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Friday, July 03, 2015

Videoconferencing does not replace business travel

I did a short radio interview the other day, about London airport expansion, and the possible new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. I wasn’t speaking about the choice of one location vs. the other. Instead, I was speaking as a frequent traveller, and why additional capacity is likely to be needed in the first place.

Some of the reasons are aviation-related: congested airports have no wiggle-room if something goes wrong. I’ve suffered big delays when weather or other incidents has meant that airports can only operate at reduced capacity, with greater spacing between landings and take-offs. Then there’s a desire for more direct flights from London to cities across Asia, the Americas, and MEA. Changing planes in NY or Singapore or Istanbul is always possible, but that just adds more time (and additional fuel-heavy take-offs). Various other reasons apply too.

But I’m not an aviation specialist. I’m a communications industry analyst & consultant.
What really stumped the radio-host was when he suggested videoconferencing might replace most business travel, so fewer flights would be needed and therefore perhaps less airport capacity.

I responded that ironically, about half my own travel is to events/clients actually involved in the videoconferencing industry, or in other aspects of advanced communications. I regularly attend and speak at video, UC & WebRTC events in person, have private workshops with operators or vendors, meetings with investors and so on.

Could I do some or all of these via a phone-call or video session? In theory yes, some could be done remotely, but in my view they would be much less productive – and many wouldn’t happen at all. This isn’t just my personal dislike for video either (I prefer voice-only, in general), but a more general observation.

Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that the people who pitch online alternatives as a replacement for in-person meetings probably don’t do much of either. There are at least 10 reasons why audio & video-conferencing is not a replacement for business travel.
Firstly, it is worth noting that the applicability of video/collaboration tools will necessarily depend on the type of meeting involved. There are multiple “use-cases” for physical business travel, each with different characteristics:

  • Short one-to-one meetings (maybe 1hr in length) for sales calls, introductions, catch-ups with colleagues etc. These can be sub-divided into company internal meetings (eg boss/employee) or external (eg salesman/client) which have different dynamics
  • Internal small-group meetings, eg a project team distributed across multiple locations. Again, these can be internal or external (eg consultant presenting to the board)
  • Site visits, where someone is shown around multiple physical parts of a location, has a variety of meetings & so on.
  • Trade shows where the emphasis is on booths and the “show floor”
  • Conferences of 1-3 days duration, with multiple presentations, panels, break-out sessions etc
  • Seminars (maybe 1-3hrs) with a few speakers and predominantly “broadcast” mode with some Q&A
  • Interactive workshops where people interact in small groups
  • Team-building sessions combining a mix of presentation and social/bonding activities
  • Many other types of “meeting”.
While any of these can use the same transportation mode (ie a flight) they would all need to be re-invented with different forms of conferencing or collaboration application. Some are easier than others – informal meetings with a small dispersed project team, for example, can be done with a simple audio or video bridge, ideally with file/screen-sharing as well. Webinars can replace some seminars.

But a full-on trade show, with demos and new products, as well as private meeting spaces for confidential discussions, cannot really be replicated online to any reasonable extent. Neither can good interactive workshops, or even summit-type conferences. As a regular panel moderator and conference chair, I don’t think anywhere near the same experience could be done via video as in person. Maybe in 10 years time, with Oculus Rift version 8 and some advanced haptic interfaces and full body-suits, but I’m not convinced.

Some of the limitations of videoconferencing-style replacement for physical meetings:

  • Lack of detail – while you can replicate lifelike scenes with 4K video, it’s still not fully immersive without stereoscopic vision, ultra-fast frame rate etc.
  • No way to support culturally-important actions like handshakes or physical exchanges of business cards
  • Security and privacy – how can you be sure that the quiet chat over a virtual coffee remains confidential?
  • Subconscious awareness of body language and micro-expressions
  • Cognitive absorption – what part of your concentration is diverted to seeing how you appear on-screen to other people?
  • Technical complexities of managing virtual events with multiple parties, using different networks & devices. WebRTC and its peers only go so far
  • Dependency on camera/sound crews, cameras, microphones – which then mean you get an “edited” version of an event rather than your own choice of where to sit/stand/walk around
  • Lack of sync between timezones. Do you want to get “virtual jetlag” by attending the breakfast session at 9pm at night in your timezone & listening to conference presentations until 4am?
  • How do you facilitate networking over meals, provide “back-channels” to whisper to your neighbour during sessions, manage realistic arguments or back-and-forth discussions and so on?

