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Monday, March 30, 2015

Real-world anecdotes on mobile usage: WiFi, Whatsapp, Roaming & Batteries

I just spent a weekend away with a group of friends. We all have smartphones (3 iPhones, 3 Androids), with a diversity of data plans, mostly from the UK but one of us from Denmark. Most of us are non-geeky/non-industry, but fairly heavy users.

It was interesting to watch the different behaviours - especially as we had severe travel disruptions in both directions, owing to power-failures in Amsterdam/Schiphol Airport on Friday, and severe wind/rain on the way back impacting both flights and rail yesterday.

The most obvious phenomena were:

a) Battery life / power availability is critical, especially when travel problems mean you're reliant even more on communications, but have least-easy access to recharging.

b) Roaming & WiFi-usage behaviour are fluid, depending on home operator (& plan) used. LTE roaming actually works properly, most of the time, now.

c) Use of applications/web on mobile while travelling is largely a function of travel experience & frequency. Perhaps unsurprising.

d) Travelling in a group nowadays inevitably means points in the day when you're all in the same place, silent, and on your phones. Especially when you find good coffee & decent WiFi.

The power issue has multiple angles - firstly, surprisingly few people in UK/Europe carry power-banks or cases with long-life batteries. Compared to bits of Asia where they seem ubiquitous, it's very conspicuously different. Separately, the provision of USB-based power (& maybe in future wireless power) in hotels, rental properties, airports, planes, trains etc is lagging a long way behind WiFi. I'm surprised it hasn't proliferated faster. Lastly, as people increasingly have access to 2+ devices (or friends), it would be good to be able to charge from any-to-any efficiently.

The differences that low/flat-rate roaming makes is astonishing. I have a flat £3/day plan from Vodafone (as did a friend) and we became the de-facto navigators and "leaders" as we had connectivity when walking about. The others grudgingly used data-roaming to deal with travel issues and connect to each other via Whatsapp, but were grateful for/horrified by their advice-of-charge texts. We also religiously checked every location - restaurant, bar, apartment, train station, airport - for WiFi & inherently *expect* it to be free. A simple code/password is fine. Notably, even the flatrate data-roaming users still use free WiFi, as we didn't know whether our £3 a day gives us an extra "bucket" (how much? how notified?) or if comes out of our normal monthly plan.

(As an aside - when I've been to non-flatrate countries recently, the "Welcome to Country X" and "You've used £xx of data already" SMS's came 30mins after I arrived, and 60mins after I crossed a threshold. Needs to be instantaneous, or else it's roaming-off + WiFi + local-SIM time again).

In nutshell - at the moment, most operators/plans are still ripoffs for international travellers. Giving users a flatrate & predictable price - about the price of a coffee or beer per day - seems to make a huge difference to both usage & perception. Per-MB pricing is awful for roaming, especially where you have background apps or inbound messages/notifications. Free data-roaming would be even better, but at least at a low level, the price is just another of the travel-related niggling costs like overpriced water or taxis.

(One thing I'd note for airports - it's really frustrating to have to keep going through the WiFi access process in different parts of the venue, because they're treated as different IP subnets or something. Everyone walks for miles in airports, especially Schiphol. If it's unavoidable, it needs to be password-free, just click-n-join).

Whatsapp (or its competing peers) are indispensable. A group of people from the UK & Denmark, meeting in the Netherlands & travelling via France and Belgium are not going to use SMS/MMS+roaming premium to communicate with each other, especially when 3+ have access to WiFi or flatrate data at any point. 

Sidenote: If RCS is to have *any* remote chance of competing, it needs to completely eliminate roaming or international charges beyond data access, allow simple group creation, support iPhones easily, be accesssible via WiFi etc. Will RCS ever be as ubiquitous, as cheap & as usable as Whatsapp for situations like this? Almost certainly not. I'm due to give it another good kicking in an upcoming blog post, so I'll leave that for now.

The TripAdvisor Cities app is loved by everyone & evangelised by me a lot (What's nearby! Reviews! Offline maps!). Various others are worthwhile too, for finding attractions, food, drinks etc. (I like Thrillist, another friend has "Unlike City Guides"). Google Maps rules for logistics but can be a bit variable with local public transport routes & schedules. 

But interestingly, in the unticketed queue for the Rijksmuseum, waiting in the rain, I was the only one to wonder if we could book online & save ourselves an hour's wait. Job done - but that's because I could remember my credit card details & sort it all before we moved and lost our place. I want the ticket PDF or Passbook entry on my screen, please. (I'd never have charged it to my phone bill, or used an NFC terminal, obviously - I'm not *that* weird & geeky).

