SIP vs. Skype – is there “Technical Morality?”

When I got the idea of writing about why Skype should be considered “evil/closed” and alternatives to Skype (mostly SIP) should be considered “good/open,” I thought, “Well, duh, easy enough.” This scenario, though, is not so black and white.

Skype – the juggernaut. Your mom knows about and probably uses Skype. Its SoftPhone software is available for all systems, easy to set up, has a great, easy to “wrap your head around” interface. Its hardware is found around the corner at your local electronics store, and normally, this hardware plugs in and after a fairly simple software install or user log-in, you are done and talking.

SIP – the underdog. You mom thinks “SIP” is something you do with an Appletini. Its SoftPhone software is also available for all systems. Some are easy to set up. Some are not. You get to “wrap your head around” a SIP phone address of something like “12345678@sip02.yoursipcompany.com.” Its hardware is not found around the corner, but in the esoteric corners of the Internet. You spend hours or longer trying to tweak your configuration, using Google to you find out why the phone keeps making the “fast busy signal” noise.

Now, side by side, when working, the is no huge difference between the two. This is phone stuff. You have conversations on them with people who are more than 30 feet away. They work as phones have been since Edison said “Watson, get me a beer.” But, and this is my interpretation of the landscape, the goals of SIP and Skype are different, but to the end user the ends are the same.

Skype is closed, encrypted, patented and even obfuscates the code running on your system so it cannot be easily reverse engineered (Link to Blackhat Conference PDF). Skype also depends on its users unknowingly creating ad-hoc networks of machines directly connected and, in some cases, relaying conversations between other users. Right now if you auto-run Skype on a Windows box and you have the right networking ports open on your Internet connection, you may be helping Mommy Martha in Connecticut talk to her son, Stubby, at the Art Institute in Chicago. Aren’t you generous.

SIP, which uses open standards, is embraced by the geek/I.T. world, as a way to get around the exorbitant fees of phone providers. It can be used by the individual at home, or scales to the enterprise by using open or proprietary solutions, of which there are many. Though there is a P2P capability in SIP where you can call an IP address directly, bypassing a central “switch,” most of the time you are using this central switch, which may require your call to go through more hops to get to the destination. But in the end, you probably will not notice.

Skype’s goal has been to not just connect people, but deliver full spectrum audio quality. In version 3.0 and on of Skype, users have noticed a marked increase in bandwidth usage. Far be it for me to speak on Skype’s behalf, but the obvious reason for the increase in bandwidth usage is most likely a decision to yet increase audio quality (or, possibly, maybe, incorporate heavier encryption).

SIP, which can sound excellent depending on codec and quantity of bandwidth used, is more focused on connection and negotiation so you can HAVE the conversation, not necessarily hearing the full timbre of Martha’s voice, just like all the other phones we use today. Encryption is optional for the paranoid.

Which one is for you? Obviously, you pick the one based on which one you are most comfortable with, how far you want to take it, how much you want to spend and, not to mention, if you are geeky, like me, which one stands up to your “technical morality.” The equipment for both are fairly cheap and getting cheaper. All Skype specific equipment has a “Skype Tax” on it and can only be used with, you guessed it, Skype. SIP equipment has no such levy, and if you decided your, normally free, SIP provider stinks, you can take your ball, and equipment, and go with somebody else.

As I said, in the end, it is about conversation. They also both do I.M., transfer files and video chat. Video Chat? Who really wants to see me with matted hair at 8:00 A.M. before my first cup of coffee? I don’t. I know. I have mirrors.

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Grandstream Handytone 286 and Gizmo/Sipphone

It is not much to look at. It is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. And it makes phone calls. Not exactly sexy.

I just purchased a Grandstream HandyTone 286 to work with Gizmo and, in turn, my Grand Central account. This device works with generic SIP accounts, allows you shut off your computer and, with a cordless phone, get out of the room. Novel ideas, huh.

The unboxing: a black box, power supply, Ethernet cable and cellulose packing peanuts. Mine came with no manual or quick start guide. Nothing. But the peanuts were a HUGE bonus.

Most people fret at the sight of a gadget with no instructions. But, hey, it’s me. I already read the manual before Jim the FedEx guy delivered the box. I also had to dive through Google’s cache to find some missing Gizmo forum pages, to get the right settings. So, should you find yourself in the same scenario, here is all the setup you need to do. I feel somebody has to put the Gizmo setup for this device out there to find, so I might as well. Following that is some weirdness with the device and my reactions.

Easiest way to get from there to here…

  • Start clean! Do a full reset – (Online PDF manual – Page 37). Just trust me.
  • Get the IP number of the box. On the phone you hooked up, dial “***” then “02” (zero two) to get the ip number to hit with your browser.
  • Login (“admin”)

On the “Advanced Settings” page set the following:

  • SIP Proxy: proxy01.sipphone.com
  • SIP User ID: Dial “**” in Gizmo, or look at “Edit” -> “My Profile” to find out (the number before the “@”)
  • Authenticate ID: same number as your SIP User ID
  • Authenticate Password: Your password
  • STUN server: Check “Yes” and enter “stun01.sipphone.com:3478”
  • Set “Send DTMF” to “via SIP INFO” only (for all the number punching Grand Central demands.)

