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Welcome to the dawn: Cicero's Smartphone VoIP client By Matt Lewis. 20 January, 2006 It's great being an ARCchart analyst. You get to play around with some really cool technology. HTC’s Windows Mobile handset with integrated Wi-Fi, the Tornado, was a toy recently thrown my way. My version was dressed as the Qtek 8310 (it’s also being sold at i-mate’s SP5i), and while it was interesting to browse the web on a phone at lightening speeds over Wi-Fi instead of cellular, the experience itself was nothing new. However, things changed when Cicero Networks allowed us to review their recently released CiceroPhone VoIP client for Window Mobile Smartphone devices. It’d be a good litmus test to see how close (or how far) the industry currently is from the nirvana of convergence. While Cicero also produces a server solution (typically hosted by an operator) which is able to manage handover between Wi-Fi and GSM networks, I used the software purely as a standalone VoIP client and did not play around with cross network handover. First, a few words about the handset. The 8310 has the look and feel of a feature phone – it’s actually thinner than Sony Ericsson’s W800i Walkman phone, although it’s slightly longer. It packs a 1.3 mega-pixel camera, an impressive QVGA colour screen and its Window Mobile 5.0 operating system performs noticeably better than its 2003 predecessor. Wi-Fi is launched by pressing a dedicated communications button on the side of the phone and connection to an access point is fast. For example, once I’d plugged in the security settings for my access points in the office and at home, the phone regularly connected to these networks within 10 to 20 seconds of Wi-Fi being switched on. Having played around with a lot of VoIP systems and software over the years, I expected a fair bit of tweaking would be required to install the Cicero client and get it connected to our company’s SIP-based IP PBX. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I installed the application on the phone, configured it for the PBX and was making calls in less than 10 minutes. I was also able to configure CiceroPhone to work through Sipgate, a German VoIP service provider I have an account with. Although I did not try it, there should be no reason other popular VoIP services, such as Vonage, could not be configured in a similar way. The Smartphone version of CiceroPhone runs as a standalone application and does not attempt to replace the phone’s dialler application as it does in the Pocket PC version. The interface is simple, showing indicators for Wi-Fi status and signal strength, a field showing the number being dialed and a list of the seven most recently dialled numbers (for easy redialing). There are menu options to view missed and received calls, and the configuration manager allows the user to change a wide range of settings. Beyond the standard username, password and server details are several settings to control voice compression and general quality of service (such as echo cancellation and silence suppression). A useful feature is the presence of three separate accounts (default, local and public), which each can be set with different configuration details. I was therefore able to set the ‘Local’ and ‘Public’ accounts with the internal and external settings for my company’s PBX, and set the ‘Default’ account to use my personal account with Sipgate. It is then easy to switch between these accounts and the application re-connects seamlessly. Voice quality Using a hands-free headset with the phone, voice quality is good and is generally no worse than the quality of a cellular call. I made calls for up to 30 minutes in duration and experienced no drop-outs or distortion, so long as a strong WLAN signal was maintained. I was even able to surf the web and play Solataire with only minor voice distortions occurring. As I launched more applications on the phone during a call there were more drop-outs and, unsurprisingly, as the Wi-Fi signal weakened (when moving further away from the access point), voice quality degraded noticeably. Calls were made from the office WLAN, my home network and a T-Mobile and a BT Openzone hotspot, all with consistent results. At the hotspots, I first had to go into Internet Explorer on the phone and insert my security details before getting access to the network. On average, I’d have to be within 10 to 20m of an access point for the phone to have a strong enough signal to make calling possible. There are problems when the phone is used with no hands-free attached. In this situation, the call audio is transmitted through the phone’s loudspeaker, and not the ‘ear speaker’. Unless the speaker volume is turned all the way down, the call is basically conducted on a speaker-phone. Also, even with the speaker turned down, the called party gets a soft echo. According to Cicero, this is because the gain on the phone has been set too high and, unlike most other HTC devices, there are no gain controls available to the software developer. Cicero expect this problem will be addressed in a future firmware release from HTC. Battery-life The ability to activate and deactivate Wi-Fi through the handset’s communications button is useful since there’s no question of leaving it permanently activated. Nonetheless, knowing Wi-Fi’s power hungry reputation, I was impressed to be able to squeeze about a days standby time out of the device with Wi-Fi switched on and the phone placed about 5m away from an access point. However, with CiceroPhone running, the battery took a serious hammering, lasting about two hours on standby, and I estimate that talk-time over Wi-Fi is about one hour, compared to about four hours talk-time with GSM. Summary There is much talk in the industry about cellular/Wi-Fi convergence, but with precious few tangible examples. My overall impression of CiceroPhone is positive, but the question is, do I see myself using it on an ongoing basis? From my perspective, battery life is the only reason I would not keep CiceroPhone permanently active on my handset, but where power is readily available, or the phone is docked to my PC or laptop, I can see several occasions when I will definitely be using it. For example, in the office while in a meeting room I can pick up calls going to my ‘desk phone’ number, and I’d be able to do the same while at home. While I’m travelling, the benefits are even greater: My Wi-Fi calls are routed through my company’s PBX, so I appear to be in the office to people I’m calling, and I will also receive incoming calls to my desk phone. The more work calls I can route through the PBX, the fewer mobile calls I have to expense at the end of the month Cost! Whilst roaming overseas, I pay between $1.20 and $2.10 per minute for each call I make and about half that for each call I receive. Whilst I’m stationary at an airport, conference centre, hotspot, or in my hotel room, my cost saving of calling over Wi-Fi instead of cellular will be substantial. In the past, I’d try and use VoIP on my laptop as much as possible when travelling. But it is often inconvenient to boot the laptop just to make a call. My experience with CiceroPhone is that I can be connected to a VoIP provider or my company’s PBX within 20 seconds of activating Wi-Fi on the handset. My behaviour and mobile phone usage is likely to be mirrored by many corporate workers. According to Merrill Lynch, 2005 sales of VoIP PBX systems grew by 31% while sales of traditional PBX systems shrunk by 20%. As enterprises find themselves with full IP PBX systems and office-wide wireless LAN deployments, so the demand for these converged devices and intelligent VoIP applications will grow. While the selection of Wi-Fi cellular phones is low at the moment, Nokia’s N91, due for release next month, will change this. This 3G phone boasts a 2 mega-pixel camera and a large vibrant colour screen wrapped in a package no wider or longer than the size of a credit card – and it has integrated Wi-Fi. It is likely that many buyers of this handset won’t even be interested in Wi-Fi – not initially. But this has the potential to start a natural percolation of Wi-Fi cellphones which, with a critical mass, the enterprise, and eventually the home, can take advantage of.
"Welcome to the dawn Ciceros Smartphone VoIP client By Matt Lewis "