I also found out that one of my friends gets ripped-off for calling family in the UK Channel Islands because the number ranges are considered "international" and are outside normal inclusive calling plans. That's a complete joke. She didn't realise she could save a ton of cash by using SkypeOut or similar services. It makes me wonder how much of the remaining revenue in telephony is from "the inertia of ignorance". This isn't value-based pricing - it's just hoping customers don't realise their old behaviour should change.
Oh - one other thing - as far as I know, none of used much SMS or *any* phone calls while away. Telephony is now so far past its peak among certain demographics that it's almost an irrelevance except in emergencies or stressful situations (eg my rebooking of a cancelled flight, while walking to the tube station - but I'd have preferred to have it in the frequent-flyer app, rather than via the dialler).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Initial thoughts on Enterprise Connect #EC15 & WebRTC

I'm in Orlando at the big Enterprise Connect conference and trade-show, covering business communications, especially for large corporations and government. Its main focus is on unified/disunified communications, collaboration, and contact centres / CRM. Yesterday was the WebRTC "conference-in-a-conference" and today is the main session with kickoff keynotes (and various briefings), although yesterday had some general plenary panels too.

Note: this was written on March 17th 2014, so "yesterday" refers to the 16th
While I'm here mostly as I was invited to speak on a WebRTC panel, it's interesting for me to compare and contrast EC with many of the more telecom operator-centric events that I go to, on a more general level.

The first thing is that there seems to be much more pragmatism and individuality among enterprises than among telcos - they are focused on solving their specific problems, in their industries and specific geographic regions. There is much less need for businesses to feel the need for "industry-wide" solutions and standards, and more willingness to experiment and customise.There is a sense that most big companies will have their own in-house software development teams, as well as relying on systems integrators, consultants and a variety of vendors, cloud platforms and other systems. Few businesses have cookie-cutter communications functions or apps, even if the ultimate technology building blocks (eg SIP, HTTP) are the same.

The second thing is that there is much more of a sense that the "end-user" - whether an employee, an external partner, or a customer, is in a position of choice and control. While there is a slight wistful feeling that everything used to be much simpler when there was just a phone, fax and email, there is also a sense of excitement that new developments lead to improved productivity and better engagement. 

There's no disparaging reference to "OTTs" (or spiteful over-defensive recourse to regulators), merely a pressure on suppliers to come up with better, cooler communications systems that fit employees' or customers' needs. While security and compliance are important for many, so is customisation and empowerment. I hear phrases like "use the best tool for the job" a lot, or "multi-channel", as well as BYOD, cloud services and "customer journey". There's a recognition that employees or customers will migrate to whatever application or interface mechanism best suits them - and it's up to the enterprise and its suppliers to get it right, or give developers the right APIs so they can instead.

The third thing is that enterprise communications vendors - some of them the same companies that also sell to telcos - have a much greater awareness of user-interface design, the need to fit their products around users' purpose and workflow, web/app integration, and the need for optimised functionality. Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Google, Unify and a whole host of others are at pains to show how slick their mobile apps are, or their ability to allow business processes to be adapted with visual tools. The word "workflow" is uttered 10x more than I'd ever hear in a telecom context.

Other things:
  • I see the word "context" everywhere too. This is definitely the epicentre of the Contextual Communications trend I've been mentioning - and I can see it evolving further with the use of WebRTC, sensors, big data analytics and so on. Compared to the "any colour you like as long as it's a phone call" mentality of telecoms, it's refreshing. So much for VoLTE being "innovative". Aspect and Altocloud are among those doing context-based WebRTC applications for contact centres.
  • Cloud is everywhere. That's not really news, but it is striking.
  • Microsoft Lync (now clunkily renamed Skype for Business) is everywhere too. How it supports ORTC/WebRTC will be critical in future - although as every competitor has a full API of some sort, I'd be surprised if S4B doesn't as well.
  • Messaging and timelines are everywhere. All the new collaboration tools look like they're heavily influenced by Facebook, Twitter and the like. This is good. 
  • Apart from Mitel (which just acquired Mavenir), nobody seems bothered by the idea of integrating with telco applications, VoLTE or (I'm joking here) RCS. I asked a major telco's business videoconferencing unit representative if they'd be using ViLTE/IR.94 in future, and he didn't appear to have heard the term before.
WebRTC is also heavily represented, but often as a means to an end: an enabler or option, rather than a holy grail of some sort. That said, it's telling that the keynotes all now assume that everyone knows what WebRTC is, rather than introducing it as "a new technology for putting comms into your browser" as is still common at other events. It's also clear that WebRTC is not just "production-ready" but is also in polished, real products being bought and used in anger.

Quite a lot of new products are noticeably WebRTC-based, such as collaboration solutions like Unify Circuit and Cisco Spark (the renamed Project Squared) and the OnAvaya cloud contact-centre solution hosted on the Google Cloud (and with Chromebook integration).  That said, most of these also have other non-WebRTC options, either for legacy browsers, or where a better set of functions can be delivered via native applications. 

The Avaya/Google collaboration potentially points to really rich contextual customer-service features in future, depending on how much analytical and insight horsepower Google can bring to bear. Think about routing to different agents, using different scripts, plus video and other features, where the caller is using Android or logged into their Google account.
Various WebRTC-based PaaS and SDK providers are present here as well - Twilio, CafeX, GenBand Kandy have booths, and I've bumped into people from Temasys and Respoke (Digium) as well, while Avaya has an SDK to video-enable customer-service apps too. Interestingly, Vidyo is touting its own video-enablement  SDK, which is not WebRTC-based, although it is working with Google to get SVC capability working on the VP9 codec.