If it is working for you, change your passwords (there are two). (Then write down your passwords in big black marker on a post-it note and give them to the hacker teenager that lives down the street. Then call him “ugly.”)

I realize that just because these instructions (sans the post-it note) work for me, it does not mean that it will work for you, but they are generic enough for a kick-start.

There was some weirdness that occurred when I tried to set a static IP number, then, afterwards, removing the static entry did not remove it completely- hence, weirdness and the necessity for the full reset in the instructions. It works fine with DHCP. Leave it like that if you can. I had no luck with static IPs.

Now, does it work? Yes. And it works well. Calls are clear without the latency I have seen in some SoftPhones. Well worth the $38 plus shipping.

One ringy dingy, two…

UPDATE:

From praveen:

“Hi I am unable to receive calls from grandcentral on my ht 286. i set up exactly as u said but still when i press 1 it doesnt go through..do u have any solution? thanks praveen”

aprigliano (that’s me) responds:

There are two things that have changed since this post. I have updated my firmware to version 1.1.0.3. Get it here.

Also, it works for me to select ALL “Send DTMF” settings (“in-audio” AND “via RTP (RFC2833)” AND “via SIP INFO.”) I do not know if this is right thing to do, but it works.

Try changing the settings first, then dive into the firmware upgrade. Warning: The firmware upgrade is a little weird.

Good Luck.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=apriglianoorg-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B0027IDQC2

Quickie Post – Broadcast any noise from your Computer for $20

This post makes me neither smart nor clever.

I had a big “Duh” moment, when I took my Belkin TuneCast FM Transmitter and plugged it into the back of my Mac Mini. Suddenly, I could listen to podcasts, live streaming, and iTunes anywhere in the house where there is a radio, obviating any need for one of those expensive WiFi solutions that makes toast and also walks the dog.

I know. “Duh.”

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=apriglianoorg-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B00008SB1D

VOIP, SIP and the Neverending Sadness

For about four days now, I have been trying to bring myself to write, with some relative authority, on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) softphones, and I wanted to write from a consumer’s perspective, leaving out all the geeky alphabet soup of Speekx, SIP, STUN or H.323. My hope was to come up with possible alternatives to Skype and give something simple to swallow. Right?

Not so fast, mister.

At some point in the last couple of years, while I wasn’t looking, the heavens opened up and puked softphone software on the world. I offer exhibit A: the Wikipedia article Comparison of VoIP software – the over abundance of VOIP softphones.

Now, let’s say for argument’s sake, I am a normal person (just try, please). I get a notion in my craw that I want to be able to talk to Grandma for cheap or free. If I can get Grandma to install the same software on her BlueHair 2010 computer, I can talk to her for free. Or, if that is too painful, I can at least call her for about 2 cents per minute.

Now, only for argument’s sake again, I have become anti-Skype because I was the 7th caller to a local Morning Zoo contest and I won 2 tickets to the Lion’s Club spaghetti dinner, but, as I was giving my address to “Crazy Jim,” Skype gave out on me. And, now, I am flipping angry. No spaghetti for me.

Which one do I pick?

There are A) literally too many choices, B) they don’t sound quite as good as Skype, and C) there is no great differentiation between all these softphones. Though most are semi-workable solutions and, I expect as most software goes, they will improve with time.

But, they all pretty much use the same model:

  1. Your account is free
  2. Computer to computer calls are free.
  3. Incoming phone numbers, if available, cost money.
  4. Outgoing calls are pre-paid and are levied with a per-minute charge.

No differentiation, as I said, between most VoIP services. Sad, really. Being just like Skype, with slightly less sound quality, will not beat the juggernaut that is Skype.

There were two stand-outs in the pack I will talk about, but this burgeoning industry needs to work harder at making a presence, not just depend on word of mouth, to get alternatives on people’s machines.

One pleasant surprise I did have was that some of these phones are inter-operable. To my shock and surprise, since many VoIP (not all) phones use open standards, I was, at least, able to use one softphhone on another’s network and vice-versa. This is partially a choice on the the softphone creators’ network (open or closed) and partially because some software allows this. So you can pick the best network and the best software, if you are so inclined and if you have the time. I found a very eloquent explanation of how this openness is good here.

