Ribbit! The amphibian of telco voice platforms
We've been putting together a directory of all "2.0"-type players for our forthcoming Consumer Voice & Messaging 2.0 Report. One newcomer, Ribbit, is offering an early foretaste of what the future environment for developing voice and messaging services might look like.
Ribbit reckons it's "Silicon Valley's First Phone Company". Silly us, we thought that was AT&T. So what is it? The actual product is a VoIP softswitch, available either as a standalone installation or a hosted service, which offers an unprecedentedly extensive collection of APIs for developers to work into their sizzling lashups. Then, there's a Flash toolkit intended to let the front-end developers design interesting user interfaces to the system's voice functions, whether on desktops, laptops, or mobile devices. All very Telco 2.0, really.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ribbit is that one of the existing applications for it integrates it into Salesforce.com, the hugely successful web-based sales/CRM system; you can't get more platform-based, enterprise-focused, or two-sided than that. We're sure there's huge scope for creativity and user-driven innovation here; but there are some issues that worry us.
Ribbit's managers are very keen to beat up telcos. Who isn't? But all the aggression they direct towards "the phone company" may yet come back to bite them. If they want to have nothing to do with carriers at all, relying fully on IP and third-party SIP carriers for their PSTN integration, that's all well and good; but it may be a bad business decision. The enterprise VoIP market is crowded, and trying to chop out a niche there means competing with Cisco Systems, Nortel, and Microsoft - all of whom have the advantage of huge installed bases of equipment already in the enterprises they're trying to sell to. Further, the tech-clued firms who are most likely to be interested in Ribbit already have other options - notably Asterisk, the open-source IP PBX, and Red Hat's JBoss comms platform.
On the other flank, there's the risk of being cut out as telcos begin to introduce new services; location, availability, social graph, and other contextual or user data are exactly what these enterprise developers will want to build into their systems. They will be keen to use existing telco APIs rather than build their own capabilities from scratch. If Ribbit isn't in a commercial position to use them, there's no gain in using it rather than either a telco service or roll-your-own. And given the initial telco-hostile tone, should Ribbit prove to be highly successful, telcos will doubly have a reason to fear an intermediary platform getting all the developers and intermediating the commercial relationship.
Success, therefore, will come from being able to work both in the telco sea as well as the Web 2.0 land.
Further in the future, though, highly reconfigurable telephony is likely to lead to radically different product and business models for telcos. For example, civil engineers stamp out custom bridges off well-tested models based on span, load, and topography. Your telco consulting services arm will be building custom communications experiences, with the software equivalent of a flexible manufacturing system. Custom back-ends, process flows and user interfaces will be generated from tools and models. Each is created appropriate to the application and user context. Most devices will have a completely "soft" and re-configurable user interface. (Indeed, if you can create the service and the user interface as required, why not the hardware too? It may sound crazed, but projects like the RepRap might soon make it a reality.)
"Minutes" on the network will be the least important part of the business model. But counter to previous wisdom, the money's not in telcos launching dozens of services all the time. (Ah, so you've been reading the same SDP vendor brochures too?) It's in supplying platform and services capabilities to upstream partners, who have the knowledge and intimacy of the end user.
Even before then, flexible manufacturing systems using commercial rapid prototyping systems and standard electronics could mean that Ribbit's Flash toolkit could become, well, a very flashy toolkit. It's perfectly possible to build a profitable business around custom handsets of volumes of 10,000 or under. There's likely to be a thriving market of niche communications tools and devices. We'd focus on where the operators and technology competitors are technically weakest -- the user interface -- become the toolsmith for that. At the moment the commercial model for the back end platform is too uncertain, and competition too fierce. A toolkit for building the presentation layer could work across all the major back-end platforms, and could be Ribbit's premium service -- if, that is, they find a sound enough business model to get there.