Archive for March, 2007

Q&A with Mark Spencer at ETel

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

At the O’Reilly Emerging Telephony conference, Mark Spencer spoke for 15 minutes on the future of Asterisk, with questions at the end. The audience, packed into a ballroom at the San Francisco Airport Marriott, actually left time on the table at the end, reflecting how Asterisk has become the community platform for innovation.

Somebody asked a question about integrating speech recognition into Asterisk. In 1.4, Digium is selling the proprietary LumenVox speech interface. There is also the option to use the free Sphinx engine, but Mark’s experience is that it is challenging to build a multi-channel Asterisk system with the performance characteristics necessary to run Sphinx.

Somebody asked about the fate of the “Asterisk device” that was announced at last year’s VON conference. Mark said that the appliance is available now as a developer kit, but doesn’t know when it will be available as a customer product.

There was a question about the GUI; somebody wanted to know if it would be web based. It will be. The whole GUI sounds cool, since all Digium is doing is providing a framework to build a GUI with. Any changes made on the GUI will be reflected in the configuration files, and changes to the configuration files will be available to any GUIs built with the framework. Mark spoke of two goals for the fundamental design: (1) it should be easy to add additional commands in to the management interface, and (2) management should be possible over HTTP. I’m particularly pleased with the second point. I’ve experimented with the Asterisk manager, and while it’s nice, it’s hard to use across the network. Tunneling management over HTTP will enable use of an existing security framework. Using the manager will also enable GUIs to start or terminate calls.

The Q&A came to a close with a couple of questions on voicemail. Mark began his presentation with an apology for voicemail and queuing, and said that they would be changing. Somebody (Jim van Meggelen, I think!) asked if they would break apart into lots of smaller functions. Mark said that the functionality of voicemail wasn’t bad, but the code has grown to be unmaintainable. He would like to be able to add “personalities” to the system and enable more administrative configuration. He and Kevin differ slightly as maintainers of the code; he believes that the idea that voice mail must be configured properly to work is not appealing. Separately, one of the problems with implementing voicemail personalities (to make Asterisk sound like a Nortel or Avaya PBX) is that recording all the prompts and getting different control flows is hard to do.

In terms of queues, the fundamental problem is that the time that queues were developed there was nothing that reported state changes. The queue manager can only poll for status, but it doesn’t get events. While this works adequately when all agents are readily available, it breaks down a bit for remote agents because presence informamtion may not be handy.

Separately, I got a chance to talk to Mark. Jay Phillips introduced us once he realized that we’d both contributed to the March 2007 issue of Linux Journal. (Thanks, Jay!) Aside from the overwhelming smartitude, the thing that struck me most about Mark was his genuine interest in what everybody was doing with Asterisk.

Oh, no, OpenMoko delayed!

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

On February 12, I went to check up on the status of the OpenMoko project. With my likely disappointment on the iPhone, I’ve been looking for a replacement for my aging four-year-old Nokia 6600. Based on my set of ideal features for an 802.11 phone, I’ve been looking seriously at the Nokia E series, but they are quite expensive. The recent announcement of the “i” models in the E series lineup (E61i, etc) has shifted my allegiance slightly. I’ve been working with an E series, but it has limited battery life and a flaky SIP stack. My thoughts increasingly turn towards OpenMoko, since it would embrace SIP and open telephony in a way that is still alien to the telcos and their big suppliers. Unfortunately, the project has been delayed a short while. There are good reasons for this, namely that the team is dedicated to having a completely open system from hardware specs up through the toolchain before finally getting to the phone software itself. All commendable, but it doesn’t make it sting any less.

One of the curses of OSS is that you must live your life in full view of the world with a transparency that is a bit jarring for those accustomed to hiding delays and flaws in commercial software. (I’ve come to the conclusion that big government IT projects are no worse than their corporate counterparts, just much easier to see. A similar analogy would seem to hold for open source projects.) I’d like to than Sean Moss-Pultz for his honesty. I still want the phone just as badly as I did before the delay was announced. Touching the phone last week at the Emerging Telephony conference only made my desire worse.