoft did, and maybe more, to secure their services. If not, then you can expect them to receive similar flak, and I’m sure that’s a problem the service providers would like to avoid.

Aside from security issues, VoIP telephone service has some drawbacks in general use. Heavy Internet traffic on specific networks, or loss of data packets can cause a loss of parts of conversations, or just drop them completely. I mentioned before that making 911 calls can be troublesome because your location is difficult to locate over the Internet. Because you’re difficult to locate, your call will have trouble being connected to your nearest emergency call center for help. I also mentioned that “e911” is a solution in the works, but it’s still not standard.

Regardless of its current disadvantages, VoIP is still steadily growing rapidly. The problems I addressed, as well as the ones I haven’t, are being pressed out and solved as we speak. Companies like Cisco Systems, Avaya, Nortel, Siemens are putting a lot of their resources into this security, as they know a lot of money is to be made in this growing tool online. I don’t blame them; VoIP telephone service is looking like a possible “next big thing” waiting to catch fire, once consumers catch on to it. As far as I know, there haven’t been any major attacks towards VoIP providers or VoIP customers, but it’s pretty safe to bet that the network companies I mentioned are working to keep it that way. The cost cutting benefits of VoIP telephoning is hard to overlook. It’s not without its flaws, but like everything else, it can only improve and come with more options. Bring on the patches and updates!

Friday, March 16, 2007

VoIP Telephony Part 2: VoIP Integration with Standard Phones and Cell Networks

VoIP Telephony Part 2 of 3

Many Internet telephony service providers (ITSP) are integrating their services into your current phone lines. VoIP is still widely used in two main ways: 1) Through a desktop computer, and 2) Through standard telephones patched through your Broadband connection. Now there is a third way, your cell phone.

Currently, a company called Jajah has service to allow customers to set up VoIP calls from their cell phones. They have announced that it will support Apple’s iPhone when it hits the market this summer. The folks over at DiVitas Networks are currently developing a way for cell phones to detect a WiFi connections and seamlessly switch from a cell network, and vice versa. This can help reduce cell phone usage costs.

VoIP telephone lines are becoming more and more popular with small and large corporations. Companies, such as NationwideLD, are trying to take advantage of its popularity by offering telephone services that can come out cheaper than the traditional land-based telephone companies. VoIP technology is an inexpensive alternative for long distance calls. That can save a lot of money for a business that needs to make a lot of calls to business associates in different parts of the world. Different extensions can be set up, much like a traditional phone line, and companies can even keep their current/original phone numbers. The same goes for residential VoIP use.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with cable and DSL companies offering telephone service in packages, especially cable companies that offer cable TV and internet. I’ve thought about getting one of these packages myself, but I’ve stopped myself short of getting everything in one bundled package. The reason?

Well, I’ve had cable TV and cable Internet shut down on me. Whether it be a system upgrade by the cable/ISP provider, or a power out, there is downtime and the consumer has no power over it. Imagine having a phone line through an Internet company and one of these outages happens or if electricity is down. No Internet service, no phone. Not a situation you would want to be in, in case of an emergency.

There are also concerns with 911 calls. A 911 call is usually connected to the nearest call center, but through VoIP, it’s hard to determine. Though a feature called “e911” does exist, and can direct you to the nearest call center, a lot of the VoIP companies don’t offer it, yet.

There are many other downsides to using a VoIP phone line, and I’ll cover that in the conclusion of my three-part blog on VoIP telephony. Regardless, though, VoIP companies are working towards solutions to all these issues in order to gain more subscribers in a growing lucrative market. The next wave of communication is on the horizon. Cell phones companies will have to deal with the new ITSP upstarts trying to take their customers. When the price of communication gets cheaper, I have a feeling “free minutes” on cell phones will be a thing of the past, and roaming charges will seem as primitive as the old “brick phones” used in the early 90s.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

VoIP Telephony Part 1: VoIP Telephone and Developments

VoIP Telephony Part 1 of 3:

Last year when I was in the Bahamas, I saw some people using an online telephone company called Skype to call loved ones back here at home. The phone call is connected through the internet, and for mere pennies per minute, you can use a microphone hooked up to your desktop, or other IP telephone accessories, and get cheap telephone calls through VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology and programs. Now I know that Skype has a single payment for unlimited calls for a year, but other companies may have competitive pricing. You can look it up for yourself.

I didn’t know what VoIP was, or anything related to the matter, all I knew was that there was a way of calling home without the roaming charges that came with using my cell phone out of the country. The VoIP calls home to my family were clear, cheap, and easy to make. After discovering that making phone calls over the Internet was possible (and a whole lot cheaper), I freely called home during the last few days I was out of the country.

Wikipedia explains that “Voice over Internet Protocol, also called VoIP, IP Telephony, Internet telephony, Broadband telephony, Broadband Phone, and Voice over Broadband is the routing of voice conversations over the Internet or through any other IP-based network. If you’ve used Ventrilo, or built-in voice chats on online video games (i.e. Counter-strike Source, Battlefield 2), then you’ve used a form of VoIP. VoIP telephony is a bit different. With a gaming VoIP, you need a server to host your conversations, and your computer. There are companies, like Vonage, that will charge you for services, but you won’t need your computer to make the call. These companies are known as Internet telephony service provider (ITSP). In the subscription bundle, you should receive an analog telephone adapter (ATA), which connects your router to your analog phone. The ATA acts as the middleman to connect your phone to the ITSP through your broadband connection. You can be assigned a number, keep your old number, or even a new one with a different area code.

The beauty of VoIP telephony is that you can, for instance, have a number local to New York while living in LA. This allows people you know in New York to make a “local call” to you, and vice versa. If you have an IP Telephone, pretty much like a cell phone, you can walk around with that phone number. The phone is connected to an assigned IP address, so it’s the same as using the phone at home. Hence, that local New York number you had is with you everywhere you go, as long as you have your IP telephone. For example, if you travel to Europe, you can be reached through your IP Telephone and the person calling you from New York will connect to you as if you were in New York.

There are companies, like ViaTalk, that offer traditional telephone features in their service, which include e911 caller ID, voicemail, and fax service. The possibilities are endless for features. Call forwarding from a VoIP line to your standard cell phone is an option that’s coming into its own, thanks to FirstHandTech. This can come in handy for business execs, or sales staff, that are out of their offices on a regular basis. Whoever’s answering the phone for them back at the office can patch the call directly to their cell phone with FirstHand Technologies.

Can there be a possibility a corporate synergy between ITSP companies and phone companies in the future? The Internet and telephones merging together is a product of the Great Communication Age we currently live in. One can only wonder what else lies ahead in the future. Come back next week and I’ll fill you in on some pretty cool VoIP telephony ideas in the works.