But, as much as I like open standards and open source, Skype is still winning (even though eBay, the owner of Skype, does not think so). Still, why is Skype so pervasive? I think it is because they had a head start – back in 2003, started post dot.com boom (read: when folks were dying for something for free) by Niklas Zennstr√∂m and Janus Friis. They were the guys who gave us, and sold off, the Napster like Kazza network, so they know “free.” And in Skype’s creation, they gave us a “free,” though closed, system. Though Skype has had its ups and downs, the engineering, quality, and ease of use for the end user still pushes it ahead of the the pack of possible VOIP solutions.

That said, here are my -rolls eyes- Skype killers.

Gizmo – this program was introduced to me from Grand Central and has been around for some time. Since Grand Central works with it Gizmo directly, Grand Central gently pushes it. And Gizmo is pretty good. In as far as “free”, they have the usual computer to computer, but they also have this convoluted “all calls free” program in which once you have any mutual contacts, you can call all your contacts on their mobile phones, landlines, or Gizmo for free. So it is not really “all calls.” Read that again. Or go here. It does make sense when you see it working, but, how do you sell that to mortals? Still, it is a sincerely good program. And I expect it will get even better with time.

Ekiga – If you have ever installed Ubuntu Desktop, you have Ekiga; a very interesting program that is also available in beta for Windows. Works like most softphone clients, but, and this is a big but, it is completely open source. Ekiga is what was “Gnome Meeting” and is pretty slick in that I can put in a cadre of all your SIP network logins, getting rid of the need for having more than one client running on your system at a time. Pretty slick. The only downer is the is no encryption enabled in this guy, yet.

Finally, uninstall or never install VoipStunt or VoipBuster – bad juju, bad karma and bad mojo. Just say no.

It Starts with Sputnik and Goes On (and On)

Here is what I am going to do for the next eight paragraphs: ramble. But there is a thread. Read on.

On October 4, 1957, Sputnik was launched. America freaks out, causing what is commonly thought of as the revamping of math and science classes in American schools.

On October 5, 2007, I rented October Sky with Jake Gyllenhaal and based on the book Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. Good Flick. In short, it is about how a young boy in a mining town looks up, sees Sputnik, and freaks out (in a good way).

The following is an unrelated piece on old time Chemistry Sets on Wired Science that I saw last week. Basically, we do not have Chemistry Sets anymore because of parents freaking out over safety.
http://www.pbs.org/kcet/wiredscience/video/embed/82

When I was young I was fascinated with radio. I even built myself a Crystal Set Radio. I loved crystal sets because they never ran out out battery power. Crystal sets do not use batteries.

It got me to think about what would be the modern equivalent. Well, you could build your own MP3 Player.

Or possibly build your own HD Radio? Well, actually, no you can’t. The codecs (coder/decoder of the digital bits) they chose for American HD-Radio is proprietary so you can’t willy-nilly pick up a 50 dollar chip that will decode the stream. In essence, radio broadcasters and the F.C.C. freaked out – to protect themselves. They could have, should have, used OGG. But no.

So, now my point: we have become a country of end users, waiting for discovery to come to us pre-packaged, homogenized, patented and clean.

Real discovery was never clean.

Bricking the WRT54G – an update…

On October 4th, Andrew wrote a comment to Bricking the WRT54G


Sveasoft firmware really sucks. I suggest you look at DD-WRT:
http://www.dd-wrt.com/

I am using v24 (pre-rc4) on my WRT GSs and they are rock solid. QoS is working too!


Andrew is not a fan of Sevasoft. His page www.sveasoftsucks.com is a clue as to his feelings on the matter.

So at Andrew’s (and Anonymous’s) behest, I took a stab at DD-WRT.

So far so good.

I am not quite there with its QoS (Quality of Service) piece because my ISP is giving me some odd readings when I test for my upload and download speeds at Broadband Reports. Last night, my upload speeds were FASTER than my download speeds (…umm, that’s wrong.) I am going to give QoS another go this weekend.

Something else I am noticing about DD-WRT is that the web service process that serves up the interface must have low priority because if the router is busy, the web interface takes a while to respond. I am sure I could “nice” it up. Not major.

BUT, and this is huge, unlike the Sevasoft firmware versions, DD-WRT is not crashing.

Looks like we have a winner.

More later.

Quickie post – Joost does not use overlay

I have a 1.7 MHz Pentium with a not-so-new but perfectly fine Nvidia Video card hooked up to my HDTV. This allows me to watch any sort of long form Internet video while sitting on a couch. Couches are more comfortable than office chairs. Duh.

Well, I was watching some much missed Babylon 5 on the WB Joost channels and I noticed some really annoying stuttering going on. The audio was fine. The video sucked. So for fun I looked at Task Manager to see how much processor Joost was using. Umm… 100%.

Ok.

I also have VNC (desktop sharing) server on this machine and I remember that if overlay was not on, I could see the video through a VNC client. Turned it on, and there it was. Babylon 5 being pushed through to VNC.

Joost does not use the built in, very efficient, and very old school overlay.

My questions are: Why the hell not? Why confine yourself to a market of only the highest end machines?

Not very bright.