Tuesday, March 26, 2013

VON – 5 Years Later – the Day the Music Died?

Telecom was a late career move for me, so I don’t have the pedigree of people who cut their teeth on Lucent, Nortel, RBOCs, DSL, dial-up, etc. However, even I know that back then Cisco was a router company intruding on the PBX space, VoIP was a four-letter word that pretty much ruined AT&T, Nokia and Motorola ruled the cell phone market, RIM absolutely owned mobile email for business, Skype was a nonsense word and nobody even thought about Apple being a comms player.
The world sure is different now, and even a few years seems like a lifetime in a space that changes constantly. That’s actually been good for a latecomer like me, as I’ve already seen a few market cycles come and go, and with that, even I have some perspective. Memories can be short, and I’m certainly at a point where it’s easier to forget what just happened than to remember. For the younger crowd, it’s more about being in a constant state of overstimulation from the Web and all the screens that rule our digital lives. Most of it is noise to me and if you don’t have ADD, it’s like there’s something wrong with you. The machines are winning folks, but I’ll save that rant for another time.
Back to memory. Remember VON? Voice on the NetJeff Pulver and his once sprawling empire built around the disruption that came with VoIP? I’d like to say “of course you do”, but maybe not. Well, it was five years ago this week that VON crashed and was abruptly shuttered by the investors. Wow. Five years – soooo much has changed since then, and it’s hard to fathom now just how important VON was and how vital the community around it was.
There really was nothing like it, and I’ll be the first to say that Jeff almost single-handedly created a community that did far more than just attend conferences. I should add that he and everyone else in the VoIP space did this before we had social media, and we made it work just fine. More bluntly, I would say we didn’t need social media, and given today’s sensibilities, I’m not sure it would have been as effective if we had it. In my view, there’s a big difference between building a community and sharing a community – social media is great for the latter, but not so much for the former.
Jeff brought a passion that helped define VoIP from the dozens of startups he supported, right up to the FCC, whose policies determined which players would thrive or be doomed. Nobody had more fingers in the VoIP pie than Jeff, and through Pulvermedia he played all the angles, some better than others. Success is a funny thing, and there was no middle ground with VON – it was either the best thing that ever happened in VoIP or a necessary evil.
I’m in the former camp, and was a consultant briefly to Pulvermedia, so I had a pretty grounded view on how those times unfolded.  I’ll bet many of my readers are nodding and smiling now, as we all had fond memories of VON’s heyday.  Unless you were close to the realities of the conference business, it was a huge shock to hear the news back in 2008, which left a bad taste for many that I’m sure still lingers. Well, business is business and it’s often been said that Jeff is the only person who actually made money in VoIP, and even in today’s market that’s largely true.
Of course, Jeff knew this, and as quickly as he jumped into VoIP he jumped out. Actually, he did this earlier and came back, but when he left for good, it kind of signaled the end of a particular time. Jeff definitely had the VoIP mojo and he knew how to use it. Many of you have followed Jeff’s ventures since then, and while he seems happily ensconced in the social media world, it’s not the same on a few levels. He’s a smaller fish in a bigger sea, and the dynamics are quite different. Ironically – or perhaps presciently, social media has ended up having an impact on the conference business itself. Like everything else social media touches, the sharing experience ends up becoming more important than the community building experience, and people have fewer reasons to attend these events in person.
VON’s energy around VoIP was pretty special, and if you were there I’m sure you’d agree we don’t have anything comparable now. StartupCamp and for a time, eComm might be the closest things, but on a much smaller scale. Love him or not, looking back on VON’s demise in 2008 is a reminder of a time when the business was more fun. We all knew there was a great future of possibility ahead, and it was ours to shape – and a lot of you out there did just that.
Would this have happened without VON? Probably, but I’m sure you wouldn’t have wanted it any differently. I wasn’t around at the dawn of rock and roll, but for me VON’s demise was like the day the music died (if you need that explained, you’re probably way too young even for VON – just Google it – I know you know how to do that). Maybe more apt was Woodstock (ditto), which was the apex of the rock scene and youth culture, and after that it went downhill pretty fast. The music simply became a business, and was not nearly as fun or adventurous.
VoIP sure is getting like that, and it’s almost futile today to fight the bigs – Apple, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. Today it’s really their world and we just live in it. Of course VoIP has now been supplanted by newer technologies, and others are on the way. They’ll all find their place in the IP communications pantheon, but the path just won’t be as much fun. The cloud is cool, but as Jeff says, “you can’t outsource fun”, and if you want to follow in his footsteps, you’d better not forget that. VON is gone, but I hope that spirit never goes away. Thanks Jeff!


Suzanne Bowen said...

I think about Pulver and the many many involved in VoIP who became such close friends because of his gatherings and meetups. Do you remember how fired up Jeff Pulver was about Facebook at first? I recorded some of that talk at the last VON. Here it is FYI. It's a little noisy, but you can understand what he is saying and what he was hoping Facebook would be. You can download it with Free Youtube Downloader, btw, for sentimental reasons. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAhCsP5mVS4

Jeff Marcon said...

Jeff continued the fine tradition of the early ISPCon shows ( 1996-2001).. People who attended ISPCon and VON were radical, disruptive and fed up with carrier shows like Supercomm and InterOp. VON was real cutting edge technology that would put traditional telcos in their place... but alas the Internet and VOIP is dominated by the carriers who squeezed the life out of the competitive community.

Paul Baron said...

Good memory and commentary on Jeff's great contribution and that of VON. For the record, I am a very vocal Pulver fan, spoke at, attended, exhibited at every VON ... but nostalgia aside, let's keep in mind that every industry and time period has its flag-bearers. And to say there was nothing before VON is to ignore the fact that VON may not have grown, and possibly never existed, if not for the seeds planted by the CTI predecessors to VOIP. Harry Newton and his Computer Telephony Demo and Conferences. Everyone from that era, early to mid/late 90's has a copy of Newton's Telecom Dictionary on their desk. I still have a few classic editions. More than 20,000 attended those conferences until it changed hands, focus, and culture in 1997. And while TMC kept that ball rolling with IT EXPO, it was never really the same, IMHO. My company was one of the first to develop a TSAPI and TAPI software application. And as I continued the journey from call centers to VOIP to Video, from IM to chat to presence to Twitter, the ride goes on. And, yes, thank G_d for the flag bearers like Jeff Pulver. Singularly, he did make the ride much more fun with his unique blend of affection for both emerging technology and music startups. I do miss those parties.

gz said...

Nice article Jon.

Agree we have been in a relatively quiet period over the past 5 years but I wonder if we are about to hit an inflection point and go back up?

We are much closer now to Jeff's "purple minutes" vision than ever before with the convergence of pervasive broadband on personal devices, emerging standards to help better integrate communications with the rest of the software stack, etc.

Might we see another wave of VoIP (now voice and video) startups innovate, fill niches and create new niches?

Amy Scarlino said...

Also in the camp that VON was a good thing for the industry. I disagree, however, that social media has made conferences less relevant or that the "sharing experience ends up becoming more important than the community building experience, and people have fewer reasons to attend these events in person." Social media has complemented conferences in many ways but just like online dating, it will never get rid of the real thing. People still want to human contact in business. If that were not true, events like TED wouldn't offer content online and still be able to sell out at $6000+ per ticket.