France Telecom, Part 2: Little Boxes, All The Same

So we mentioned Liveboxes. The box contains an ADSL modem, a four-port Ethernet/WLAN router, and some other stuff running on its kernel. Specifically, there's a socket for a standard PSTN handset, so you can use FT's carrier-VoIP service, and a Bluetooth radio so you can walk about with the same service. There's also an IPTV client, so you can watch FT's TV.

Now, I don't know what's actually driving the thing - but many of these boxes have a real operating system, usually a small Linux distro. (Note that if you want to DIY, there's a Linux available for the Linksys WRT54G router.) A lot of them can be remotely managed by a system administrator over the Internet - something which has already had embarrassing consequences for at least one ISP, whose CPEs shipped with the default passwords set and were promptly hacked.

This has all been a little techie by Telco2.0 standards so far. But here is the vital upshot: this is what a platform for new services looks like. Once you have a little box in the customer's living room with an IP address, a general-purpose OS, and remote admin access, you're in a position to come up with new ideas and get them out to the market very quickly indeed.

For example, as well as TV, WLAN, and VoIP, you can do femtocells and/or UMA. You can include a chunk of local storage and give it media-centre functions - for example, you could distribute heavy content like video during the night when the network is under-utilised, "peak-shaving" as the electrical engineers call it. Or, alternatively, you could ship the boxes with a ton of video on board and just top them up remotely.

You could give it Slingbox-like functionality; making the data (and services) on the box available remotely over the Internet. If you do that, you could also include digital home and e-health functions on it. But here, though, is the scary bit; why doesn't France Telecom sell the boxes to non-France Telecom customers? Boxes like these are a powerful tool for building a virtual integrated carrier on top of someone else's network.

In fact, it's a way of becoming your own telco. If you have something slightly smarter than a WRT54, and a large external hard drive, and a WLAN/cellular handet, you're on your way. It could hold your collection of music and video, and perhaps run a P2P client application all the time. It could permit you to get at that stuff remotely. It could also run a SIP proxy, if you don't want to use GrandCentral or some other hosted service.

Actually, you don't need anything smarter than a WRT54 for that. I checked; there's already both a pure SIP proxy and a version of Asterisk for it, as well as a filesystem.

How long before Sony or Nokia ships it?