There's also a lot of interest specifically in mobile apps with embedded video-calling for customer service. Avaya demo'd a golf-related commerce app, which it said it said it had added video to in just 2 days with a single engineer. Other vendors also touted their ware for app-embedded video, and I was taken out for an evening by a major US enterprise, to discuss how they could enhance their customers' experience with something similar.

But perhaps the most eye-opening bit was the presentation by a number of enterprises - Medweb, UTHealth [University of Texas] and American Express - about existing, long-standing WebRTC deployments and their learnings from their use and deployment. Some are using it to improve vanilla videoconferencing, but others are integrating it into apps and workflows much more extensively. Medweb has a telemedicine kit which can give a video consultation while streaming output from a medical device (eg a USB-plugged ultrasound scanner) over WebRTC datachannel.

The bottom line: enterprise retains its lead in WebRTC in terms of sophistication of use-cases. While there's various cool WebRTC consumer apps - as well as big guns like Snapchat - it's really the corporate uses that are the state of the art. Contact centre use of WebRTC is nothing new, but it's definitely the turn of UC/collaboration to take the stage at the moment, with app-integration and workflows the next in line.

In fact, I'm starting to suspect that one of the main near-term opportunities for telcos with WebRTC is within their internal IT and communications infrastructure, rather than new subscriber services. At MWC there was an announcement of a WebRTC-powered video contact centre for operators, and at EC the lead customer on stage for Cisco Spark collaboration was from Telstra.

Note: Disruptive Analysis' research and forecasts on WebRTC include detailed coverage of enterprise use-cases, as well as telecoms and consumer web. For more details on the report click here or message me if you are interested in private consultations and advisory services.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

NEW: Inaugural Contextual Comms Workshop June 15th + EarlyBird Discount

The feedback to my recent post and presentation on Contextual Communications has made me realise that this is a major, long-term trend that deserves more coverage, analysis and client interaction. It's also prompted a number of discussions with regular collaborators and partners.

When both myself and Martin Geddes agree on something, it usually means we are (a) right, and (b) ahead of the crowd. Both Martin’s long-term exploration of Hypersense and my near-term research into WebRTC say the same thing: a key emerging growth area is “contextual communications”. It spans multiple domains - telecoms, enterprise, consumer web/apps, IoT, verticals and beyond.

You are invited to join us and senior industry peers in London on Monday 15th June - Martin & I are holding a day of insight, debate and networking where we will explore this important topic.

The phenomenon of contextual communications is a fundamental shift in value for voice and messaging, and will largely define video communications models in entirety. We are moving away from stand-alone telephone calls and SMS, where the data transport was central.

Contextual communications can be divided up in multiple ways. In some instances communications will be in a context (eg a web-page or device), but the more interesting trends are where it uses contextual data. The context can be fixed, or changing over time.

In the new model, the value comes from the use of increasingly smart software machines that assist us to get jobs done. For them to work they need contextual data about our purpose or intent - which can come from "virtual" world (your online context), the real world (sensors), or analytics and big data.


The impact will be widespread - and beyond most peoples' initial assumptions. The revenue bases of telephony and mobile messaging are up for grabs. There will be winners and losers in Web apps, CRM and enterprise social media, all driven by this trend. The fit with domains such as UC, IMS, WebRTC, NFV and VoIP is up for grabs. Questions around regulation, value-chains and platform/OS control abound.

The new world of contextual communications is made from generic data transport, open media protocols, pervasive sensors, machine learning and advanced analytics. Between us we have created a detailed map of the emerging ecosystem, and a roadmap to this future. It is based on our long experience as observers at the leading edge of voice innovation, our deep combined knowledge of the complete technology stack, and our practical field expertise as consultants and high-profile public speakers.

We have been running similar workshops together for nearly 4 years in the US, Europe and Asia. (Our last joint presentation in Bangkok in late 2013 is here and between my & Martin's portfolios had had over 30,000 views). This is the only public event we currently have planned for this year, so it’s your only chance to find out what we’re telling our consulting clients. We both believe this workshop represents a qualitative jump in our understanding and your revenue opportunity. Attendance is limited to 30 people, and if the past is any guide we expect to sell out.

Who should come? Anyone in a voice/video product or technology strategy or marketing role. You might work in any one of the players in the ecosystem:
voice & app platforms; network equipment; sensors & devices; machine learning; analytics; B2C messaging (CRM, call centres); UX designers; telcos (voice + network strategy); search; regulators; or investors.

The early bird pricing (until the end of March) is £495+VAT, after which it reverts to £695+VAT. A 30% discount is available for a second attendee. The event is being held in the Westbury Hotel, Mayfair, London.

Email me at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for details on attendance and payment, which can be made by credit-card, Paypal or PO/invoice. I will also be at Enterprise Connect in Orlando March 16-19th, NGMN 5G Conference Munich March 24-25th, Monetising OTT in London March 26th if you wish to discuss this area with me.

