A Tale of Business Disruption in Document Communications

In the middle of the 1990s, the Internet and its associated IP protocols were like a huge wave that was off the shore of the business world, but poised to come in and cause massive disruption. At that time, I ran a consulting business for telecom clients (Human Communications) and was active on several fronts to be proactive on the topic.  In the TR-29 fax standards committee, we started work on how fax communications could take place over the Internet. A small group began work on an initiative called Group 5 Messaging, whose goal was to take the best ideas of fax, email and telex and spin up the next generation of business communications. In late 1996, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held an informal Birds of a Feather (BOF) on Internet Fax.  In meetings of Study Group 8 of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), discussions began on how to extend fax protocols to work over the Internet or on private IP networks.

On the business side, fax was very hot and even very small businesses such as pizza parlors had purchased fax machines. Corporations had been adopting fax over Local Area Networks, and companies like Rightfax, Omtool, Optus and Biscom had  very healthy businesses selling into this space. Brooktrout Technology had introduced multi-channel fax boards and drivers for Windows NT, and had built up market momentum that enabled the company to go public. But all of this fax technology was based on sending faxes over circuit-switched networks. What would be the impact of the Internet and its technology on fax and business communications?

By 1999, the business communications landscape had changed dramatically. On the standards front, the IETF had created several standards for providing a fax services via email and the ITU had referenced these standards in the T.37 standard. The ITU had also independently created a new T.38 standard which essentially extended the T.30 Group 3 fax protocol into the IP packet world. The Group 5 initiative had lost momentum, as the fax and other communications players lined up to support the new IP-based standards from the IETF and ITU which appeared to solve the problem of how to send faxes over IP.  Related standards work continued and I was active in making sure that the new T.38 fax protocol was supported under both the current H.323 call control and under the new SIP and Megaco (later H.248) protocols.

On the business side, fax was still doing well, but now had new competition. The advent of the World Wide Web had totally wiped out the Fax on Demand business that had done well in the early Nineties. Various pundits were saying that email was the future of business communications and that new portable document formats like the PDF from Adobe would be used in place of fax.  Curiously, the email experts who participated in the IETF Internet Fax work weren’t so sure. Fax had business quality of service elements which were hard to duplicate in email — notably instant confirmation of delivery at the end of a session, negotiations between the endpoints on what document formats were acceptable and the legal status of fax, where fax messages over the circuit network were accepted as legal documents for business purposes.  The IETF work group tried to upgrade email protocols to address the technical elements, but the work was hard and the path to adoption slow.

I also shifted my career and suspended my consulting business to join Brooktrout Technology and help them participate in the new Voice over IP business. But just before I left my business, I advised my fax clients and newsletter subscribers to get diversified and not put all of their eggs in the fax communications basket.  I saw both challenges and opportunities ahead. There had been a large number of new startups that had attempted to ride IP fax to success in the late Nineties, but most of them crashed and burned within a couple of years. E-Fax had introduced “free” IP fax mailboxes and that approach was quickly emulated by competitors, but the business model for “free” wasn’t obvious.  I’d helped form a new industry association called the Internet Fax and Business Communications Association in early 1999, but we had difficulty getting fax and other communications industry vendors to sign on. The times were turbulent and the way forward was less than obvious.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how the trends toward IP Fax and its communications competitors played out and which related business communications issues still need to be addressed.

If your organization has participated in the evolution of fax or other business communications during this evolution from the circuit-switched phone network to IP, please feel free to comment. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

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Impact of Media Gateways on Voice Solutions

This is the latest in a series of posts on how voice development has been moving from hardware to software centered models. In my last post, we reviewed the classic approach to developing voice-centered solutions, which typically utilized voice boards. In this post, I’ll review how media gateways helped change the model.

In the classic voice model, the voice board often was used both for voice processing and to connect to a phone network, which might be either digital or analog. When Voice over IP (VoIP) began to emerge, new options became available for voice solutions. In the early days of VoIP, the H.323 stack was used to connect to IP networks, but the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) got some crucial support in the 2000-2001 time frame from Microsoft and the Third Generation Partnership Program (3GPP), the leading standards organization for mobile phone networks. Within a few years, voice developers began to add SIP to their development capabilities. This had multiple implications.

