How I Invented Voice over IP

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The history of how and when I invented Voice over IP is something that I hadn’t really ever sat down to document until now.  It wasn’t like I even saw a complete vision of what it would become today.  In fact, if you told me that what I invented would eventually cause phone companies to stop billing their customers by the minute for long distance calls, I would have laughed.  That’s not why I invented it.  In fact, looking back on it, the reason I did seems so silly now.

The Very Beginning

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and it really is sometimes.  The whole reason I came up with the idea was to be able to use my computer to play games with other people without tying up 2 phone lines.  That’s it.  Nothing spectacular, but it helps to give an explanation of the computer industry at that time.

In 1989, I was in sixth grade and bought my first modem, a 2400 bits per second (or baud) modem.  It allowed me to connect to computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s) in town.  BBS’s were computers you would dial up, and they would provide you a text-based menu of activities you could do, such as sending messages, downloading files, or even playing games.  Those reading this who used BBS’s at that time will recall that a 2400 baud modem was so slow that you would literally see letters going across your screen line by line until the whole menu or screen was filled in.  It was agonizingly slow, but we didn’t know any better then.  It was just the best we had seen up to that point in history.  Forget downloading even one average-sized image.  We see those pop up in a fraction of a second on our web pages today, but back then, each image took 10 minutes!

The most popular function of BBS’s was to play games against other people.  Because it tied up your phone line and the phone line on the other computer, we played in turns.  So, you were limited to something like an hour per day on each BBS, and that was it.  You had to wait for everyone else to play until the next day when you could get back on and make your next moves.  I actually miss those days, believe it or not, because it was a way more personal and community-focused world before the Internet.

Around that time, some of us kids started playing multiplayer games directly between computers.  It wasn’t much at first by today’s standards, but eventually newer, cooler games came out like Doom and Quake, but not before the seeds of VoIP were planted in my head.

One day, still in 1989, I was talking with some of my friends at school about how I wished there was a way to not have to tie up 2 phone lines in order to talk to someone while playing against them.  So, I invented what I called Remote Audio Sound Card Application Link, or RASCAL.  I knew there was a way to get the sound card on a PC to record the audio and play it back, so there had to be a way I could come up with to send that voice over the modem to the other person and vice versa.  Sound cards aren’t really thought much of these days since pretty much every computer has audio capabilities these days, but back then, they weren’t nearly as common.

I got to work immediately.  Without boring you with a bunch of technical details, I’ll just say that I was well on my way to building something cool.  What I had was very basic because I was still a student and didn’t have 40 hours a week to devote to it.  In fact, I built pieces over a few years as I learned how things like audio processing and networking worked.  I never did get RASCAL to work over a modem by itself because I found out about the Internet before I got that far.  I continued to work on RASCAL for several years, but my main stumbling block was figuring out how to make all of that audio data small enough to travel smoothly over the slow modems we had at that time.  Everything else, including sending the audio from one computer to another over IP via Ethernet, was ready except for that piece.

The Parallel Universe

Meanwhile, across the world, in Switzerland, the founder of Autodesk, makers of AutoCAD was cooking up the same idea.  John Walker moved from California’s Silicon Valley to Switzerland in 1991.  When he started communicating with his team in California, he quickly saw how expensive international calls were.  In that day, we were paying over $0.10/minute for long distance in the U.S.A. while international calling costs were several dollars per minute!

John thought that he could use his 56Kbps Internet connection to do the job, much like my idea.  So, he created what he called NetFone and even released it to the world on July 11, 1991.  He decided to put it in the public domain so that others could benefit from it as well.  He posted it on what was then called Usenet, before the web was invented.  There’s no way to tell how many people, if any, actually used it or even found out about it.  Because most of the web sites and books out there tend to neglect to mention NetFone and credit another group with inventing Voice over IP, I doubt many people even saw it, even though it was in the public domain for anyone to do whatever they wanted with it.

Worlds Collide

Eventually, in 1994, I was in high school and started working for an Internet provider as my first job.  One day, my boss (the owner) asked me to find out why a customer’s Internet connection was slower than usual.  When I looked at the network, I saw all of this weird data going by and asked him if he could tell me what it was.  He said he was talking to his girlfriend over the Internet using a program called NetFone and forgot it was still on!  I’m pretty sure I said, “WHAT?!?”  Either way, I was shocked that someone else not only had my idea but also got it working!

That instant, I looked up what I could find on the Internet (Usenet once again) and saw a copy of NetFone had been posted there and was still available for me to grab.  I was both shocked and excited at the same time.  I can’t say I even thought about it being a competing idea because I was just thrilled that it worked.  At the time, I could only use it on the Sun Workstations at work since it didn’t run on Windows yet, but I got to try it out and play around with it a lot.

I started making changes to NetFone immediately, but I didn’t want to let John Walker or really anyone else know about it because I thought I could make a business out of it.  The challenge was how to market it (keep in mind that I was still in high school and had no business or marketing experience).  I just didn’t have a good way to get my work noticed without risking someone else taking credit for it.  I was thrilled when John Walker made a Windows version of it, and that’s when I started to tell others about it and to use it regularly outside of work.

In 1995, NetFone was renamed to Speak Freely, which is what most people know it as today.  By 1996, John Walker decided it was complete, and he no longer wanted to maintain it.  I knew that was my opportunity.  So, I asked him if he would mind if I took it over and setup my own web site for it.  He said I could, and then I ran with it.  I started putting in all of the features I added several years earlier like voicemail (called the Answering Machine) and several other features.

By January, 2000, Speak Freely had over 1 million downloads from my site alone.  I had gained a lot of notoriety from my work on it over the years, and a lot of people were actively using it.  The really cool part was talking to people as far away as Australia, New Zealand and other countries from my place in California.

I went on to be hired by several telecommunications companies to build their VoIP systems, and I had no idea that one day, my work would end up being used by every phone company today to provide free calling to all of their customers!  I never thought that would happen, and we would always be the rebels who the phone companies chased down because we were “stealing” business away from them, much like the phone “phreaks” did in the 1970’s.  (Steve Jobs, anyone?)

Alternate Universe

I would be remiss in not mentioning the version of history that seems to have pervaded throughout the Internet.  Everything I have said above can be verified with Google searches or whatever.  For example, there is a research paper written in 1992 about a project called SEPIA that used NetFone.  Another blog talks about my early involvement with VoIP.  There’s no changing the past on the Internet no matter how hard you try.  I even helped Sony defend themselves against a VoIP patent lawsuit for technology that wasn’t “invented” until way later.

There are a group of people who would like you to believe that their company, Vocaltec, developed the first ever VoIP software, and their founder, Alon Cohen is more than happy to take the credit.  Several sites like this one have it right and show that they didn’t get into the game until 1995.  They are indeed apparently the first commercial VoIP application, but not the first overall.

I didn’t know this until several years after I started this adventure that there were some government-sponsored experiments with voice in 1973 by Danny Cohen (unrelated to Alon Cohen above), but everything I did was independent of that work.  I would love to meet him and ask him how they did it back then, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the same thing.  The Internet Protocol (IP) didn’t exist then as it did when I started, so technically, it’s different. :)

Closing Remarks

I had refrained from taking the credit for VoIP because, for the longest time, I’ve considered some of my friends like Greg Herlein, Ed Okerson, and David Erhart as having an early start with VoIP that I didn’t ever feel I could make that claim myself.  By the time I met them in 1999, they already had VoIP experience.

I have gone onto invent other famous technologies which I’ll write about sometime, but for now, this is the first and will always be my favorite.

Brian C. Wiles

June 22, 2016

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