Early Bird Discount Pricing (inc. UK VAT)
Number of attendees

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The roadmap to contextual communications: sensors, apps & analytics

One of my major research themes for 2015 is "Contextual Communications". I believe that this will be a critical trend in telecoms, web and mobile applications, devices, IoT and enterprise productivity over the next 5 years and beyond.

While this very closely ties in with previous work on Future of Voice and WebRTC, it goes considerably beyond those domains, and also embraces sensors and aspects of Big Data. On a long-term view, its trajectory intersects with hypervoice/hypersense.

I'll be holding my first public Contextual Comms workshop on June 15th in London, along with Martin Geddes. Details here.

Contextual communications involves both placing voice/video in context (eg embedded into an app, website or device) and applications which use contextual information to help the user achieve a particular objective or purpose. 

Here, "contextual information" can be of three types:
  •  Virtual context: What you or your device are doing electronically, eg which website, app or content you’re using. It could relate to which web-page you're on, the fields of a form you're filling in, the music you're listening to, or the point you're at in an enterprise workflow or a game. In essence, this is software-originated context.
  • Physical context: This is information from sensors - most notably the device microphone(s) and camera(s), but also location, movement, temperature, power/battery, heart-rate, biometric sensors and so on. With processing, this can yield information such as local acoustics (and hence whether you're in a street, room etc), the position of other people around you, your identity via fingerprint or voiceprint, work out if you're walking/driving or showing signs of stress.
  • Analytic & Big Data context: When linked to cloud platforms (or perhaps a local database), additional insight can be factored into the application: perhaps past behaviours and preferences, web cookies, records from a CRM system, or stored data from your past virtual and physical contexts. Inferred context is also important here - for example your mood or happiness. (See also this post on sentiment analysis). There may also be 3rd-party context provided via mashups and APIs.

It is this three-way blend of context sources - and the history/predicted future from analytics - that presages a new era for communications. 

We already talk about adding richer application information into communications services. The page you’re on, or the function in the app you’re using, could help inform a customer-service agent or a friend or colleague why you’re calling, and maybe let them guess what you hope to achieve, and how they could assist. 

But the broader 3-way meaning of “context” offers much greater possibilities. Exploiting sensors to blend in “real world” data, as well as analytics, extends the use-cases hugely. Modern handsets (and other devices such as tablets and wearables) tend to have multiple sensors - perhaps two microphones, two cameras, orientation sensors, location-awareness and more. Future device chipsets will incorporate even more "cognitive" smarts.

So for example, an application that knows you're in an airport - and running - might make a decision to send an incoming call to voicemail. Coordination of a device's speaker and microphone, might allow it to guess it's inside a pocket or bag - and perhaps adjust the ringtone level. A phone might recognise its orientation lying flat on a table, and adjust to "speakerphone" mode, detecting multiple speakers around the room, and adjusting their volume levels, if one is further away. 

Perhaps a "friends and family" communications app might dial-down the noise suppression, to allow the sounds of waves crashing on a beach to give a genuine sense of "wish you were here". Whereas a smart, contextual business communications app might want to block out the backgroud hubbub, for that panicked "where is your booth?!" call from the show floor at MWC.

Going a step further, a contact-centre's software might be able to detect customers' rising stress levels and combat them with special offers, or escalation to a supervisor. (Clearly, the dividing line between context and privacy-invasive creepiness will need to be carefully monitored). 

How does this relate to WebRTC? Well most obviously, it is the technology that allows communications to be moved away from standalone functions (eg phone calls, or dedicated VoIP/video calling apps) and contextually-integrated into websites and apps. At that point, it becomes much easier to blend the communications events with the outputs from other OS or device APIs, either relating to sensors, or just to the application "state" at that time. 

One long-term vision is what colleague Martin Geddes describes as “hypersense”, an extension of “hypervoice”. It’s well worth downloading the Communications 2025 white paper (here) and watching the video – it posits a future where the “cloud” and a personal “avatar” knows what we want to do, and blends a whole range of contextual drivers (apps, online activity, sensors, analytics, personal knowledge of your behaviour and preferences etc.) and helps you have a more productive, healthier life, blending in communications at its core. Think of it as Siri crossed with any number of Sci-Fi artificial intelligences, helping you both proactively and reactively. 

But that is a long way off. Contextual communications applications which blend physical, virtual and analytic contexts with machine-learning will take some time to come to full fruition. Developers and device OEMs will have to gain experience in multiple new areas, with diverse APIs and styles of interaction. There are huge leaps in technology, design, psychology and probably law, to overcome first.

So the question is – what are the steps along the way? How does context go from where we are today (eg really poor and limited “presence” indicators, or in-app messaging) towards some combination of physical and virtual context being used meaningfully by developers, in the short-to-medium term?

It is important to recognise that within each of those domains, there are separate sub-categories of context that will get integrated first. For example, we will see coordination of multiple microphones, or speaker and microphone, or motion-sensing. Developers will likely be offered "sensing" APIs that span a number of inputs (although this will depend on how OS and device creators integrate and expose the capabilities).

