Say Tello For Presence

Jeff Pulver, wireless pioneer Craig McCaw, telecom banker Michael Price and former Apple CEO John Sculley have teamed together in a new VoIP focussed start-up called Tello, based in San Mateo, California. Doug Renert, a former executive at Oracle Corp heads up the start-up.

Tello is the brainchild of Jeff Pulver, and was founded in late 2004. It has raised $5.5 million in Series A funding in second quarter of 2005 from Eagle River (Craig McCaw’s investment arm), Evercore Partners (Michael Price’s investment vehicle), Rho Venture, and Intel Capital.

The company, The Wall Street Journal writes, is going to allow users to “workers see on their computers or mobile devices whether the person they are trying to reach is on an office phone or cellphone or is logged on to instant messaging.” [Read how it works over on Business Week.]

That is an apt description of the hot new buzzword, “presence.” Skype is an early and a rudimentary example of “presence” client, though it is limited in its role – it works only with Skype IM and Skype Voice, along with wireless and wireline PSTN services. Buzzwords, and pedigree of the investors might help ensure headlines, but it is hardly a slam dunk. Tello would need a lot of things to go right before it can be declared a success.

The WSJ report indicates that the company will work with Cisco and Avaya, and ensure that its service works with their IP phone and PBX systems. Still, Cisco’s Call Manager offerings is also headed down the same road Tello seeks to travel. Tello’s biggest competitor is going to Microsoft, which has a surprisingly strong and coherent strategy around its Microsoft Live Communication Server. IBM SameTime, Verizon (MCI) and SBC (AT&T) are also thinking along the same lines.

Tello is essentially composed of three part – a database server which has directory and rules information; a SIP proxy server and an IM Proxy server. In its most audacious form, Tello could allow large corporations to simply bypass PSTN all together, and make SIP-based free calls over the Internet as easy to initiate as the 10-digit calling of today. At some point in the future it could initiate calls to PC-IM clients as well. The key to all this a desktop client, that for now works with Windows XP and Blackberry devices. The client, Tello claims will allow worker bees to collaborate and work on spreadsheets for example.

“What we are trying to be is the bridge between all these services,” says Renert, “making it as simple as email.” Having not seen, or used the client or the service, it is hard to judge Tello’s ease of use. The company has no plans to support Palm OS or Skype, though those two have considerable penetration in the corporate markets. My initial reaction to the service is that it might suffer from feature creep, and will be tough for actual users to adopt. And who really knows how well it will scale.

PS: Business Week had the same headline as what I had originally posted, so had to change it. Actually, great overview of Tello over on the weekly business magazine’s website.