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Death of the phone company

It’s 2.30am here in Helsinki, but my body clock is firmly locked onto Silicon Valley time. Sleep seems impossible, despite a perfunctory rest last night after arriving at the hotel at 3am. The alarm is anyway set for 5.15am to catch a flight to London, so maybe I’ll get a nap slumped up against another aircraft wall.

This hypothalamus abuse has served a good purpose, however. Jumping back and forth between the leaders in Internet and telecom, I’ve caught a glimpse of the future of communications. It shockingly lacks any involvement of a phone company as service provider, at least in any traditional sense.

Without betraying any client confidences, here are a few pointers.

On the flight over to America, I read Mobile Web 2.0. The title turns out to an an accidental pun, being a re-write of their earlier book Open Gardens — a 2.0 book on a 2.0 subject. It’s a comprehensive survey of how Web 2.0 technologies and ideas are driving the next generation of mobile applications. Notably, Web 2.0 is about people and social computing; Web 1.0 was more about e-commerce and putting users in touch with other computers to transact. If you’re feeling less than up-to-speed with what Web 2.0 might mean for telecoms, it should be on your Christmas wishlist.

We shamelessly jumped on the 2.0 bandwagon here at Telco 2.0 because making the Internet people- and communications-centric poses a direct challenge to traditional communications service providers, who need to up their game in response. We’ve already seen the meteoric rise of players like Skype, but these are maybe “Web 1.5” phenomena: an Internet facsimile of traditional telephony, with a new coat of paint and a calling card thrown in to keep in touch with the technorefuseniks.

In a sense maybe we should really be talking Web 3.0: the 2.0 made text social, and the next generation embeds all forms of media and real-time communications. Anyhow, regardless of the name, the next generation of communications is social, contextual and collaborative. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Social communications means that the system is aware of the multitude of relationships you have, and acts accordingly. That means your “address book”, for want of a better term, has not just people and phone numbers, but lists of contexts and relationships within those contexts. To take the canonical example, there could be a section titled “MySpace”, and your friends from that context are listed there. As part of that context, it may display appropriate presence-type information, which could be FAR richer than on/off — such as how many new comments/greetings are on their homepage blog. Naturally, privacy and availability controls are applied in ways appropriate to each context. The dating address book sub-section holds pointers to your hot prospects, who may choose to be unavailable during their working day.

The context also drives the communication. Take a simple example. Today, my smartphone will sync with Outlook, and display a list of next appointments. When I click on one, it gives me the details. In principle, I can call the meeting organiser, perhaps to say I’m running late. Yet she won’t see a subject line of “2.30 Sales Pipeline Meeting” as part of the inbound caller ID, because the current telephony system doesn’t convey context. Furthermore, users will not have to switch contexts to communicate, as happens today on the PC when you click the “Skype me” button and flip to the softphone.

Finally, the experience is collaborative. Today’s softphones are anything but soft: the user interfaces are fixed, and don’t vary with the context. There’s nothing much I can do at my end that controls what you see at your end. At best, in an IM tool I can send you a file, maybe paste a URL into a chat window, and hope you click on it. Telephony is supposed to be a substitute for being there in person, be we can’t gesticulate, annotate, or review together. I want to be able to share the snaps of the kids with their grandparents, and flick through them together — remotely — whilst making my commentary.

These things exist today as point solutions, but not as part of a thought-through generic communications system. In a collaborative environment, any media becomes immediately shareable, and the shared space spans the screens and audio outputs of many users. Furthermore, the collaboration can easily move across contexts: it becomes trivial to share a cool video with one of my dating chat-up targets, without having to exit to IM or email to send a pasted URL — or even, indeed, knowing those personal contact details.

Now for the mind bomb.

There will be a custom communications experience generated dynamically for every context, and it may be personalised for the individual communicators.

You’ll have to work out the rest yourself, I have to stop there.

This totally breaks the mindset of the telecom product development process. The idea of defining universal, common, interoperable services standards and tying them to specific network operators won’t work any more. Mobile IM is probably the last round of this game — the real test of strength between the Internet and telecoms. Talk is truly just a feature of a thousand other applications.

These phenomena will probably emerge from the PC first, but the transition to mobile devices is also inevitable. The only question is of timing. These new capabilities will take us “beyond VoIP”, and create true new end-user value. There is no evolution path for circuit telephony, no IMS-powered feature that will maintain parity. It’s all over, bar the wait for the awful sound of the death of Bell telephony as a business. It doesn’t go away as a human activity, just you can’t charge for it any more. It might be two years away, probably five, definitely less than ten.

Here’s the sting. It’s the owners of the social contexts in which people meet and collaborate who will define and control the communications experience. With a few exceptions, such as Cyworld in Korea, network operators aren’t part of the picture. At best they might be able to sell some enabling platform capabilities to the media and Internet companies who will dominate this space.

It’s time to go back to work and re-read your business plan. Wake up to the change ahead, don’t be caught napping.

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This sounds like a logically coherent mindbomb scenario, but I got a bit lost in the jump to the last conclusion that operators cannot charge and are out of the picture.

Are most contexts available and usable by the end-points without participation of operator's platform enablers?

If context will the key value generator, wouldn't those enablers carry a larger share of the value than today's enablers, and substitute for operator's current revenues?

So far people have been spending more and more for the increasing value of communications.
End-user value in this scenario is also higher than today, so to whom will end-users spend their communication budget? To Internet companies who are perceived as "everything is free"?

Why is SKT/Cyworld an exception and not a forerunner?

Great thesis, but I wouldn't underestimate the wireless network operators!!

that's my bone of contention!

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