Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New VOIP Services

I had a chance to compare two new Internet phone services from Ooma and MagicJack. Let me summarize what I have learned in the table below:


Initial cost
$40 for first year



Recurring cost
$20/yr following years
plus monthly Vonage service

911 features
Uses E911 PSAP
Uses landline 911 (2)
Use Vonage PSAP

Headset or analog phone?
Either supported
Analog Phone
Neither needed (mic included)
Headset + PC

Free calling area
North America
North America
Various countries (1)

Mac OS X support
Not yet
Uses phones
Not yet

Notable features
Headset or phone
Second line
Built in mic
International reach

Few area codes yet avail.
Customer support
Tied to Vonage account
Dicey p2p network issues

Email voicemail notifications?



(1) Skype pro provides unlimited calling in a single country that you receive the phone number for.

(2) Please note that in order for the ooma system to work, we will add call forward busy ("CFB") when we provision your line, for which you will owe your landline phone company associated monthly charges

So what are these new services? Ooma is a small box about the size of an answering machine that hooks up to both your broadband Ethernet and your land voice line. MagicJack is a bit bigger than a USB key drive that connects to your computer's USB port. They have very different approaches, and are not for everyone.

MagicJack is a way to supplement your existing landline or cellular service. If you have a loved one that is living overseas, or someone who travels a lot, then this makes sense. At a fixed price of $40 and $20 for the second and subsequent years, it is a low enough price point that you can send it to someone living abroad, have them register with a US phone number, and then you can have cheap unlimited talk time. The nice thing about the gizmo is that you can either hook up a standard analog phone to it, or use whatever PC-connected sound device you'd like: it can toggle between both. It doesn't yet have many local phone numbers -- when I tried it out, I could get as close as Memphis but nothing in Missouri as yet. But this is becoming less of an issue as many people have unlimited long distance plans anyway.

Ooma is much more expensive, and I am not sure where their market is: at $400, you have to make a lot of calls and the device requires a lot more commitment. You need to make changes to your landline calling features too. Its niftiest feature is the ability to give you a second outgoing phone line, so you can get around a chatty teen who is always tying up your phone. But it has very poor customer support despite some initial buzz and a high initial cost to get their gear.

Both Ooma and MagicJack come with their own voicemail box that can send you email notifications, which is becoming standard in the VOIP world. Both supply unlimited calling in the US or North America, with additional per-minute charges to places beyond. Both support the better E911 services that aren't the norm with most VOIP suppliers: ironically, Vonage offers a competitive USB gizmo called the V-phone, but 1) you need to sign up for a Vonage service plan to use it and 2) it doesn't support E911, instead, emergency calls get routed to a Vonage operator.

The other entry in this sweepstakes is Skype. They of course only work on your PC, but they do offer Macintosh support, something neither the V-phone or the MagicJack presently have. They are a bit more expensive if you buy all the various options (you need Skype In to get a fixed phone number so people can call your PC at $60/year and Skype Pro to make outgoing calls at $36/year ) than either USB device, but they do offer local numbers in various countries, should that be important to you or if both of your frequently called parties are outside the US. Their Pro plan allows unlimited outbound calling to phones in whatever country you assign your phone number to your account.

What you pick will depend on a lot of different circumstances: if you are looking for a complete replacement of your landline phone with an Internet solution, I still think either Vonage or AT&T CallVantage is a better way to go than any of these products. If you make a lot of international calls to different places, then probably Skype is your answer. If your teen or traveling salesperson is tying up your phone or racking up cell minutes, then any one of these might be a lower-cost alternative if you want to keep your existing landline.

Clearly, the VOIP market is undergoing a lot of change, and a lot of players will come and (like SunRocket) go. As someone who uses Vonage daily for the past four years, I am watching avidly what is going on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rewriting computing history with Colossus

What if I told you that a secret project conducted more than 60 years ago held the true origins of the modern computing era? And that the country behind this project did such a good job erasing its tracks that it did itself a disservice? And that many of the things invented during this project would only be realized with modern-day PCs?

It sounds like a made-for-TV movie, and it should be, and finally -- Now The True Story of Colossus Can Be Told (cue announcer and swelling music).

The world's first electronic digital computer wasn't developed on American soil but presaged by nearly two years during an intensive British top-secret wartime effort called Colossus. A team of engineers built the room-sized computer for a single purpose: to decrypt German military radio transmissions. The original designer died without ever receiving any acknowledgment or acclaim accorded to many of his American computing counterparts, yet he was responsible for the first implementations of program-controlled logic, parallel processing, variable programming, hardware interrupts, optical reading of punched paper tape, shift registers and other things that are now common to the PC lexicon. Some of these innovations took a decade or more to implement elsewhere by others.

