A Formula for Successful Partnering?

In a previous post I talked about the announcement of the Open AIM PhoneLine initiative and how, as one of their launch partnerships, they will be working with iotum to incorporate iotum’s Relevance Engine call management service into AIM PhoneLine. But there is another story behind the scenes in terms of how iotum and the AOL PhoneLine API development team came together to bring about this service.

Driven initially by its military connections where Halifax, Nova Scotia is Canada’s major east coast naval base as well as home to a major oceanography research center and four universities, Halifax has been a hotbed of Internet technology since the early days of ARPANet. In the late 1980’s one of the navy’s custom software vendors, Software Kinetics, got involved with ARPANet and ended up migrating the technology to open one of Canada’s first Internet Service Providers called NSTN. When the first national Canadian event on the commercial Internet was held in Toronto in early 1994, NSTN was the poster child for what could be accomplished over the Internet; they even had a bookstore making sales worldwide. During the late 1990’s I was consulting for Software Kinetics, visited Halifax many times and came to appreciate that Halifax was an “under-the-radar” mini-hotbed of Internet technology and innovation. So it was no surprise to me when I learned that AOL had setup their AOL PhoneLine development team in Halifax through an acquisition of InfoInteractive who had previously developed some infrastructure software for use with AOL’s services.

This Halifax team has become the core team for development of the API’s and other tools required to expose AIM PhoneLine to third party developers who can the innovate in ways such as mentioned in today’s press release. They are responsible for establishing requirements, design of the API’s and their architecture, call control interfacing, developing certification specifications as well as testing and the accompanying test environments. But Howard Thaw of iotum calls it a “Think Tank for Creativity”. Their criteria for success include:

  • make a program that is appealing to developers
  • provide rich tools and a higher level of API’s than simply links to protocols
  • make the program easy to join and to participate
  • make it a platform for innovation while using the AIM PhoneLine infrastructure

Howard explained to me how iotum and the AOL PhoneLine team developed a partnering process. iotum initially explained what they needed; the AOL team explained what they could expose through API’s. The two groups went through some brainstorming sessions and then established specifications for API’s that were broad enough to be used by any development partner. Both parties then developed or modified their software through an iterative process always exchanging experiences and feedback. The entire process also had to involve security and operations issues which, in turn, brought input and feedback from appropriate personnel at the AOL network operations center. Howard mentioned there were some conference calls with as many as 15 people participating. The entire process was especially beneficial to iotum as they were able to contribute input and feedback to the development of the call transfer API functionality fundamental to iotum’s service.

They worked under requirements where there was:

  • no tolerance for product defects or not working
  • intensive quality control
  • a willingness and openness for discussing what makes a good user experience along with a good partner experience for the innovating partner.

Howard sums it up by saying that AOL has created the poster child for the developer experience with AOL PhoneLine. And he gives full marks to David Trueman, the technology team leader at AOL PhoneLine Halifax for pulling it off.

With a goal of providing a demonstration at Fall VON they took about eight weeks to work out the details and process described above. It was then a matter of days required to build the final product and service integration.

More details and background are at Alec Saunders’ post today. Note in particular Alec’s attribution of this program’s achievements to date to AOL VP Ragui Kamel who provided much of the vision and guidance required to champion such a program. Jeff Pulver, who introduced iotum to AOL almost a year ago, provides additional insight:

Kamel’s idea was to find companies who could be part of an ecosystem which he and his team are building around a set of API’s. It’s those API’s that make it easy for developers to be able to leverage and easily reach the AOL installed user base of AIM Instant Messenger users.

What are the implications for Skype?

  • First I would make the point that Skype has many partners who have worked successfully with the Skype partner development team. Many presented at the Skype Developer conference in June and many left that conference feeling they knew where Skype was going with its API program over the next six months to year.
  • There are many Skype partners demonstrating products at Fall VON next week. Many have highlighted in their invitations for press interviews how they worked with Skype to achieve Skype certification.
  • On the other hand, while Lenn Pryor led this team for the past year and took the developer program to its current level of achievement, Skype’s new Development Program Director, Paul Amery, needs to demonstrate through execution his initial commitments to (i) a rich, evolving platform of API’s and supporting components, (ii) a rapid painless route to market and (iii) a responsive support and development program.
  • At the Skype Developer Conference in early June the most requested API’s were:
    • a connection to the Skype voice stream; this is available in the Skype API 2.6 beta released a week ago
    • a Naked Skype that would allow the Skype “engine” to be embedded within partner clients
    • call transfer functionality. Announced as coming out for Skype to Skype calls this fall and Skype to PSTN calls in early 2007, this is the key API required such that iotum’s Relevance Engine can be interfaced into Skype but is sought by many other current and potential partners.

While both Skype and AOL recognize the need for Partner programs as a key element of their ecosystems, partners need to offer innovative service offerings which can support a sustainable and growing business by delivering true value-add. The good news for both users and partners is that there are now two recognized players providing opportunities for innovation and enhanced voice-enabled services. The future promises to be interesting with two keen, enthusiastic and passionately committed Development Partner teams in the game. And who would have thought ten years ago that key players delivering leading edge technology today would be in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Tallin, Estonia?

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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