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Before the Dawn of IP Telephony - Part 14Mountain of treasure discovered through a single and honest determination

These contents translated a serialization article carried by ITPro IP telephony ONLINE published by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc. Jump to the original (Japanese).

Photo: Shinji Usuba

Shinji Usuba
General Manager
eSound Venture Unit
Oki Electric Industry Co., Ltd

Immediately before the completion of the simultaneous development of two products that seemed almost impossible, I was transferred to an affiliated company. Fortunately, my involvement in VoIP product development continued.

"Before the Dawn of IP Telephony," introducing our involvements in the early developmental stages of VoIP is now in its final episode. Activities described in this series centers mainly on the 90's. It was the time when development members would make cut-outs of newspapers with articles containing words like "VoIP" or "IP telephony" for circulation around the department. When entering 2000, such words became more noticeable. Recently, these words have become so common that it's rare to not them in newspapers. On occasion, articles introducing IP telephony even make it on the front page.

During the summer of 1995, VoIP started with only a handful of personnel. At the present, VoIP is an important business field supported by a considerable number of employees even at OKI. VoIP that had not been given a second glance in the communications industry years ago now gives a sense of a different age with the acceptance of IP telephony. We now believe that our involvement were groundbreaking, with the arrival of the IP telephony age that will soon become full-scale.

In this last episode, I would like to describe my interpretation of "how innovation is realized," through my experience as one of the members involved in the creation of a new market. I believe there are three items that are considered to be important.

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[1] Do not use common knowledge

Voice packet is a technology of the past. Such knowledge was becoming common in the industry as the result of repeated research on packet communication that has been continued from the latter half of 1900's. The potential and possibilities of packet communication is known by everyone who is familiar with communication. But immediately, there was a negative reaction whenever "voice packet" was mentioned. Perhaps there was a strong preconception that voice packet technology would never bear fruit by those who did their study and research.

Sometimes issues are solved by inhibiting factors disappearing along with the changes in time. And sometimes issues can be solved by changing the perspective. If someone tells you that something cannot be done, it is important to calmly ponder the reasons why it cannot be done and think outside the box.

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[2] Create the real thing

That's totally useless. That will never sell. I have often heard these words. In fact, I heard these words all too often even inside the company. In order to oppose such a position of rejection, it is extremely important to create the shape you have in mind, and show the real thing. The most effective way of removing preconceptions from the mind is to show the idea in motion. Creating a shape will allow the idea to become more real. Is practical application possible? Will it have value? Detailed images come into mind. Needed improvements can also be clearly seen.

There is no need to create something complete. Start by showing the basic shape, regardless of how ugly it may be or if it is something just patched together. Showing the shape is important especially when you are involved in something that is unknown or has negative views. Although this may seem obvious when developing a new product, I have come to the realization that this is more important than one might imagine, based on my experience developing VoIP products.

On numerous occasions during my years in development I have seen ideas stop at the desk, or too much time taken to create a prototype. In many cases, people feel more comfortable retracting their ideas when discovering a problem through unneeded search for a reason to quit. But when you have something working, you realize how much time you've wasted on needless things. Sometimes, the visible problem turns out to be a very minor problem and the true problem may lay elsewhere. There is nothing scarier than overreacting.

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[3] Single and honest determination

Some people have the gift of forecasting trends of the world, or information of society. This is a wonderful and enviable gift to have. However, there are some things that are left unnoticed even by these gifted people. On the other hand, I believe that complete dedication to something-no matter how foolish one may be, including myself-will lead to a treasure on the other end. I would like to share a very valuable experience I had when I first joined OKI.

During the first year that I joined OKI, I was in charge of developing a theme called "playback of continuous sounds using ADPCM." Logically speaking, playback of continuous audio signals is possible. In reality, however, there is a minor offset preventing sounds to be continuous. Although wave patterns may indicate continuity, there is a definite intermittence between sounds to the human ear-small, but noticeable distortion like a click.

I decided to create data using a calculator using the set of references I received from Mr.Morito in the lab developing algorithms. But no matter how small I made the discontinuity, I still heard the distortion: click. I experimented with the phenomenon a number of times, and each time I was betrayed by my expectations. The state continued. After two weeks, I decided to compare the clicking sound during the first stages of the experiment to those that were recent. To my surprise, the level had drastically dropped when viewing the wave patterns.

But I was disappointed by the fact that the sound was still there. I was completely lost in the darkness. I started to hear clicking sounds even when I was asleep. The state of desperation continued. But Mr.Asai, the Assistant Manager, who was my instructor at the time, would not accept my reasons for not being able to achieve the task. Day after day, I found myself staring at the PC.

Just when I was in the depths of despair, senior associate Mr. Shiraishi who was familiar with subscriber circuits gave me advice by saying, "Why don't you look at it from a wider perspective?" Taking this as a clue, I succeeded in the playback of continuous sounds. The created wave pattern was discontinuous, but it was inaudible to the human ears. The fact that such phenomenon would occur was the first revolutionary fact that I had experienced.

The human ears are delicate. But at the same time, they are susceptible to deception. At this time, I realized the complexity of sound, and the importance of devotion and the will to keep going. We could have raised a number of reasons for giving up VOICEHUB, like the LSI bug. But a solution in fact did exist.

In retrospect, Mr.Asai probably knew the outcome. He allowed me to experience for myself that not quitting is the key to reaching the goal. And yes, he was probably frustrated by the fact it took so long for me to discover this.

This experience taught me that where there is a will, there is a way, no matter how unsatisfactory it may seem at first. I also learned that there is a mountain of treasure to be found if you continue to try without quitting, no matter how foolish it may appear; the mountain of treasure that brilliant people missed along their way. These are my roots as a developer. These roots give me the power to say that there is nothing that I can't do. And they are what motivated me to develop the VoIP products.

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Closing remarks

Photo 1 : DNS & BIND
The bible on DNS. This picture is the latest edition published by O'Reilly Media, Inc.

Here is a book titled "DNS & BIND" (photo 1). I was given this book by Department Manager Yoshinori Sekine during the unforgettable summer of 1995 when I was suffering from a sense of stagnation. It can be called a document that opened the world of IP telephony from the world of conventional switching equipment. After reading this book, I wondered what would happen to voice communication when the Internet spreads globally. At this time, I became certain of the potential of voice packets and realized that the key technology was to establish quality of voice packets. When reading this book, I remember being stirred by the technology and network of the Internet and was able to hold a dream of the future. I will never forget the electricity I felt running through my spine.

OKI holds an image of a company that manufactures products precisely based on the orders received. This is true to a certain extent. But the company is also open-minded and welcomes new challenges where there is a will. In my closing remarks, I would like to bring this series to an end by expressing my gratitude to Operations Department Manager Sugimoto (at the time in 1995, currently Executive Director) who gave me the opportunity to develop VoIP and Assistant Manager Asai (currently Operating Officer) who taught me to have faith in what I do and finish what must be done as my instructor when I first joined OKI.

... To be continued

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