An Odd Confluence Of Events; VoWifi, Calliflower, Airlines & William Shatner

I spent much of this past week in Los Angeles. I was all set to fly home Friday morning but my last meeting canceled so I got myself on  the last flight out Thursday evening, a 6pm departure.

Except it wasn’t. Thunderstorms in Houston, and bad weather elsewhere in the east, had caused a myriad of delays and cancellations. My 6pm departure was pushed back until almost 9pm. No big deal. No point in making a fuss. It was still better than killing the next day getting home.

Besides, I could use the time to attend a conference call that I’d heard about. Iotum has launched a series of conference calls with interesting people to mark the introduction of their new Calliflower conference service. This past Thursday evening they interviewed William Shatner on the occasion of the release of his autobiography, “Up Till Now.”

At this stage in my life I’m not the biggest Trekkie, but I used to be a fan, and he certainly seems like an interesting character, so I sat in on the call. It was the first time I had used the Iotum conference call tool offered via Facebook, although I’d been aware of it since its launch some months ago.

The call itself was mildly interesting. It started very late as Mr Shatner had some trouble getting into the conference bridge. There were about 35 people on the call, most unabashed fans which is, I guess, to be expected. He gave a good interview and took some questions afterwards.

No, the interesting part for me was the mechanics of being on the call. I was sitting in the Continental Airlines President’s Club lounge at LAX, along with a couple hundred other people. One of the reasons I can justify the paid membership to the lounge is that wifi internet access is included, unlike many other airline lounges which have deals to be T-Mobile Hotspots. They also have a nice selection of wines on offer at the bar.

I had forgotten to bring a headset for my cell phone (duh!) so I wasn’t about to attend the call using my cell. Instead I plugged my headphones into my laptop, fired up X-Lite and logged into my work profile for Junction Networks OnSIP. I was instantly able to make calls.

So far what I’ve described isn’t at all significant. People use soft phones every day, on desktops, on laptops, even on handhelds. What surprised me was the call experience under the circumstances. It was actually pretty good. Better than I had expected.

Realize that there were well over 100 people in the lounge. At least 60% were using laptops constantly. The lady beside me was downloading movies from iTunes onto her MacBook and watching them. I overheard her lament to her husband that her movie was downloading really slowly. She couldn’t possibly imagine in why. Some people are so techno-illiterate.

Lacking for a microphone I could not participate in the call except via the Calliflower chat tool. But I heard it very well. It only became choppy if I started to read web pages or download files at the same time. This tells me that they reasonable provision of QoS on the club network. They used to have Cisco 79xx series phones throughout the clubs but these have recently been replaced. I suppose that same infrastructure serves to support my soft phone experience.

I’m not really a  big fan of soft phones. They’re ok but I’d rather have a hard phone any day. One of the problems with X-Lite is that it doesn’t support G.729, only G.711. I used to have a license for X-Pro which is the now defunct commercial version of X-Lite. That did support G.729 and so was easier on bandwidth.

The transition from X-Pro to Eyebeam, and then Bria happened while I wasn’t looking and I found that there was no migration path for my X-Pro license. Pity that. In theory there are some things that I like about X-Pro. it featured low bandwidth codecs, call recording capability and call encryption. There really should have been an upgrade path for X-Pro users.

Back to the conference call. The call quality was decent. The host had some issues with his connection as his voice was distorted, like it was over-modulated, but his level was good. Others on the call sounded fine so the bridge was working correctly.

Via the chat someone suggested against using VOIP when participating on such calls. That’s simply nonesense. A well architected VOIP service or system can be better than PSTN quality. Granted there are often issues with consumer VOIP services that rely upon the public internet for connectivity. That can work well also, but often requires more effort on the part of the user to ensure QoS.

The Calliflower app appears to be in its early days. Being web based it sometimes didn’t fully refresh the page leaving bits missing at times. There’s a mechanism for “holding up one’s hand” to request to speak which a good idea. Access was only by PSTN dial-in. It’d be nice to see access via SIP URI in future.

It looks like the UI really doesn’t handle calls as large as the one with Capt Kirk. There were over 100 confirmed participants slated to be on the call, and a means of paging through this list to see who planned on attending. When I tried to do this in advance of the call it never got past the first page of people. Clicking on the [next] link took me out of the list of particpants to another list entirely.

I can’t be too critical of Facebook apps as I make no claim to truly understand Facebook itself. I am on Facebook. I came to be there at the suggestion of a friend who was using it as the basis of a group. That group migrated elsewhere but my Facebook account remains. I wonder how they plan to monetize that?

I’m left wondering, if I had a SIP wifi handset could I have been on the call? Would the experience have been better or worse? Using the Polycom 8002 the past month has reawakened my sense of the possibility of VoWifi. That device is the best handset of its kind that I’ve tried. I admit that I’ve not tried any of the newest Nokia or RIM Wifi enabled cell phones.

There was a time when I’d written off VoWifi as impractical. I got into it very early in the game. It may well be time to take another look. This I learned at least in part from listening to the former Captain Kirk this past week.