Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I am on the advisory board of and an investor in TelEvolution which has just announced a device called the PhoneGnome. PhoneGnome is the brainchild of David Beckemeyer. He was co-founder of EarthLink, where he was Vice President Engineering and Chief Technology Officer. I first met David on #joiito and got to know him when he built the Hecklebot.

Later, he approached me with his PhoneGnome idea and I was immediately fascinated. The PhoneGnome is box that you connect to your phone line and your Internet connection and attach a phone to. The magic happens when PhoneGnome figures out your phone number and auto-configures everything so that in the future, all calls to other PhoneGnome users go over the Internet instead of the phone line. "Auto-configure" is a non-trivial thing and is the difficulty standing between normal users and SIP/Asterisk goodness and freedom. Under the hood, PhoneGnome is open standards based and is extendable in various ways, but David has kept it EXTREMELY simple so that anyone can use it and doesn't require you to have your computer turned on. You just pick up your phone and call like you normally would.

As you can see from my endeavors with trying to configure Asterisk and pushing the limits of Skype, I'm extremely excited by voice over IP. So far, nothing I had seen had passed the following test:

1 - Easy to use
2 - Open standard
3 - NOT a service model (no monthly fee)

I think that voice should be easy to use. It should be a piece of hardware or an application, not something you have to pay extra for. It should be open standards and allow innovation and interconnection.

Skype passes 1 and maybe 3, but not 2. It is extremely easy to use (yay!) but they are not open standards based.

Asterisk passes 2 and 3, but not 1. Asterisk and other SIP servers are EXTREMELY hard to set up (at least today) and SIP phones generally suck and/or are extremely hard to configure.

Vonage passes 1 and maybe 2, but not 3. Vonage and other so-called VoIP phone companies are still charging you a monthly fee and seem to me to be wannabe phone companies that are trying to lower costs by using VoIP. Now they're having trouble with having to act like a phone company and provide 911 etc.

I think that we can keep the plain old phone system in place as an emergency backup system when other things fail. Let them have 911. All other nifty voice things should go over the Internet and should be open standards based and free. Don't use voice to make "internets" like we have with instant messenger. Don't cheat customers and charge for a service that costs nothing. Let's use VoIP as the killer app to drive further broadband and network service adoption in the same way that email and the web did and not let it become yet another victim of walled gardens and telco FUD.

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This sounds like a very good product, the kind of thing that will bring VoIP to the masses. I could easily see my parents (or myself) buying this.

Thanks for this post! Easy, open and no monthly fee is certainly what sets this apart. And its a great value at its price.

Thinking about Vonage, you get (1) features like web based ui for retrieving voicemail (2) flat feee for unlimited use (even to regular phones)

I suppose we can see v2.0 of gnomephone with an embedded webserver to address (1) and its probably just a matter of time before the voip-pstn guys offer (2). Flat fee won't matter to most people when they discover that voip-pstn can be had for just about $0.01 / min.

1 - Easy to use
2 - Open standard
3 - NOT a service model (no monthly fee)

ICANN fails on all three.

P.S. There are devices and services that meet all three.
Fortunately, the narrow minds of ISOC and ICANN insiders
are not able to discover them. Also, they are not routed
to IP blocks of ICANN insiders.

I would also point out SIPphone,, which sells very similar devices, and passes all three tests.

It seems as a Sipura ata. Am i wrong?. At least i see it similar. I do not know if he has upgraded the OS inside, that i could remember was vxworks.

Any more info it is appreciated.


Don't hold your breath for that FREE .TEL TLD from ICANN.

ICANN does nothing for FREE. [They are non-profit]
The profits go to their digerati insiders who then
profit from their personal promotions as shown here.

"Asterisk and other SIP servers are EXTREMELY hard to set up"
That is only true when you want to do everything from the command line on your already running system. When you download Rapid Xorcom or Asterisk@home it's as easy as setting up your cable/adsl modem. Real easy with a clear webinterface.

"and SIP phones generally suck and/or are extremely hard to configure."
What brands did you try ?
The Grandstreams and polycoms are extremely easy.
And the Cisco's too when you spend some time reading before starting.

I'm in the asterisk business, so my view is not 100% clear but I did setup my first working setup in less then an hour.

I think it's not fair to tell ppl that * and sip are hard, it all depends on the brand/OS you choose.

Just my 0.02

michiel: I think it depends on how you define hard. For the average grandmother, anything beyond plugging something in is hard. I set up Asterisk, I love it, but I found it "difficult". I'm not a hacker, but I know more than the average user I think. SIP phones are also "difficult". Again, most mobile phones are "difficult" for many people. None of the SIP phones are "plug and play"...

Alberto: Yes, it is basically built on a Sipura (for now). The big difference is, it is plug and play. I love the Sipura and am trying to configure them to work with my Asterisk box, but first, you have to have a SIP server and second, you have to set them up. It's nice if you have support, but you're not going to sell Sipura's at Staples. PhoneGnome is shooting to be available for sale in places that can't provide any technical support.

