Orange outlines its voice-over-IP future

When you think of Orange - the company, rather than the fruit - you think of mobiles, but the company's business services division is striking out into the brave new world of interactive web-based voice applications. We grabbed some time with the company's head of IP services strategy Michel Dudet to find out what's going on over in Paris.

While Orange is a name traditionally associated with citrus fruits and mobile phones, the company's business services arm aims to provide a one-stop shop for all a company's communications needs: mobile telephone, fixed-line telephony, data networks, and now an interesting spin on voice-over-IP which the company is hoping will take off in a big way.

It's known as WebPhone, and Orange has provided an application programming interface - developed in Adobe's Flash, which lies at the heart of the system - to allow companies to integrate the system into their websites, CRM packages, and any other aspect of their systems that would benefit from voice communications.

The idea is simple: users are given a 'Call Us' button, accessible from any Flash-enabled browser, which dials a predefined number and connects them for a voice call. The bill is picked up by the company, and the calls can be forwarded from any PC across the world for the same fixed price. With accomplished coders able to integrate the technology into the systems in under an hour, according to Orange's estimates, it's a neat trick - and a surprising departure for the company.

Michel Dudet sees IP telephony as key to the future of his company. Having joined Orange Business Services from France Telecom's research and development division five years ago, he's set about pushing the company in a direction that he feels will prepare it for a future where physical telephones aren't quite as important as they once were.

"This is the first part of our vision," he explained to thinq_ during our interview, "the fact that the VoIP sector will become more and more active, and that there will be less and less standalone communication - everything will become more integrated. We developed the WebPhone API with the ability to integrate voice into business applications like websites and customer relationship management systems much more easily," he claimed. And it's this ease of integration that Dudet believes pushes Orange's creation above its rivals in the VoIP industry.

"What we have created at the moment is a way of providing voice where there is no need to install software on the client, on the desktop. The voice is provided through a simple web browser through Flash technology. It's not comparable to services like Skype, because Skype requires the installation of software on the end point - either the PC or the smartphone. The WebPhone API is totally free of installation - we are able to embed it in the website, the CRM application, and a company can provide voice services without requiring installation from the end-user."

The WebPhone API is far from the first 'call us' service to hit the market, but its innovative use of Flash as the VoIP client and the release of a simple API for integrating it into third-party applications is something Dudet is particularly proud of - and the unique selling point that he hopes will make Orange as big a name in the softphone business as it has become in mobile telephony.

Dudet admits that the use of Flash for the WebPhone API isn't perfect. While it's available for the vast majority of target devices, some - such as Apple's popular iPad tablet - can't install Flash Player, which means they are unable to take advantage of the WebPhone functionality.

"We're looking at creating an HTML5 solution, but not in the near future," he explained. "There is still an issue for negotiation of the connection in HTML5 - this is why we believe that Flash is the best solution for providing the interface for a voice application."

Orange's decision to branch out into softphone technology is an indication that it believes the days of traditional telecommunications are beginning to decline - and it wants to grab a head-start on its competitors. "I would say that mobile telephony has a long life ahead of it," Dudet told us. "I don't think that in the short term, without a large deployment of LTE, that voice will take over via mobile IP - except for niche markets like international roaming over mobile, where we have seen a strong interest in development.

"Now, the question is will the deskphone remain or not? With both traditional telephony and IP telephony, it's usually built in hardware - a physical phone. What about the future of softphones - an IP softphone on the computer's desktop? It's a very difficult question," Dudet admitted, citing many reasons for continuing to use physical hardware over software - such as reliability and the requirement for a telecommunications device to be permanently switched on and available.

With Orange riding the cloud bandwagon - Dudet explained that the WebPhone API was particularly well suited to adding voice capability to cloud-based business applications - services such as Orange WebPhone and other non-traditional ventures are likely to crop up increasingly often. Whether the WebPhone API will prove a success, however, remains to be seen.

More details on Orange's WebPhone API - including the all-important pricing - is available on the Orange Business Services website.