The Talkies Have Arrived!
by Gregor Fisher
Well, that may be a little bit of an over simplification, but “The Talkies” is a
useful metaphor for changes taking place in the world of web development. The Talkies
refer to the film revolution of the 1920’s that changed the filmmaking industry
form silent movies to movies that could talk. The Talkies brought a whole new feel
and meaning to movies of that era and beyond.
I can’t think of a better way of describing the changes taking place in the world
of internet based applications. The parallels are striking, not only in terms of
the technical innovation of adding telephony as an integral part of web applications,
but also in terms of the effect it is going to have on society and the world at
But first let me give you a little background on the changes I am talking about.
I have been a web developer and student of the web since about 1993. In the formative
days of the web, the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) specification
addressed the need to support non-ASCII characters so that a richer variety of character
sets could be used with the web—think foreign languages, etceteras. As the web continued
to evolve the MIME standard came to support images, audio, and video. In those days,
when even web surfing was still new to the masses, we were blown away when we created
a web page and could view our work in a browser. And boy were we excited when we
figured out how to add images and maybe a sound clip or two! Indeed, we have come
a long way…and in just over a decade.
In fact, we have come so far from the days of garish web pages that beep and flash
at us that we have a real aversion to them. I do anyway. But “The Talkies” I am
talking about is not the ability to play a loop of sound in a web page. I am talking
about the full integration of VoIP and telephony into web applications and into
the application developer’s toolkit. The Talkies have indeed arrived.
Before diving more deeply into this analogy, a couple of points should be made that
may help put this change into perspective. The first is that telephony concepts
are moving from being obscure and not well understood to becoming a part of the
broader IT field and application developer landscape. This is a huge change. Telephony
in the past has been a closed world. The second has to do with the changes this
enables in terms of the kinds of applications that can be created by developers.
Typically, when a company needs to establish telephone services they go to a vendor,
ATT, or whoever else, and choose a package of services and features. A technician
comes out and enables the features on a PBX owned by the local exchange carrier.
The technician will also set up the actual RJ11 phone jacks that map back to a physical
switch on the PBX. In this whole process the IT department provides only an oversight
role. In concert with management, it selects the services needed and facilitates
the installation by the technician. At this point, the telephone system has become
a “set it and forget it” proposition. Any changes or new services require telco
intervention. Perhaps obviously, this is not a great model, lacking in flexibility
among other things.
The second point has to do with the kinds of applications that VoIP enables. To
date the kinds of applications that are being created vary widely. Many applications
mimic existing TDM based applications, such as conferencing, IVR, PBXs, caller ID
functionality integrated with proprietary database applications for call centers—often
times these are custom solutions. The value in these applications that provide the
same functionality as existing TDM systems is not that they are new, but in the
fact that they are IP based and use open, standards based, technologies (Eclipse,
JBoss, Java, Linux, etc.). Anyone (any programmer that is) can build applications
using these free, open source technologies. Making these applications
IP based and using an open, standards based, approach to development leads to innovation
and the potential to reconfigure these applications into new and potentially better
applications. And in all likelyhood, for less money.
There are also, however, really new applications being developed that make VoIP
technologies even more compelling. Such things as “mash-ups” that allow you to link
a web application to call control functionality, integration with Microsoft client
applications using smart tags, IMS enabled fixed-mobile convergence that allows
you to go seamlessly from one network to the next (landline/wireless/WiFi), IPTV,
voice enabled IM, and media gateways to name a few of the more prominent ones.
Often it is unclear which applications will survive and mature. Many progenitors
of VoIP technologies are in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, otherwise known as the
next “killer app.”. Regardless of whether or not the next killer app. is found,
it is clear that the core technologies that enable these new applications (IMS and
SIP, which has a prominent place in the IMS stack) will create revenue for those
that build new applications based on them. It seems fairly obvious that, over the
next several years, the telecommunications industry will become a major market for
I started out this article making the analogy between “The Talkies” and web based
applications adding telephony. It is indeed an interesting and very appropriate
The first talking motion picture (Don Juan with John Barrymore) came out in
1926 and synched sound effects and orchestral music with the on screen action. Crude
by today’s standards, but a real breakthrough in 1926. While the film enjoyed success,
most people at that time thought talking movies would be a passing fad. In 1927
the movie “The Jazz Singer” first matched pre-recorded dialogue to an actor with
Al Jolsen’s brief, extemporaneous line “…you ain’t seen nothing yet!” In 1928, Lights
of New York was released by Warner Brothers as the first all-dialogue film.
VoIP has had a similar journey from obscurity when there were many doubters of the
new technology (and perhaps rightly so, it was pretty lousy early on) to its growing
acceptance as a legitimate technology with a very bright future.
It wasn’t until 1933 that King Kong was released by RKO Studios that sound in motion
pictures took a huge leap forward. Murray Spivak, the sound man for the picture,
was the first person to manipulate sound in a creative way by using a lion’s roar
slowed down one octave for the sound of the ape. Not long after that, sound and
sound effects became a major part of motion pictures and movies as a form of entertainment
were on their way to becoming what they are today. While I don't think there has
been any single event that is responsible for VoIP taking off, cleary we are in
the post Kong era.
Much like it took the giant ape to reach the tipping point for the acceptance of
motion pictures as the major form of popular entertainment, the addition
of sound and multimedia will do the same for internet applications and the devices
that run them. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
In hindsight, the marriage of sound to movies seems obvious. It was “a natural”,
a compelling evolution/revolution for the film industry, a revolution whose success
has touched many other industries and the world at large. The addition of sound
to movies enabled a slue of new technologies, products, and industries including
surround sound stereos, high fidelity DVDs, and home theatre sets—to name only the
most current and obvious! The addition of telephony and the other multimedia content
that SIP enables to web/internet applications will, over the next 5 to 10 years,
have the same effect across other industries. Are we ready for Web 3.0?!