The same is true of combining virtual context data-sources: we will find WebRTC contact centres combining which page is a user is on, coupled with the device it is being viewed from, to determine the best way for the agent to interact. The examples from the apps I mentioned the other day - such as language-exchange blended with online status and preferences - are further good examples.

Certain sorts of analytics context will be combined early on too – but mostly “small data” (eg cookies, customer records) rather than true “big data” such as realtime analysis of past behavioural patterns, or combining multiple cloud-data sources. Predictive context - where the software guesses what's going to happen in the future (eg where you'll be, when it's going to be a better time for a call) may be a while in arriving, and will likely need persistent network connections to cloud services, rather than purely local on-device analysis.

Overall, Disruptive Analysis thinks that the bigger picture of Contextual Communications is one of the key trends for vendors, developers and telecom operators over the next decade. WebRTC is a critical component and enabler, but it is also important to keep an eye on its convergence with the physical world of sensors, wearables/IoT and the cloud-analytics domain. 

Ultimately, the winners will be those applications - and device-based enablers - which help communications adapt to the users' real context and purpose, helping them achieve whatever it is they're doing more effectively - whether it's closing a sale, winning a game, or simply connecting with a distant loved-one.

The theme of Contextual Communications will be re-visited regularly. Please sign up to get this blog by email, consider buying the WebRTC research report, and get in touch if you're interested in custom internal workshops and projects. information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Evangelising WebRTC: Conferences, Hackathons and more

Last week I was asked to help judge a WebRTC hackathon run by Acision, for apps based on its Forge cloud platform. (It was called Forgeathon, and run by a company called BeMyApp. Apparently, I am now a "Celebrity Guest Judge", which I shall be adding to my business cards and LinkedIn profile in due course).

It was won by an app called "Yoroshiku" which was a fun concept of Tinder-style "swiping", but to find language-exchange partners rather than dates, find out if they're online, message them, and then set up a video-call inside the app, speaking Japanese or Welsh or Klingon to each other as appropriate. It is a great example of contextual communications - voice/video which is both inside a given context (app/website) and which is given extra function and meaning by that context (eg language-matching). 

Yoroshiku is precisely the sort of use-case that WebRTC is designed for - and the fact here it's bundled into an iOS app, rather than a browser, also points to the role of cloud-based APIs and the growing importance of mobile use-cases. I also liked the 2nd-placed entry Codemate which was aimed at collaborative coding between developers, and the 3rd-place one, Trippr, about recommending travel destinations. All interesting examples of what's possible - and written in 6 weeks by individuals or small teams.

I'll be writing a lot more about contextual communications in coming posts, but there's an important caveat about its evolution: most developers spending their lives in a given "context"- language tuition, human resources, travel agency, games, photography, real-estate or whatever - don't know much about communications. Especially if they're solo app developers, they will never have heard of SIP, video codecs, NAT-traversal, latency/jitter, echo cancellation or any of those other things that comms people talk about every day.

Not only that, but many of them haven't even thought of the possibilities of using contextual communications, just as many haven't thought about other new APIs or technologies. If you're developing something for language students - or lawyers or oilfield engineers - you don't necessarily have a checklist of "cool stuff that might help" - whether that's realtime voice/video, or other HTML5 APIs for 3D Graphics or whatever (did you know there was a W3C Vibration API? No, me neither). Then there's a ton of non-web stuff clamouring for attention  wearables, drones, 3D printing and so on.

Basically, there's a never-ending list of cool stuff (and APIs) for developers to exploit to add coolness and functionality to their apps and websites.

So WebRTC has to cut through all the other worthy possible additions and get to the top of the developers' priority list of things to implement. The simplest cases will be those where they already know they want to add realtime comms, and they go looking for the best/easiest way to do it. But in others, it's an "unknown unknown" - they don't even recognise the possibilities from using voice or video, and haven't heard of WebRTC - it's not even on their radar.

This is where evangelism comes in. I'm seeing a steady increase in outreach by the WebRTC industry to new constituencies - especially general web and app developers, and those focused on particular industry sectors. Hackathons are good examples, as are the various Meetups (including the one in Barcelona next week), and presentations at general web conferences and vertical-industry events. But more is needed, to raise awareness and understanding.

The problem is that most such developers won't be buying WebRTC infrastructure - gateways, SBCs and the like. They will mostly be using open-source components, or cloud PaaS offers like Forge (or Tokbox, Kandy, Respoke, Twilio, Temasys, SightCall, AT&T, appear.in and a long list of others). And those players - apart from an obvious few - don't have much marketing clout.

There are many more WebRTC marketing dollars aimed at people "
adding web to their existing comms" than there are for those "adding comms to their existing web". There's also a wariness among some vendors about over-promoting the PaaS platform concept, as it may reduce their addressable market for direct sales to individual customers - not least because some of those providers "roll their own" components rather than use off-the-shelf gateways or SBCs or media-servers.