So YES. If you have some computer skills, you can "easily" set up a SIP server and configure a Sipura and do something similar. By the way, if you HAVE a Asterisk server and your grandmother gets a PhoneGnome, you can connect to it from the Asterisk server. PhoneGnome is an easy way for people who would otherwise not have a SIP address to get one without even knowing it.

Hi Joi, thanks for the info which helps shed some clarity, i haven't yet played with one and kinda made a few assumptions of what it could on my blog but i think i'm a bit off-base. One key question: if i have a provider (in my case, that offers SIP-to-PSTN routing, can i configure this device to use THEM as my long distance carrier, or do i have to go through one of the providers listed on the site?

Chris. You'll have to talk to David. You can configure PG to do just about anything, but I think it's a complexity vs feature issue... at least initially.

Nice gadget! A must have for someone who does a lotta long distance/international phone chatting, cut their phone bills down to nothing.

I see nothing new on this, many companies are doing the same (or better), for example FWD (

In spain,, is the same, but the assigned number is a public one (anyone call call you, from landline or mobile), and no monthly at all.

Then, the equipment is the well known spa3000 (from Sipura).

Nothing new under the sun ... And call it "Gnome" is a little bit opportunistic .. isn't it?

No PayPal support =(.

Here's to hoping that PhoneGnome ver.2 will feature video call support or atleast support connectivity to separate hardware that would allow this.

Herme: It interoperates with FWD well. You just dial a FWD # with a prefix. It's the plug and play part that's key.

What will be the cost of this device?

I plan to use it from India to call US and vice versa.

The concern is because the numbering format to call US is different. I dial 001 following by the US number in normal telephone.

Will this device recogize or is configurable to make such calls possible? In other words can it switch to VOIP mode for local as well as international calls?

1 - Easy to use
2 - Open standard
3 - NOT a service model (no monthly fee)

One critical piece is missing for PhoneGnome to succeed in the marketplace:

4 - Low up-front cost

Why would anyone pay $120 for this device when they don't know anyone else who has one? There's no return on the investment until someone else in their circle (who isn't already a free call) has one, and it probably won't come close to paying for itself anytime soon until a several of them do.

I don't think many people are going to have the gumption to try to persuade their friends and family to take the same $120 gamble that this will eventually catch on enough to be economical. Even with the ease of implentation, it's a tough sell.

One way to overcome this barrier is to get the price low enough for us first-adopter enthusiasts to purchase a whole batch of them and give them away as gifts. Something like $40 comes to mind. At a price like that, there would be a lot of these under the Christmas tree. Think about it. It's an ideal gift -- it tells the recipient that you enjoy their friendship enough to pay for them to call you. But laying out $1000 to gift 8 of these is pretty steep for most.

Until a lower price becomes possible, another way might be a lease-to-own approach (I know that fails #3, which is important, but think this economic barrier is more important) with a free introductory period long enough to saturate individual social groups to the point where the savings demonstrably exceed the monthly payment. I have doubts about the effectiveness of this approach, though. The prospective hassle of returning the device if you decide it isn't worthwhile is a deterrent to giving it a try in the first place.

It isn't enough to have a low technical barrier to entry. There needs to be a lower financial barrier to entry. That's why Skype is huge. Not only is there a low technical barrier to entry; there is a low (zero) economic barrier to entry.


Easy to use, open standard. I'm with you there. The monthly fee bit (as you've realized) is the tricky part. Any way you slice it, it's too hard to provide a service like this without some sort of monthly fee, because you're depending on pieces that don't belong to you (telco networks) to provide the end-to-end service. Even the gnome (as I understand it) requires you to have a landline for non-gnome calls. I've never seen a landline service without a monthly fee, so what you're doing is essentially taking the monthly fee part out of Vonage and passing that responsiblity on to the user. (Again, if I understand the model correctly.) I agree with the aforementioned easy to use, open standard, LOW montly fee approach John was driving at. I really think that Gizmo ( has it in this respect: easy to use, open standard, and you buy minutes in low-cost chunks (like GSM mobile phones). Ding!

how about security? encryption ? i plan to buy one and use it with my wireless dsl that's why i asked that.

Could yo tell me where i can find some forum o blog where GnomePhone could be discussed in a more advanced and technical way, im really interested in this SIP peer-to-peer philosofy because SIP could not be a peer-to-peer protocol, it just needs for that a location server,and the SPA-3000 could never have enough memory to have a Location DB , is MANDATORY that these guys from GP have a SIP server, and the added value is an pseudo-Asterisk server embedded in the SPA-3000 that let you configure different routes, it´s like a softswitch but just for one person!......Regards

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PhoneGnome from Brewed Fresh Daily
July 20, 2005 10:42 PM

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