And lest you think that Colossus was so old school slow, consider this: It was so massively parallel and efficient at what it did that a modern PC programmed to do similar code breaking tasks now takes about as long to achieve the same results!

There were actually ten Colossus models produced during the war by a team led by Thomas Flowers, who worked doing telephone switching research before and after the war at what was to become British Telecom. By a series of fortuitous circumstances, Flowers was originally hired for another project, and took it upon himself to develop Colossus using his own designs.

Why are we just figuring its place in history now? Several reasons: first, the Brits have finally declassified the key documents and lifted gag orders on the project, and as a result a wonderful book is now out by Oxford University Press.

The book is a huge 460-page tome with many details about the code breaking process directly from the people who worked at Bletchley Park and Dollis Hill, the government labs involved. This is a collection of first-person accounts and you get to see the enormity of the task and exactly how critical this effort was towards winning the war. If you got excited about crypto stuff in the DaVinci Code then you will have lots of hours of fun trying to work through the examples the authors provide. (And my thanks to my original writing mentor, Grant, for turning me onto the book.)

The book's author and organizer is Jack Copeland, who is a New Zealand professor and responsible for the archive. Turning, a name familiar to many of us, was intimately involved in many things Bletchley Park but not the brains behind the hardware of Colossus.

Second, owing to an odd set of circumstances, all but two of the machines were immediately destroyed after V-E day in 1945 on Churchill's command. Had more evidence survived, it might have become as notorious as the American ENIAC, which has gotten most of the credit for the early computing innovations. The two units were used by the British Government for several years for code breaking purposes, presumably. And recently, a project to rebuild one machine has been successful, and was tested with breaking some historic codes.

Third, the veil of secrecy around this project was colossal, too: despite the thousands of people employed during the wartime effort, there were few leaks. Maybe the Brits are better at keeping secrets than us Yanks, but the amount of containment and compartmentalization was austere. Thousands of people worked at close quarters yet never asked each other what they were actually doing on the project. Parents didn't have idea what their children were working on – indeed, one of the younger Colossus team members was so concerned that all of his contemporaries were off fighting (and he was just a mere geek-in-residence) that he asked to be reassigned because his father was beginning to wonder what he was doing. His superiors arranged to have an army officer visit his parents and reassure them that the son was involved in a major military project, and just because he wasn't shipped to the front lines he was still a key part of the war effort.

Despite the secrecy, engineers kept a few pages of design notes about the project and now a group of academic researchers is using this information to try to reconstruct Colossus and the German encryption devices it managed to break. There are exhibits at Bletchley Park as well, someday I hope to see those in person.

There are some modern lessons to be learned from Colossus:

"The only dependable way of protecting corporate and government computer networks today from the criminal trespasses of hackers is to hire from their top echelon on the principle of fighting fire with fire," ways Donald Michie, one of the younger code breakers at Bletchley park. He talks about how the code makers and the code breakers were never allowed to communicate and indeed were two separate government organizations, thus serious flaws were never fixed on early encryption machines. Many of these flaws introduced incredible human errors that allowed the Brits a way into decrypting the German transmissions.

A second lesson is how critical Colossus was towards the overall war effort. Many Americans like to think that we played a key role in winning the war, and certainly without our men and material things would have happened differently. Yet, the book describes the moment that Eisenhower changed his plans for the D-Day Normandy invasion based on the Colossus decrypts. Indeed, one of the Colossus machines was finished just hours before he had to make this decision. The decrypts made it possible for him to monitor German counterstrike efforts before he attacked the beaches and place his troops accordingly. There are several other examples throughout the book about other moments where Colossus saved lives – including German ones, too.

Third, reading the descriptions of the Colossus team and their exploits, I got the feeling that Bletchley Park was a very unique place in Britain's military history. People were addressed on a first-name basis, and civilians and soldiers worked side by side. Many of the people employed there were just out of high school, if that, and the team leaders had to find motivational ways to keep the place running 24x7. There is a lot to learn from in these sentiments for anyone who manages a team of people.

Finally, there is also an understanding the role of secrecy in an open society. I don't think anyone would argue that Colossus needed to be a secret during wartime. The issue is how it was revealed to the public, and how long it took before the exact details were openly available. Given that the events of the 1940s are just now coming to light, perhaps we need to keep this in mind when we think how the innovations we create during our modern era can find their way into the future public domain.

I highly recommend this book, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.