All You Need Is ... Bellster?
(Sponsor: Lok Technology)
Jeff Pulver has just gone live with his latest -- and also one of his oldest -- brainstorms, Bellster. It's a peer-to-peer service that allows users to share their phone lines to complete "free" calls anywhere on the global PSTN network. The motto is, "The love you take is equal to the love you make." That's more than just a goopy Beatles citation: It's also a practical description of how Bellster works. Once you've made your phone line accessible to the Bellster community (by way of Asterisk, an open-source software-based PBX), you earn calling credits ("the love you take") on the basis of how many calls you allow to move over your private line ("the love you make").
At the top level, it's a cool, cool idea, and plaudits to Jeff for further creative telecom experimentation.
But drill down just a little. Although the service's name evokes the memory of the long-dead original Napster and its mass appeal, and though the "love you take/make" credo makes it sound like something just everyone will want to throw their arms around, this is a concept demo for a hard-core geek audience, not a community everyone you know will be obsessed with in the next six months.
That's because Bellster comes with some technical overhead that popular P2P apps (and some popular VoIP services, for that matter) don't have. Just one for-instance: Users will have to set up and configure their own Asterisk PBX box. OK, if you're clued into the technology, no problem. But if you're one of the rest of the 99 percent of humanity making phone calls or using the net right now -- even if you're extra brave and use Skype! -- this is a barrier. True, the Bellster site points out that you can just buy a ready-made PBX box running Asterisk (there's a helpful link to one on the pulver.com site). And it can be yours for just $1,029.99! (If you're a bargain shopper, you can look on eBay, where one is listed for a minimum bid of $900 right now). I just have to go out on a limb and guess that most people are not going to spend that kind of money for the promise of "free" calls).
One other barrier that Bellster's creating for itself: When you check out the Bellster FAQ, one of the questions is, "Should I be concerned about privacy?" The answer provided is this: "Yes, but, if you assume that nothing is private on the Internet, you’ll never be disappointed." Uh-huh. I know what Jeff's saying, but I'm shocked at the casualness and flippancy of that reply. Let's change the question: "When I shop at pulver.com, will my credit card details be kept private?" Answer: "Yes, but if you asssume that nothing is private on the Internet, you'll never be disappointed." What online merchant could get away with that?
The point being this: Privacy is a huge concern for most of us, especially when it comes to telecommunications. If anyone expects more than a tiny clique to use the service -- a service that will only realize its potential if lots of people sign up -- then a serious, detailed answer that talks about privacy issues is mandatory.