Launchpad: Voice, Innovation and Beer

BURLINGAME, Calif. — For too long, innovation in the Voice over IP world has simply meant cheaper calling plans. But Tuesday night at the inaugural Launch Pad event, a short list of innovators showed that era may be at an end, as truly interesting voice-enabled applications start seeking a user base.

From the well-polished to the somewhat nervous and unscripted, the quick presentations attracted an audience of a couple hundred attendees from the O’Reilly ETel event, who presumably spent their after-dinner hours wanting to learn more about cutting-edge voice startups, instead of just waiting for the free beer-n-wine reception afterward. (Photos and quick rundown of the event after the turn!)

“There’s a lot of innovation happening out there,” said event host (and our fearless leader) Om Malik, who along with Surj Patel introduced the participants. While eTel attendees are going to pick their favorites, in democratic fashion we are going to give all presenters a bit of the spotlight, so readers can rate the ideas — which ranged from single phone-number schemes to a low-price start-your-own-phone-company plan — as well. (You can find People’s Choices here!)

Here’s a quick rundown of the presenters, their plans, and our quick take if we have one. This was in the order of presentation.

Grand Central CEO Craig Walker opened with a tough act to follow — a slick rundown of the company’s single-number service we have talked about before. Walker used his time to show a couple new tricks just announced by Grand Central, including a web widget that allows you to place a Grand Central-enabled number on any blog or web page. Good stuff, but we still want to hear how much this will cost after the free beta period runs out.

Jive Software CEO David Hirsh was up next, apologizing first for using Powerpoint but then using the event to announce a name change for the company’s open source IM project, from WildFire to OpenFire. As Hirsh warmed up he convincingly argued that IM was the right platform on which to add voice and data capability, and said SIP and Jingle support will be among OpenFire’s next steps.

Cellcrypt CEO Rodolfo Rosini spoke so fast, it was almost like he was using his company’s voice encryption product for cellphones in real time. Secure voice mail and expanded support for more handsets and Blackberry-type devices are coming this year, Rosini said.

Peerant’s Ruby on Rails peer-to-peer app dev platform looked like it needed a lot more time to fully explain, but there’s little doubt that being able to quickly build a call-center CRM operation — like CEO Marcus Dantus and CTO Serge Kruppa did on the spot — might attract many folks willing to learn more.

MySay CEO Sean O’Sullivan, who pledged to be first in the beer line, had perhaps the easiest concept to grasp, an online service that would allow groups of friends or co-workers to leave voice messages for each other to hear. “It’s MySpace for phones,” yelled an audience member. “You said that, I didn’t,” laughed O’Sullivan.

Flat Planet Phone Company CEO Moshe Maeir wants to make it easy and cheap for anyone to open their own phone company — you can sign up for a turnkey plan that starts as low as $199, he said, with Flat Planet taking care of all the back-end headaches.

Mig33’s somewhat mysterious yet compelling presentation of its “combination mobile instant messenger and international calling card service” closed the event, leaving folks wondering whether they’d soon be able to IM and place VoIP calls to each other over their cells as they wandered into the hall for the libations.