Friday interview: Rok's Bruce Renny talks mobile VoIP

Interviews, Mobile phones

It’s part two of Tech Digest’s interview with Bruce Renny from ROK. Following Wednesday’s focus on FreeBeTV, the company’s new mobile TV service, today it’s time to talk about Viper, which ROK launched a couple of weeks ago touting it as a "free mobile VoIP" service.

However, it’s since come in for some criticism online, for not being the over-the-air VoIP solution that you might expect, but instead letting you make calls from your mobile phone via Bluetooth to an internet-connected computer.

"All the system turns out to be is software that makes certain mobile phones glorified Bluetooth headsets for a PC-based VoIP network. So yeah, it’s mobile, as long as you’re within Bluetooth range of a PC that’s within range of a broadband connection," said MobHappy, while The Inquirer pointed out that the service doesn’t yet support that many Bluetooth phones. Still, Renny is bullish about the potential of Viper, and its implications for the mobile industry.

First, the basics. You can download the Viper application from ROK’s website, and to use it you need a Bluetooth-enabled phone and PC. It’s true that currently, it only works with six Nokia handsets – the 6630, 6680, 6681, 6682, N70 and N90 – although Renny says this will be expanded to 100 handsets by Christmas. So what’s the big idea?

"We’re all conscious of the phenomenon of Skype, which has signed up 100 million people worldwide with barely any advertising," he says. "It’s a phenomenon, but it’s clunky. Skype requires you to be wired to your PC. Our idea is to make mobile VoIP available via Bluetooth. Your Bluetooth handset directs your mobile call to your PC, routes that to whoever you’re calling, and it pops out of their PC via Bluetooth."

The application is free to download, and Viper-to-Viper calls are free. Renny pitches one use as business travellers when abroad, using the service via their laptops to avoid roaming charges. Surely they’ll just take a Skype headset and use that with their laptop? But ROK’s view is that the freedom to roam around their hotel room, as well as not having to pack an extra device, will persuade users.

Another downside of the service as it launched is the inability to call non-Viper users. "Down the road, we’ll be introducing that," says Renny. "A Viper-to-non-Viper call will cost a fraction of the operators’ call charges. Something like 2p a minute. But we’re hoping like Skype, people will pro-actively viral this to their friends, families and business contacts."

Since Viper launched two weeks ago, Renny says the application has been downloaded over 6,000 times, with 1,500 active users already, and 90,000 visitors to the website (many of whom presumably discovered their phone wasn’t yet supported). It’s fair to say that right now, Viper is an early-adopter thing, although ROK wants this to change.

"The trick is to make it user-friendly," says Renny. "We don’t expect everyone to have a PhD in computer electronics. If a 45-year-old housewife can use it without any particular instructions, then it is consumer-friendly. Our UI is improving all the time, and we’re asking for feedback. We don’t know all the answers, and we’re honest about that. So all the technical feedback, good bad or indifferent, is giving us a broader perspective on what we need to do."

So then, about these criticisms that the service isn’t truly ‘mobile’ VoIP, because it relies on the Bluetooth connectivity to a PC? Surely the way this is heading is towards mobile VoIP applications which either use phones’ Wi-Fi connectivity to connect wirelessly to a home network or hotspot, or which even use the mobile network itself?

"Without a doubt this is leading to over-the-air," says Renny. "ROK Skunkworks, as I like to call our in-house development people, are working hard on it. There’s various blocks though. Quite often a Wi-Fi zone is owned by a particular brand, so you often have to pay to access it. But it is inevitable that to a greater or lesser extent, we will see mobile VoIP where you just dial, and it goes straight from your handset via Wi-Fi to the internet."

Can ROK launch this kind of technology soon enough though? After all, everyone’s waiting to see whether Skype comes out with a mass-market mobile client that a decent proportion of those 100 million subscribers can use, while there are other VoIP companies targeting mobile with Wi-Fi clients. Part of the reason ROK has launched Viper so early, with limited handset support, seems to be to head off this competition.

"There’s a land grab now, generating customer loyalty and stickiness," he says. "If it works, why change? You can’t get any cheaper than free. Also, we did a comparison with existing mobile VoIP services, and there always seems to be a string attached. You’ve got to buy another service, or preinstall some money to open an account online, or send a premium-rate text in order to open the application. You wouldn’t accept a free ice cream if you had to pay £1 for the cone, so why should that be true of mobile VoIP?"

ROK plans to make its money from the Viper-to-non-Viper calls, when that feature is launched, taking a slice of the 2p a minute calling charges. So what about the mobile operators? If they were blind to the threat of mobile VoIP in the past, surely they’re catching on now? Renny says he divides operators into three camps.

The first he labels the "arrogant" operators, who plan to launch their own broadband-mobile convergance VoIP services, and assume that their subscribers will use those. The second he labels the "myopic" operators, who still don’t see VoIP as a threat, so are sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the issue goes away.

"And then the third camp are the ones who are pro-actively addressing this," he says. "If the networks don’t sell these Wi-Fi-enabled phones in their stores, you can bet the public will buy them online. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle on that one. Wi-Fi handsets are here and growing fast."

It remains to be seen what this third group of operators will do exactly. But what’s ROK’s next move, following FreeBeTV and Viper? Here’s a prediction: the company will launch some kind of instant messaging client for phones. Listen to Renny’s not-so-guarded hints.

"Through our research and focus groups, we see that kids think text is too slow, and want an alternative like instant messaging," he says. "A technology will be launched imminently, whether by ROK or somebody else, which will allow IM on the mobile for free. And ROK loves to offer stuff for free… It’s very difficult to compete against, no matter how big you are. If someone is prepared to give ice cream away, the established ice cream vendors will suffer."

Read Part 1 of Tech Digest’s Bruce Renny interview

Stuart Dredge
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