Let’s look at some business side drivers. After the dot com crash and the related “Telecom Downturn,” which decimated the ranks of engineering staffs of the large vendors known as The Equipment Manufacturers (TEMs), these companies were looking for ways to reduce the amount of hardware in their solutions. In the classic voice solution, the voice board processed media and also connected to the circuit-switched networks. When SIP became popular, many of the TEMs started saying they wanted to move away from the hardware business. Some of these companies started processing media as part of their voice applications and others continued to rely upon voice boards for this processing.  In either case, if they outsourced the connection to the network to another box, they could reduce the number of hardware dependent elements in their solution and simplify the process of building and shipping their solutions.

Enter the Media Gateway. As the application developer included SIP in their solutions, they could connect to a media gateway via SIP and then let the media gateway take over the role of connecting to the existing circuit-switched network. This had been possible before SIP with H.323, but SIP offered much more flexibility for doing the complex call processing needed by the voice developers and continued to gain market momentum. In turn, various hardware companies started building purpose-built media gateway appliances to connect to digital or analog networks. The gateways supported the most common networks such as ISDN first, but eventually some gateways got more sophisticated and added Signaling System #7 (SS7) support as well.  This decomposition  of the voice solution offered benefits for both types of vendors. The solution vendors could start their move away from hardware and focus more on software, whereas the media gateway vendors were able to specialize in connections between SIP and the circuit-switched networks. Each type of company could specialize in their area of expertise and the solutions providers could add value to their solutions by buying best-of-breed media gateways.  Since the network protocols were standards-based,  the gateways needed to have robust standard protocol implementations and this helped create a competitive market for media gateways.

As a result, solution developers took another step along the path of reducing their dependency on embedded hardware, since they could now outsource the network connection to a media gateway.  In the next post, I’ll talk about developments in IP-based media which continued the evolution toward software-based voice applications.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your company’s solutions to meet customer needs, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

Voice Development Models: A Journey Begins

During the past three years, I had product management responsibilities for products which covered the spectrum from hardware-centered to software-centered development.  In telecom, there’s been an evolution in development models as solution providers have taken a series of steps to gradually move away from hardware.  However, like many technical trends, there is a long tail as the older technology goes away only gradually.  In this post and others to follow, I’ll review models for voice applications at a high level and consider some steps along the way which have led to the software-oriented nirvana sought by many solution providers.

In the Nineties, voice development was often done with PCs at the center and embedded board hardware was an important component. The CPUs of the PCs ranged from models like the 386 on up to Pentium. Voice applications entailed lots of media processing, so voice boards with lots of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) were critical to get scalable applications.  The DSPs did all of the heavy lifting for the media and the CPU of the PC was freed up to support the application side for solutions such as call centers, interactive voice retrieval and fax on demand.  Many of the applications developed during this time are still being used, though the actual PCs or servers may have been replaced and there may also have been some upgrades on the voice board hardware. Nonetheless, thousands of voice boards are still being sold to support these applications. On the software side, there were efforts to create industry standard Application Program Interfaces (APIs) such as S.100 from the Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum (ECTF) and T.611 from the International Telecommunications Union, but most of the boards were controlled using private APIs supplied by the board vendors.

In the model above, the boards and applications were all designed to work over the circuit-switched telephone network, which ranged from analog services (POTS or Plain Old Telephone Service) to digital approaches which began with the Integrated Systems Digital Network (ISDN) and continued with the Signaling System 7 (SS7) network overlay.  The phone companies worldwide assumed that these circuit-switched networks with Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) and the related seven layer Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) models would be the focus going forward, replacing analog networks, and would perhaps be supplemented by new OSI stacks such as the Asynchronous Transport Method (ATM).

But a revolution had already begun as alternative flatter telecom stacks based on the upstart Internet Protocol  (IP) protocols were being used both for existing applications such as email and new applications like the Worldwide Web. In the telecom industry, a few companies began to explore running voice over IP networks, thus creating a new Voice over IP (VoIP) technical and business model for phone networks.  In the early days (from the late Nineties to the early 2000s), VoIP was mainly used to bypass existing long distance networks to reduce long distance charges, but the range of applications for IP soon began to expand.