What I'd like to see - as well as more direct initiatives like Acision's here - is the formation of some sort of coordinated WebRTC Forum body, which exists to promote the technology to a wider audience of developers, rather than define standards internally. Such a forum could host demos & showcases, run competitions, write white papers, field speakers or workshops at events, align web resources (maybe even based on WebRTC...) and so on. There's plenty of these types of things for other bits of the Internet and communication industry, but nothing specific to WebRTC. (One exception may be Google's own efforts on its G+ forum, run by the Chrome team).

I'll be at the Barcelona Meetup next week, and also Enterprise Connect in Orlando. I'd be keen to have some discussions about how a WebRTC Forum might get started, funded, sign up members and so on. I'm probably not the right person to coordinate at, but I'm happy to help work to bring together interested parties.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping an eye on other WebRTC hackathons and events, and see if any examples of best practice jump out, as well as interesting case-studies and usage ideas. And if you're looking for a judge, advisor, analyst or event facilitator, please get in touch.
Ideally, not in Hungarian, as I swiped left on that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

FTTx and 4G: Speed sells... and it's addictive [+ link to partner analyst research report]

I'm a big believer in 4G. Not just because I can do certain *tasks* faster, but because it just *feels* fast. Some of that perception is from quicker connection and start-up times than 3G, some is from impressive headline numbers when I've run a speed-test, but a lot is from a sense of "potential", knowing it's there if I need it.

It transpires that something similar is true of fibre in the fixed world - especially in FTTP (fibre to the premise) guise, according from some proper consumer research done by friends at Diffraction Analysis. People like raw speed, are annoyed when they can't get it, and are prepared to upgrade further once they do. They might even use it to consume extra operator-enabled services as well.

One of the regular Twitter debates I have with colleague Martin Geddes is whether broadband "performance" is about specific, measurable, application outcomes or not ("QoS" to most of us). He links that to an argument for non-neutrality, as he contends that specific Internet application providers have different performance requirements and should be allowed to "trade" for them, given the limits of the network.

Conversely, I argue that a lot of the benefit and value from fast, open (and neutral) networks is not application-specific, but rather is intangible. It's the potential for both users and developers to do what they want today or in the future, without trading or risking potential competitive abuse or extra friction added by ISPs. 

It's like having a powerful car but sticking (mostly) to the speed limit - you know the "shove" is there if you need it. That extra acceleration on the highway on-ramp doesn't get you to the destination faster - but it feels good. Some even pay a premium for unreliable or twitchy supercars, despite the chance of a bad (even catastrophic) "outcome".

We're human. Perceived performance - and flexibility - is often more important than measured performance. Doesn't matter if it's broadband, cars, fashion, headline megapixels in a camera or a million other areas of life. There is almost always some correlation between "More of X" and "Better outcomes", but even if it's not a perfect correlation, we don't care. 

Purists myopically focused on "optimisation" often don't understand this, or other human emotions like agency/control, a sense of novelty, image and so forth. While these apply more to individuals than businesses, there other factors like privacy and security and agility too.

In other words, "just give us faster networks & then get out of the way. Occasional glitches are a price well-worth paying for freedom and permissionless connectivity".

It's true of 4G - most people upgrading are happier than with 3G, although obviously some of that is down to the device itself, or perhaps better coverage with 7/800MHz vs. 2100MHz on some networks. Many notice the initial "whoosh factor" - that it's just fast even if they're doing something that doesn't need it. Sports-car feeling, again. And over time, developers are exploiting that, even if they know that there will sometimes be issues they have to work around

And that's the thing - the vagaries of mobile networks (coverage, congestion and so on) have taught application and content providers to work around performance limitations and occasional failures. To expect them and plan for them - so they use cacheing, variable bitrates, UI interventions to warn users of problems, clever codecs and error-correction. There will always be a weakest link. It's not perfect, but it beats having the hassle, friction and perhaps commercial conflicts-of-interest involved in paid QoS. It's why "non-neutral" mobile business models won't succeed, even if the law allows.

But back to fibre and FTTx, and some hard data. I don't often reference other analysts and consultants. (Martin G is one that I collaborate on about voice/comms, and disagree with on networks). But when it comes to the fixed-broadband world and especially fibre networks, access business models and wholesale metro, I'll gladly defer to Benoit Felten, who's been covering that beat for years. He now runs his own research firm, Diffraction Analysis, originally out of France although he's now living in China.

Many telcos have been slow at rolling out fibre, often because they have been unconvinced that consumers really want it, would pay more for it, or might adopt additional services as well.

Diffraction has been doing some interesting work in collaboration with the FTTH Council Europe, looking at the real-world experience of consumers who have fibre broadband, and comparing it to ADSL. Benoit has now published research on Sweden (one of the most developed FTTx markets in Europe), and has been working on France and Portugal studies as well.

