eComm2008, day 1: Hear the voice of disruption

I’m in Mountain View, California for the Emerging Communications Conference, where 300 – almost exclusively male – people have gathered to discuss the next innovation waves in telco land. Like many innovations, this conference itself is born out of frustration. Frustration with US telcos concentrating on selling cheap minutes. Frustration with European mobile operators asking ridiculous prices for simple call termination. Frustration with a VoIP revolution that has taken place but in a sense has just as well gone unnoticed by the public at large – who couldn’t care less about technology. Vested interests – in 3G investments, for one thing – and organizational inertia have indeed created a classic innovator’s dilemma for the large carriers, that stifles innovation. Creating the conditions to get out of this situation is the main topic of eComm2008.

Emerging Communications Conference 2008 in Mountain View, CA

The first condition for a blossoming communications market lies in a distribution of power. Today, the big players and their lobbying arms in Washington DC or Brussels still hold the power, but an inevitable grassroots countermovement is developing. Speakers like Jonathan Christensen from Skype and network neutrality activist David Isenberg pleaded for a natural segmentation of competences in the market. In this setup, carriers should do what they do best: carry voice and data through their pipes, and even provide some billing services – for those who need it. At the edge of the network, business and application developers – who are supposed to know what end users like and dislike – then make user-centric innovation go forward. That’s the idealistic scenario. The one trillion dollar question is how to make this happen. The answers put forward on day one of the conference evolved around the value of simplicity, a redefinition of voice, and the importance of trust & identity.

David Isenberg using Martin Geddes as presentation device at eComm2008 in Mountain View, CA

The value of simplicity was epitomized by Twitter. Lead architect Blaine Cook – a sociologist by education! – ascribed Twitter’s phenomenal success by the fact that all complexity in the system is hidden from the end user – all they can send and receive are 140 character messages. But building addictive systems that are simple to use is not for the faint-hearted. Without going into much detail, Blaine Cook acknowledged that Twitter has had issues in scaling up that are more than mere growing pains. Using XMPP as an alternative for SMS may alleviate problems in a structural way, but Peter Saint-AndrĂ© pointed out that the main challenge for mass adoption of presence in a mobile setting is … battery power.

Twitter's Blaine Cook at eComm2008: simple systems are complicated to build

On the voice front, technologists Ken Rehor from the VoiceXML Forum and Voxeo CTO RJ Auburn presented architectural updates from the VoiceXML world. Useful to know if you’re not a specialist, but not ground-breaking by themselves. Their presentations go to show that the availability of standardized (VoiceXML or other) platforms may be a necessary, but certainly not a sufficient condition for innovation. Thomas Howe from the eponymous company asked the more important question of how commoditized voice can get a value boost. The answer lies in the application context: for a package transportation company, a failed call may mean a failed delivery – and that’s a real cost. In other contexts like voice cards – my example – the value is more of an emotional nature. Thomas Howe’s main message is this: don’t build voice applications, but augment existing applications and business processes with voice, where useful.

Thomas Howe looking for value in voice at eComm2008

Another fundamental issue in the Internet & telco industry is trust & identity. Piotr Cofta, Chief Researcher at BT, sees trust & identity as necessary communication shortcuts without which society would not work. To drive societal innovations he envisions a layered stack of responsibilities in which trust and identity play the same role as the transport and network layers in the Internet’s well-known OSI model. Contrary to its counterparts in the US, British Telecom had made an important first step in opening up its network through its 21st Century Network, 21CN in short. There is no need for more, but for better communication.

eComm2008: trust and identity

My conclusion for day one: if you don’t innovate, your competitors will. Or worse: a new industry will. We have to be careful not to inflate the meaning of disruptive innovation – buzzword bingo always lurks around the corner. But telco execs beware! A change is gonna come … whether you like it or not.

2 Responses to “eComm2008, day 1: Hear the voice of disruption”

  1. Nice review!

    While David was urging, even pleading.. I was hoping to suggest that this segmentation of competencies could hopefully happen naturally — that there is just enough competition to crack the perceived “cartel” Of course many like David, fear that competition and network freedom is not inevitable. We will see..

    DSL was not an inevitable service offering from the LECs. They were selling T1 service to businesses for $$$.. They were dabbling with consumer ISDN which was not fast enough to cannibalize these lucrative revenue streams when the cable companies forced the issue with consumer Broadband over HFC. The cable companies had nothing to cannibalize. Crack.. Now we have consumer DSL…

    His point about limited broadband choices in the USA vs. the UK was a bit alarming, but at the same time I feel like “at least I have a choice”, and that choice has lead to continued competition on performance. e.g. Comcast just introduced “Blast” in my area (16Mbps Cable Modem Serivce). It is exactly the kind of focus on fast pipes that makes me happy. I really hope they see healthy returns from it. Those returns will help focus them further..

    In another twist.. It took forever but we got standard “cable cards” from Comcast. Now I have HD Tivo instead of a Comcast box and it is great! Perfect case where a standard interface leads to dramatic edge innovation. I now subscribe to more services on Comcast (More channels.. HBO, Showtime..) because I can time shift the content, pause, rewind, and skip the commercials.. Another move in the right direction.

    But this one was a policy mandate. So there are good arguments on both sides..

  2. [...] On day two of the Emerging Communications Conference 2008, multiple speakers focused on the topic of (lack of) openness, in its various forms. [...]

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