Metcalfe's column: From the Ether

You may be fed up with media coverage on the Cuban kid, but I get only short summaries of his sad story. This is because my exclusive news source each morning is CNN Headline Sports Play of the Day.

This may explain why two startups I just interviewed are in product categories that I had not heard of before. These two are ipVerse, a developer of a software switch for IP telephony (www.ipverse.com), and Navic, a provider of Internet appliance gateway software and services (www.navicsys.com).

I have been interviewing companies for Vortex, my annual gathering of executives in the converging Internet, telephone, and television networking industries (www.vortex2000.com). Navic and ipVerse are fine examples of convergence companies.

Startup ipVerse develops what co-founder Paul Singh calls "next-generation carrier-grade software switches that enable service providers to offer customer-driven voice-data services." This mysterious product category is called "softswitches."

Actually, softswitches are not all that mysterious. Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies, and Nortel Networks, prominent makers of what I would call "hardswitches," have already joined ipVerse in the softswitch category.

Softswitch software products are emerging to implement new standards from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). These standards include MGCP (Media Gateway Control Protocol) and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). To learn more about these convergence standards, start at www.ietf.org/internet-drafts/draft-zimmerer-mmusic-sip-bcp-t-00.txt.

The SIP standard enables communication among diverse MGCs (Media Gateway Controllers). So, for example, a call on the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) can be routed to an Internet telephone, and vice versa. ControlSwitch software from ipVerse can originate a PSTN SS7 (Signaling System 7) call and initiate it as a session over an IP network to MGCs running, say, Lucent Softswitch software.

Singh offered some examples of applications for his ControlSwitch software. These include "follow-me" service, home PBXs, IP Centrex, call centers, and PDA (personal digital assistant) linking services -- all for IP telephony.

The only thing Navic has in common with ipVerse is the word gateway. Navic founder Chet Kanojia explains that his gateway software and services manage configurations and distribute content to Internet appliances.

We talked about new television set-top boxes with integrated modems conforming to DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification). Navic services keep track of cable television subscribers who have such IP-addressable set-top boxes and what's connected to them. Navic gateways profile box behaviors and are a platform for what Kanojia calls "context-sensitive applications."

The first big Navic applications will, of course, enhance television. If you like a show's music, for example, Navic can support applications that will let you buy the music that's playing right then (in context) and download it to an MP3 player connected to your DOCSIS set-top box.

Navic's gateway can also target promotions to viewers of selected television shows, download music to CD burners attached to set-tops, and rent games. Meanwhile, Navic monitors appliance heartbeats, runs their diagnostics, upgrades their software, and schedules repairs for boxes in distress.

My not knowing there was such a category of appliance services hasn't kept competitors from eyeing Navic's opportunity. Kanojia mentions Microsoft and Liberate as companies that would like to "own the user experience" of Internet appliances (see www.microsoft.com/ISN/indoutlook_trends/microsoft_technology.asp and www.liberate.com).ipVerse and Navic are two new Internet convergence startups for telephone and television networks, respectively. What they aim to do (now that I sort of understand it) is big, for sure.

The question is whether these startups have a future on their own. Maybe. But they are more likely to be gobbled up by a biggie in their heretofore-mysterious category. If they are unlucky, well, I'll only find out if it shows up as a Play of the Day.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe has a paperback book of his columns coming out in May. It's called Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry. You can learn more about the book and order a copy now at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.

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