Updated: Jeff Pulver's world full of voices

Jeff Pulver makes it a habit of being disruptive. An early advocate of voice-over-Internet-protocol, he created the company, Min-X, that eventually morphed into Vonage, the earliest VOIP rival to the traditional telecom players.

(Update: Om Malik has written a post suggesting that Pulver Media is going up in smoke. See the coverage here).  2nd update: Pulver posted on his blog on April 24: “Just wanted to share the news that I have resigned as a director from PulverMedia. And I am not able to say anything else nor can I address any questions about this.”

He now runs Pulver.com, which holds conferences for the telecom industry, and uses the growing media enterprise to push his agenda of opening up telecom networks and liberating new Internet technologies from government regulation.

Now VOIP is a multi-billion-dollar business and, ironically enough, the show for VOIP is getting thinner in attendance and its focus is shifting beyond voice to a bundle of unified communications — texting, e-mail, presence, video, and VOIP. I caught up with Pulver, a loquacious man who favors Hawaiian shirts even while evangelizing VOIP on stage, at the Spring VON.x conference in San Jose this week.

His history has been as a tinkerer who found a cause to get behind. A former ham radio operator, Pulver played around with Internet calling while working a day job on Wall Street. He started the first VON conference in 1997 when a new peer-to-peer technology called SIP (session initiation protocol) was just starting to take hold.

SIP enabled Internet phone calls. It was the beginning of VOIP’s assault on the trillion-dollar telecom industry. Now VOIP is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Then, in 1998, he founded Min-X. He then recruited Jeffery Citron who led a $12 million round of funding and took over as CEO of the company, at which point it became Vonage. Pulver stayed on the board, but he didn’t stick around long enough to share in the Vonage’s rapid growth and success, or in its struggles beginning two years ago.

Next, he started Free World Dialup as a VOIP business in 2002. To protect that business, he filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to ward off attempts by the telecom operators to regulate VOIP. In 2004, the FCC issued the “Pulver Order,” which dictated that VOIP technologies were not subject to regulation as telecommunications services.

“That was a defining moment,” Pulver said. “You could draw a line from that to eBay buying Skype for $2.6 billion in 2005.”

Since then, voice has developed even further, including Adobe’s putting SIP capability into its Flash 9 player — making voice ubiquitous across the Web. You can start a VoIP session within any Flash application — no downloads needed.

As a model for open networks, he points to Orange Israel’s decision to release open applications programming interfaces (APIs) to spur innovation among third-party applications providers. That’s the model that other big players like Verizon Wireless should adopt as they move toward open networks, he said.

He is hopeful that Google will win the 700-megahertz wireless spectrum auction, but he wants Google to get the “spine” to push for open networks, ending the ability of companies like Verizon to keep costs high. He said that Google’s Android open cell phone platform so far is “nothing other than Google hype.” But an open mobile OS is necessary to lower costs and foster innovation, he said.

Pulver is going out on a limb, saying the next big market will be presence, which he predicts will be a $25 billion market. That includes “status update” applications such as Twitter (where you can tell friends what you’re doing at any given moment). Teenagers on vacation are a good example of the “always on” urge to tell your friends what you’re doing at any given moment, he said.


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