I've had a chance to have a look through the Sweden report, and it corroborates my views in various ways (although it doesn't tackle neutrality, per-se):
  • Fibre is perceived to be higher-quality than DSL, even by people who don't have it.
  • FTTP users are more "satisfied". And higher speed FTTP equates to even more satisfaction. It's not about individual "outcomes" specifically. 
  • Fibre improves satisfaction with various "speed" metrics - latency, upload, download, variability and so on.
  • Individual users are happier with FTTx when asked to compare with their past DSL experiences.
  • Most DSL users perceive fibre to better (presumably because of friends who have it, or media coverage).
  • Upgrades, both DSL-to-FTTP and FTTP-to-faster-FTTP are typically linked to wanting more "performance", ie speed.
  • Lots of DSL users won't be upgrading soon, either because they can't get FTTP where they live, or because it's perceived as too expensive.
  • FTTP correlates with higher use of triple- and quad-play, although it's not 100% clear which is cause & which is effect here.
  • FTTP users do more stuff like streaming, video-calling, VoIP, tele-education etc.
  • FTTP users seem interested in advanced services (perhaps with operator involvement) like telemedicine, digital home services, TV videoconferencing etc.
There's a lot more in the full report, and I'm looking forward to seeing the outputs from other countries too. But two inferences leap out for me, although the wording of the survey makes it hard to be 100% certain of respondent perception:
  • People like fast Internet access, for its own sake. Speed sells, and feels good irrespective of specific applications or outcomes.
  • People who like fast Internet also seem more interested in possible non-Internet network services too.

To me, this suggests that not only is there a business-case for investment in faster networks (FTTX, 5G etc) but that we need to consider both measured and perceived performance. Tangible and intangible. This is something missed by most of the economic-led studies on broadband - and certainly by all those debating the FCC's Title II Net Neutrality plans this week.

The Diffraction Analysis full report (32 pages) titled "FTTP Dynamics in a Mature Market - Swedish Quantitative Analysis" is available in two versions: 

Contents pages are available on request via email:
information AT disruptive-analysis dot com
The links are to Diffraction Analysis' billing (although my company Disruptive Analysis has a financial interest here).  You should get the report emailed through within 24hrs (NB the time difference given Benoit's location in China).

Note: if you're based in France you'll need to add VAT - if so, or if you want to pay by a method other than Paypal/credit card, or get more details about the report please get in touch via information AT disruptive-analysis dot com

(Note: I wouldn't be recommending research if it wasn't thorough, interesting, and in analytical coherence with my own view. However, it's Benoit/Diffraction's product, so the T's and C's are not my own)

Friday, February 20, 2015

The myth of "Telcos winning back revenue from OTT players"

In the run-up to MWC, I'm seeing a spate of news articles in the telco press/blogosphere, or vendor press releases, which are titled something like: 

"How Telcos can Win Back Revenue From OTT Providers"

These are almost all uniformly wrong or at least, misleading marketing hype or clickbait.

Let's parse that sentence "win back revenue from OTT providers". I'll tackle the continued use of "OTT" later in the post - but it's a legacy term that has no place in the telecom industry going forward.

But first, whatever you name them, so-called OTT providers generally do not take revenue from telcos. They take customers or usage, by offering either cheap/free or better services - often both. People use Whatsapp or SnapChat as a free, more-functional and cooler upgrade to SMS. They use Skype as an improved user-experience to telephony, and we're seeing switching to myriad new voice/video apps and WebRTC-powered services (my report here), for contextual comms. Internet app providers often derive value in other ways (ecosystem, advertisers, stickers, recording, cloud services etc) by giving away message or voice transport for free. There is no - or very little - revenue to "win back".

Telephony and SMS are not going to disappear entirely, but they are old and clunky lowest-common denominator services in a world of unlimited choice, and best-of-breed applications targeting individual use-cases and preferences. "Winning back revenue" requires there to be revenue to win, and renewed consumer appeal competing against alternatives to a sufficient degree somehow to encourage payment.

Person-to-person SMS has historically been a rip-off. It's never been "value-based pricing", it's been grudge- or resentment-based pricing. We used to hear people say it allowed $10000/MB - and that's the problem. It was orders of magnitude too expensive for a service that never evolved over a 20-year period. Sending 160 characters from A to B was cool in 1995. It's not rocket science in 2015. Similarly, telephony transport is priced expensively compared to costs and value (for most uses) too. That said, VoLTE puts the implementation & production costs back up, in the unproven hope of future gains from spectrum re-farming.

The  telecom industry used to make over $100bn a year from SMS. It still makes a decent fraction of that, although the exact amount depends much on accounting and bundle-allocation chicanery. Excess SMS profits of close to a $trillion over the last decade or two seem probable - with minimal service innovation from reinvested cashflow. To put that in context, it's probably larger than all banking bonuses worldwide over the same period.

That $100bn+ revenue is not coming back from simply sending mobile messages. It might partly come back from adding value to other ecosystems, or enabling particular purposes through A2P messaging integrated into business processes, but in terms of straightforward A-to-B transmission of text or pictures, it's gone. An SMS is not much more valuable, inherently, than an email, and will converge with email in terms of pricing. 

In any case, increasing A2P revenues is not "winning back" revenues lost from P2P. It's completely distinct, and isn't occurring at the expense of Internet-based alternatives.

