Voice and Video


World of Wonders: the new magicJack

This week I was going to discuss another obscure subject of peripheral interest. But, mirabile dictu, this column’s best (and to date, only) fan, Colin from NYC, asked about the Magic Jack. Can’t disappoint our public.

MagicJack vendor YMax is a company selling VoIP service, rather like Vonage or the telephony aspects of Skype. The customer equipment is a telephone adapter (RJ-45 one side, USB to plug into your PC on the other), and out in the Cloud there’s a server to route the calls. Magic Jack claims some millions of subscribers, selling on the Internet, Best Buy, 7-eleven etc. They ask $40 for the Jack and first year’s service, $20/year for continuing service. Nothing remarkable so far.

But the announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show a couple of weeks ago certainly put the cat among the pigeons. It’s a breathtakingly audacious concept. Indeed, it’s so alien to people steeped in the conventional thinking of this (telecom) industry that I suspect most, like me, would never have even considered it.

The new magicJack has the same VoIP back-end on the USB interface, but instead of connecting to a conventional phone, it uses wireless to a cellphone.

The details are sketchy, but in essence the new magicJack contains a low-power cellular base-station radio that uses cellular frequencies and protocols to connect to any GSM cellphone. For initial setup, there’s some kind of initialization on the phone, and subsequently it will ‘associate’ with the magicJack when in range, and send its outgoing calls (and presumably receive incoming calls) via the PC and Internet.

Dan Borislow, the gadget’s inventor, argues that the cellular operators have no claim on any frequencies used inside the home, so he can transmit to the cellphone in private, something the FCC would certainly not allow out of doors. Max Miller had nothing on this cheeky chappie.

A few thoughts on the brief reports we have seen:
• Most have focused on the crux of the architecture: can magicJack legally use the frequency bands the operators have licensed from the FCC for their exclusive use? Maybe not, but it will be good to see a challenge. If the signal doesn’t extend outside your home, who would be harmed?
• Of course wireless is not easily controllable, and many have wrestled with the difficulties of providing full in-home coverage without too much outdoor leakage. But even if you can only make calls within a few feet of the magicJack, it would still be quite convenient.
• The price is interesting. If he’s selling the box for $20 without service, it must be much simpler than conventional femtocells, which are supposed to cost the operators around $200 at present. What does he leave out?
• Ease-of-use will be crucial. If it’s difficult to set up and cumbersome to use, adoption will be slow. What has been promised is a simple initial call to the phone as it comes into proximity of the PC, with a code to be entered to associate the phone with the magicJack and no subsequent configuration. Bear in mind we haven’t seen it working yet (granted, there was some sort of demo at CES, but we all know that wouldn’t reflect real-life products).
• The magicJack hasn’t shipped yet (listed for 2Q 2010) so we shouldn’t assume anything will be as-promised. We shouldn’t assume it works at all. Trust but verify, that’s just another reality of the tech business.

But why not do it on Wi-Fi rather than cellular?
• The obvious reason is that not all cellphones are equipped with Wi-Fi. All new smartphones have it now, but few have native VoIP over Wi-Fi capabilities.
• However, there are third-party VoIP over Wi-Fi apps for Symbian/Nokia, iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile. They work quite well, in the main, with similar functionality to magicJack. There’s a call server in the Internet Cloud, and a low-cost service contract. We have a good number of Aruba employees using smartphones over our corporate Wi-Fi access points to the Avaya PBX/server.
• All Wi-Fi setup needs is a software download to the phone rather than picking up a dongle at Best Buy. And it can use an existing home Wi-Fi access point, so it will work even if the PC/dongle isn’t running.

In the end, it comes down to ease of use. Whoever finds the simplest, easiest design for the consumer will break open the market. The magicJack (and femtocell) approach uses ‘standard’ cellular interfaces but requires some special hardware, while Wi-Fi can use an existing access point but needs some configuration on the phone.

Meanwhile, any new ideas in this market should be applauded: we need more innovative thinking, and magicJack is as far outside the box as anything I’ve seen for a long time.

Joe Bob says check it out when it’s available, hopefully in a few months.

Cheers, Colin
Occasional Contributor II

Re: World of Wonders: the new magicJack

I think he's in for a rude awakening. Unless his device falls under Part 15 of the FCC's rules (and certified as such), he cannot legally use a cellular frequency, whether inside or outside the home.


Will it be shot down by regulators (or legally)?

This prediction is almost certainly correct. But this country has a great tradition of testing the limits of various rules, and one has to cheer for the underdog, particularly when his approach is a refreshiing and innovative. As Madden points out, if the favourite always won you wouldn't need to play the game.

This column should always be read with tongue firmly in cheek. It's lying in the cover of semi-anonymity and double-tapping with an LMG at 600 metres (yes, that's the Bren: along with the 25 pdr, the most satisfying target-practice service weapon of the last 50 years; those of you in Texas who have the inclination but have not had the pleasure should check it out), In this case the title is a reference to Robertson Davies and his beguiling combination of hard-scrabble reality with the ethereal. That's the spirit in which the aticle was written.

Perhaps Robertson Davies is the safer frame of reference. Who can object to a mix of forged art and snowballs, opera and Jung? I always wanted to find a place to quote even a part of this: "He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone."

Four major carriers... an inevitable fifth? We'll keep working on it.
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