At first, this looked like a great opportunity for the voice board manufacturers.  Now, they could add IP support to their boards or potentially just give software developers access to Ethernet ports on PC. An important new board category was created: the media gateway. These early media gateway boards allowed developers to use the existing circuit networks for most of their connections, but also tap into new IP networks where they existed.  Continuing on the same API trends, board vendors extended their private APIs to support IP in addition to TDM.  So now solution developers could run their solutions over both existing TDM and new IP networks, using these new hybrid boards which often could support voice, fax and tones.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how media gateways helped to kick off a new voice development model which accelerated the separation between software and hardware for voice and the new application category which became Unified Communications.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments.  If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your solutions, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

Faxed: A Book Review – Part 1

In 1993, I visited the city of San Antonio to participate in a speaking engagement on fax at a conference on electronic commerce.  While there, I had dinner with a professor from the University of Texas A & M named Jonathan Coopersmith.  We had an engaging conversation about facsimile technology and he told me that he was writing a history on the subject.  The fax business was in full ferment at the time and I’d been busy during the past several years working on the TR-29 fax committee, which prepared US fax standards and also submitted contributions to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the group which defined standards for fax and other telecom technologies.

Fast forward about ten years.  Jonathan visited Needham, Massachusetts to interview the executives of Brooktrout Technology and discovered that I also worked at the company. He invited me to share lunch with him and we talked about how much fax had changed in the prior ten years, going from the world’s hottest communications technology to one of many ways of communicating in a world now dominated by Internet based tech.  He also said that yes, he was still working on the book, but had taken out time to raise his family and he’d been sidetracked on that long running project.  We continued to exchange messages over the next several years, notably when he visited Japan to interview sources over there in person.  He sent me a draft of a chapter on computer fax and fax during the Nineties around 2010 or so and I offered some feedback.

In 2015, Jonathan got in touch.  Great news.  The book was done and published.  The result is called Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.  He sent me a copy and I recently sat down and read it over the period of a few weeks. Jonathan’s area of expertise is as an historian specializing in the history of technology.  He discovered fax as a user, finding the fax machine was a technology that even his mother could use effectively.  He’d also discovered that the books on fax were not written from an historical perspective, so he decided to write one.

IMG_1010 - Faxed - cropped

Fax has a fascinating history.  It was invented in 1843 by Alexander Bain, a Scottish physicist, during the era when the telegraph was the king of communications technology.  Bain was one of several notable figures in the early days of fax; as Coopersmith notes, the idea attracted a diverse group of inventors who worked not only on fax, but also on improvements to the telegraph.  I’d been aware of Bain, but Coopersmith digs in and finds many others who advanced fax in one way or another during its first seventy years.  The technology was promising, but difficult, involving aspects of mechanics, optics and electronic synchronization which tended to exceed the state of the art at the time.  The early markets for fax sprung up around World War I and its aftermath, as newspapers began to supplement written words with photographs transferred via fax and competitive technologies.

As Coopersmith recounts, fax moved forward in fits and starts and consumed a great deal of financial capital in the process, but did not actually result in a successful commercial market until the Sixties, when new technologies such as the photocopier from Xerox made it easier for faxed documents to be copied and exchanged within businesses and other organizations.  Even in this period, there was a lack of standards and the main markets were the US and Japan.  Xerox appeared to have all of the pieces to dominate the market, but invested elsewhere and other startups began to compete for the burgeoning market of fax machines targeted to offices.

Two developments changed the landscape in a dramatic way.  First, the Carterphone decision forced AT&T to allow 3rd party devices to connect to the phone network and opened the way to telecom technology to advance outside of the monopolistic Bell system.  Coopersmith notes that NTT was forced to open its network in Japan just a few years later, which also encouraged a number of companies in Japan to jump into fax.  The second development was the hard set of compromises that resulted in the first well accepted fax standard, Group 3, which was agreed within the International Consultative Committee on  Telegraphy and Telephony (aka CCITT) in 1980.  With the advent of Group 3, the factories in Japan were able to standardize mass production of fax machines and Japan became the supplier of fax machines for the world.

In the late Eighties, the sub-$1000 fax machine debuted and the fax explosion was in full motion.  Around this time, a court in New York State accepted that fax documents could be used in legal proceedings and fax gained a stature which pushed other technologies like Telex aside.

During this period, I worked for Fujitsu Imaging Systems of America (FISA) and was a product line manager for a new technology called computer fax modems.  FISA had bought one of the early fax success stories from the Sixties, Graphic Sciences, from Burroughs Corporation in 1986.  This is where my story begins to intertwine with the fax history which Coopersmith recounts.  I’ll continue this review in my next post.