Blast from the past - Linux Telephony API

A trip down memory lane: the first linux telephony drivers

Back in the first bubble - y’all remember that one? - I was consulting through my own company (Herlein Engineering). This was 1997 or so, and I was doing just fine doing linux development. Linux was BOOMING and I had lots of work. It seemed to me that the next thing on the internet was going to be voice over IP. I know, 23 years later is seems like a no-brainer but at the time most people didn’t believe it would work. Too much latency, they said. Not enough bandwidth, they said. Ha.

Enter Quicknet

I found these cards made by a company called Quicknet. They had a PhoneJack and a LineJack - one to plug a phone into and another that could plug into the phone system - the PSTN. I suppose that still exists - but in those days you definitely had it because that was the ONLY way to connect to the internet. Using a 56kbaud modem. Remember that? Anyway, these cards were ISA and PCI (remember those?) and interfaced a computer to the phone system. But they were Windows only. Hmmm. I did not run Windows on ANYTHING from 1994… well, ever since then. What’s a linux guy to do?

Hack it!

I fiddled around and probed and prodded. I’d done some driver work before. I’d fixed some bugs in RS-485 drivers (remember RS-485?) and also done some fun modifications to ethernet drivers to adapt them to work on some new wireless cards. I figured I’d play and see if I could get something working. I got fairly far, but was getting stuck. So I just called Quicknet. Turns out they were also in San Francisco (as was I) and oddly enough, they put me right through to the VP Engineering.

He told me that no, they were not going to do linux drivers but that I should talk to this guy in Texas. Quicknet would share what information they could that was not under NDA to their chip vendors. So I called Ed Okerson and not only was a friendship started, but a partnership that ended up lasting through several companies. He and I hacked on a driver and one day we made a call to each other over the internet - “first voice” we called it. We took it to Quicknet to show them and I called Ed from the Quicknet office - which was in a basement of a building on Townsend right across from the CalTrain station. They made us job offers before I left the building.

The next year was wild. We did a lot of work to get an early “skype” system working - all on linux, and all years and years before skype ever happened. We open sourced our drivers and made some really cool stuff. A lot of those folks are still in touch, even though the company never went anywhere. Supposedly Cisco made an offer to buy the company at one point, but when the bubble burst so did Quicknet. Lots of dreams died with Quicknet.

But there’s crumbs of what we did way back then:

So What

Yep, so what. We didn’t move the needle. The API was never adopted by other projects. Asterisk went on to be the default linux phone system (and good for them! Mark Spencer had the tenacity and courage to stay focused and he sure did well. Linux Support Services later became Digium and while there was a short period of trying to work together it never played out. Mark was smart to be in Alabama where his costs were low. Quicknet was in San Francisco where costs were high. Quicknet’s vision never came to be.

Lessons Learned

Linux is amazing. We were right about that. We knew that linux would be the foundation for many innovations. Now look at it: Android phones. Just about every TV set top box runs linux. Just about every virtual machine in the cloud is linux. Even Microsoft - the great evil - is now embracing linux and you can run a real kernel inside Windows 10. Who would have thought?

The lessons we learned from building all that put all of us on a coourse for better things. And yes, laid the foundation for a life-long love of linux.

Next Steps

Playing again. Have some ideas. Embedded Linux. Picking up where my RBOT ideas left off. Once a hacker, always a hacker. Stay tuned…