On day two of the Emerging Communications Conference 2008, multiple speakers focused on the topic of (lack of) openness, in its various forms.
Google’s Group Manager of Mobile Platforms Rich Miner explained Android’s goal of taking away constraints that hamper innovation across the mobile application stack. To bridge the gap between low-level hardware capabilities and ease of use, we need to overcome more than human-factor limitations like small screens and keyboards – these problems can be solved by design, as the iPhone proves. Compelling applications are useless if they’re not easy to discover, distribute, and install. And they won’t be built in the first place unless frictionless business models are in place to stimulate and reward the developer community. So value-killing gatekeepers in the telco or software organizations must get out of the way.
Android sceptic Dean Bubley pointed out that the large majority of smart phone users don’t care about software stacks and extension capabilities. All they want is a pink phone with a camera and a good battery that will play music and videos. They’re not waiting for mobile Internet applications that come with installation procedures, user logins and extra costs. The $100 billion SMS market will be difficult to substitute overnight.
Apart from the telcos’ cash cow concerns, there’s also an issue of brand protection. It should come as no surprise that Apple is maintaining a firm grip on what applications can make it to the iPhone Apps Store, even though the SDK is free and the Standard code signing process only costs a symbolic $99. Christopher Allen, who recently organized the first iPhoneWebDev camp, gave a long list of constraints that Apple still imposes on the iPhone developer community. What it comes down to is that in the end, Apple can prohibit anything. So the barriers may be lowered – that’s great – but they’re far from gone.
Whereas the Apple iPhone enables innovation on the mobile device, Silicon Valley startup Ribbit goes way beyond this old model we all know so well. Co-founder Crick Waters likes to describe his company as Silicon Valley’s First Phone Company. Whereas the iPhone and its siblings function as a very smart presentation layer on top of a generic mobile Internet, Ribbit takes a radically different approach: it offers a complete platform that places itself in the middle of the cloud, in between the telco networks and the Internet. This unique position allows for much deeper integration and enables a complete redefinition of deeply rooted concepts, like – to name one thing – a phone call.
Ribbit has the appearances of a Web-based CTI platform, but at the scale of the Internet, and is completely open. Despite its disruptive and potentially threatening position, Ribbit partners with incumbent telcos in a revenue-sharing business model. About 3500 Flex developers have already signed up for Ribbit’s developer program, and the first Consumer and Enterprise showcases are available. For the moment, the service is only connected to US carriers, but in these times of blurring geographical phone boundaries, that should not be a problem. To be watched closely!
If companies like Ribbit push incumbent telco companies out of their central position towards the edge of the ecosystem, maybe it’s time these carriers start reevaluating their assets to see what’s left for them in this new world – apart from selling cheap minutes and sending text messages. As Kousjik Chatterjee from Embarq and Johannes Ernst from NetMesh pointed out, one asset that the carriers should cherish is their billing relationship with millions of customers. Billing implies authentication and identity, so here’s an opportunity not to be missed. Link telco customer identity with OpenID and voice biometrics, and we have a new phone-based service for accessing the Internet.
What do we need country-specific phone prefixes for, other than as an excuse for carriers to overcharge for international connections? If we want phone numbers to be long-life identifiers for the people that use them, number portability must be able to travel across country borders. CEO Rod Ullens from Brussels-based VoxBone announced that the ITU has granted his company the right to create and distribute a new range of country-neutral numbers with prefix 833. VoxBone will offer the worldwide numbers to the carriers at no charge, hoping that they will pas them on to their customers at the same price. The incumbents would share revenue with VoxBone for all calls originating from the PSTN, and a second revenue stream will come from global premium services. The business model challenge will be to make sure that the end user will not suffer from exorbitant transfer costs. Otherwise the iNum initiative will die a rapid death.
Another remarkable initiative was presented by Terranet’s Founder & CEO Anders Carlius. His company has identified an unserved audience in the Third and Fourth Worlds that do not deserve to be overlooked, if only for the yearly revenue potential that they represent: $240 billion! Terranet’s approach is to distribute cheap peer-to-peer mesh phones in local communities, which would cater for daily needs like security & emergency, or simply calling home. As a bonus, the technology enables a great leap forward in crossing the digital divide. It should come as no surprise then that Terranet is bombarded with interest by governmental and private organizations, especially after this BBC interview.
On the application side, I first want to mention Fonolo, a “deep calling” service based on reverse-engineered IVR applications. I’m a bit sceptical about the operational scalability of the system, and, frankly, also about the solution that this service offers. It’s already bad enough that IVR menus are not always as user-friendly as they should be; starting a desktop and opening another web application is not the answer. Moreover, just like the GetHuman initiative, it might actually serve as an excuse for IVR and speech application builders not to invest in usability. Which would be kind of counter-productive.
The second service that caught my attention is DialDirections.com, for its simplicity, quality and rapid adoption.
Conclusion: day two of eComm2008 was stuffed with presentations and ideas that can and occasionally will change the world. On the one hand, the innovators at the edge take their distance from the carriers or, like Ribbit, push them out of their luxurious central position; on the other hand, the incumbents’ weight is so large that one way or another they cannot be fully ignored or circumvented. This tango has only just begun, and every now and then the dance partners will inevitably step on each other’s toes. But as everyone knows: it takes two to tango.