Tom Evslin has a very interesting post looking back at the predictions he made keynoting Jeff Pulver’s VON conference ten years ago, and noticing that of his three stages of the VoIP adoption path, the third never happened. Evslin predicted that the first area of VoIP adoption would be the straight arbitrage play of offering cheaper calls on the backend, especially for international calls. That absolutely happened. The second stage of VoIP adoption would be to move the calls to the internet, rather than a separate IP network for VoIP calls. That also happened. The third stage, however, would be when VoIP offerings became more common because they allowed people to do things they simply could not do with the traditional POTS (plain old telephone system) offering. That’s always the definition of a true killer app. It’s not about moving one service from one system to another, or about just making something cheaper or better. It’s about enabling something that wasn’t even possible before. Yet, Evslin notes, this hasn’t really happened with VoIP. Instead, most VoIP plays are still quite similar to the telephone. Evslin thinks that, in retrospect, his mistake was in forgetting that the new VoIP offerings needed to remain backwards compatible with POTS, and that has limited the ability to really create new offerings.
Instead, he believes the real third stage of VoIP adoption will be to totally bypass POTS and make it obsolete. He notes that social networking communication systems are starting down that route, where there are many different ways of communicating — and voice will just slot right in as one of many modes of conversing (along with videos, text, pictures and other options). I’d argue that this isn’t that far off from his original vision — and he seems to downplay things like Skype, GizmoProject and Yahoo IM that really have started to allow people to do things that weren’t possible before, such as adding presence and mobility to VoIP, while still connecting back to the legacy POTS system. I’d also argue that a second issue holding back the adoption of cool new features and benefits from VoIP has been the ridiculous patent lawsuits from the incumbents, trying to halt any real innovation in the space to protect their cash cows. Perhaps Evslin’s right that the only way to get around these things is to leave POTS in the dust — but hopefully once the dust clears on these patent lawsuits, real innovation can start happening.