(Obviously, RCS just worsens the situation, by consuming extra costs & staff resources, for zero extra usage, zero extra revenue, a major opportunity-cost impact, and possible brand damage. It is worse than useless and needs the industry to capitulate entirely. I believe RCS needs to die with an obvious bang, not a whimper, for everyone to "accept & move on").

Similarly, the decline in mobile telephony revenues isn't going to be slowed much by VoLTE, and certainly not reversed. It's just telephony v1.1, and although HD voice and fast call-setup are nice, they don't provide an obvious basis for billions in new revenue. VoLTE (and WiFi calling as well) are moderate feature upgrades - they don't change the value proposition of telephony, or the use-cases to which it can be applied. They will not "win back" revenue that has shifted from "vanilla phone calls" to other modes of communication.

Enterprise services are slightly more complex - but there the "OTT" services are essentially just IP-PBX or UC platforms from major vendors, or else they are 3rd-party cloud services for conferencing, contact centres and so on. Those have been in place for years, and while telco-hosted UC or SIP-trunking have important roles, few in the industry would suggest they are seriously "winning back" revenues from WebEx or Microsoft Lync.

We can also forget about the silly ideas that some suggest, about arbitrarily charging/taxing the Whatsapps and Skypes of this world - as for example Dutch, Indian and Singaporean operators have tried to propose in the past, before getting intense public and regulatory push-back.

Firstly, most Internet app providers and developers don't have the ability to pay 10's or 100's of billions of dollars. Secondly, unless compelled by telco-lobbied (bribed?) regulators, they have no reason to do so. They don't need interconnect, nor QoS, nor sponsored data. They simply need half-decent Internet access, to offer applications that consumers deem to be valuable. Thirdly, there are no obvious mechanisms for this - especially for peer-to-peer communications, or new formats. In many cases, interconnect doesn't make sense, as there is no feature-parity with humdrum "standard" services like SMS and telephony. There is no pot of money in saying "we're dumb, so please tax the clever people" - if telcos want to make money from selling Internet access, they need to balance it against the likelihood that users will shift some of their communications away from monopoly, legacy, unappealing services.

If operators want to "regain revenue from Internet players" there is only one way to do it: innovate at a service/application level, either internally or with specialist external help, and compete. Probably, that innovation will itself require the open Internet, the web, mobile apps - or perhaps, proprietary communications platforms for certain uses. 

It will need a combination of both service development (for direct monetisation) and platform innovation (to attract developers). Both require a culture of risk-taking, software development, innovation management, partnership, and a willingness to "act first, standardise later, if ever". It's possible that VoLTE, or network-based telecom app & API platforms, or A2P SMS might form a role, but they still need multiple layers of genuine novel service elements that add value and differentiation. 

Telcos need to solve specific user or business problems. There are no new generic, standardised services that will pass muster on a standalone basis. (No, ViLTE video-calling won't make a difference).

And yes, some vendor solutions might help here. Telecom application-development platforms, new billing and OSS systems, gateways and WebRTC systems (my report here) of various types, SDPs and their evolutionary descendants, virtualised NFV components that are flexible and scalable and so on. 

And potentially, all of these allow operators to create new services - as discussed in yesterday's post on NFV and SDN. But those will be incremental revenues - not somehow displaced from Facebook or Google, unless they specifically address the online advertising sector. The telecom & Internet business is not a zero-sum game. Revenues for plain-vanilla standalone phone calls and SMS are declining. Other things will rise, but the idea that telcos will "win back" revenues that have evaporated from services nearing obsolescence is a flawed and false narrative.

Not only that, but most operators are hoping to offer API-based capabilities to Internet firms, and act as developer platforms. And a golden rule of such business models is that the platform owner has to help the developers make more money even if they then take a cut. If telcos want to make money from Facebook, WeChat, Skype, they will need to help them earn yet higher revenues. They will have to employ developer-relations or partner management staff whose job will be increasing Viber's and YouTube's and Netflix' and SnapChat's scale and value.

So a more reasonable slogan might be "Telcos can win a share of OTT's future accelerated growth". They won't "win back" revenue unless they compete head-on and win.

Back to the terminology: as a general guideline, anyone who uses the term "OTT" is in the wrong job, especially if talking about voice/video/messaging. It betrays an antiquated sense of "entitlement" and "network privilege"- and a lack of understanding of the Internet and software development. (People in the IPTV/online video sector tend to use OTT in a different way that is less belligerent and confrontational).  All telcos have so-called "OTT" activities - none could even exist without their telco.com website on the Internet, for sales, customer service and even investor relations. To say otherwise is hypocrisy and ignorance.

Internet app providers are just peers and equals to telcos, at an application level. To "win back" revenues, telcos need to compete with them, not just mildly refresh ancient services or transfer them to virtualised infrastructure.

Note: Dean Bubley is a telecoms industry analyst & strategy consultant, working with many of the world's leading operators, vendors, regulators & innovative startups. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss advisory work, internal workshops or public speaking engagements. (Also see WebRTC report here & Mobile Broadband report here)