Overall, while online collaboration is OK for some use-cases, it is generally a second-class citizen, with numerous almost-intractable limitations. It would reduce the effectiveness of companies, compromise security and productivity, and advantage people with geographic proximity.

In many ways, videoconferencing is becoming more important. In future we may have access to contextual communications tools which may improve some interactions so they're better than real-life speech and vision. But it’s usually more accurate to consider it as a “better phone call” or “richer than an email exchange”. It’s a big step down from interaction in person. Conferencing can enable extra conversations, or allow extra people to attend existing physical meetings remotely. But that is not the same as replacing the core in-person conversations.

Ironically, better remote conversations may lead to more international business and travel. A more-effective initial introduction via video/voice may well lead to new relationships being built. And later, those relationships will often involve in-person meetings, for site visits, events, interactive workshops and so on. Certainly, without my extra “reach” via both conferencing and social-media, I wouldn’t have nearly as many international clients to work with.

It’s also worth noting that while videoconferencing might be able to replicate some aspects of traditional meetings, the latter have evolved as well. Many conferences now employ techniques that are experiential or immersive. Group exercises, interaction with voting terminals, not to mention the improved venues and carefully-crafted social interaction episodes.

A similar story is true for consumers. Wearing a virtual-reality headset in a tanning salon is not a substitute for feeling the beach sand between your toes. Videoconferencing into your distant family’s Xmas dinner doesn’t work, if you can’t taste the turkey and pull the crackers. Listening to a rock concert on the radio doesn’t compare to jostling and jumping with other 
fans of the band in the arena.

Nobody can conclude a deal with a video-handshake in a virtual restaurant, or experience Burning Man by conference-call. 

Those are "contexts" that cannot be replicated online.

You have to be there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

WiFi Offload.... or Onload?

One of the things I get annoyed by regularly is the mis-characterisation of a lot of WiFi use on smartphones / tablets as "offload".

In my view, true "offload" is a term only applicable to data which would otherwise have transited a cellular network, and which has been deliberately pushed to WiFi at a public hotspot, with the intervention of a service provider.

It is very different to "private WiFi" use, where the user has unilaterally decided to connected to a network (for example at home or office) of their own volition, or because a venue or other sponsor has made WiFi access available.

Care also needs to be taken about elasticity - user behaviour may change when on WiFi, even with "proper offload" - if the connection is cheaper or (more often) free/unmetered. At that point, a notional volume of traffic X that might be used on mobile might become 2X or 10X when on WiFi. This could be because of a shift in user perception ("Hmm, yes I will watch Game of Thrones streamed on my phone"), or it could be because an app-developer has created a different experience when connected to WiFi (eg auto-playing video, or enabling downloads of updates).  

[Sidenote: connectivity is not "all the same" - both users and developers make very different decisions when a device is on WiFi vs. 3G/4G. People & apps/OSs are aware of, and care about, the type of network which they're connected to. The notion that it doesn't matter is a core fallacy behind the notion of so-called "seamless" HetNets and integrated infrastructure] 

In other words, only a tiny fraction of smartphone WiFi use can be called "offload" with any reasonable definition. I'd estimate that it's well under 5% globally, and probably under 10% of phones' WiFi usage even on those networks which have extensive operator-driven offload implemented. For tablets, the numbers will be lower still, as the majority are non-cellular and therefore can never "offload", while even mobile-enabled ones are mostly non-activated or primarily used in static locations with private WiFi.

But there is another trend emerging in parallel to "real offload" that will make the numbers even more confusing.

In some cases, people or applications might deliberately switch to cellular from WiFi, for example if the WiFi network is congested, coverage is poor, or there are localised authentication problems. In other words, we will see "offload" from both cellular-to-WiFi AND WiFi-to-cellular. It may be that one direction of this gets referred to as "onload". It may also be that the WiFi-to-cellular onload is larger in volume. This would mostly driven by users' deliberate switching, but perhaps also by WiFi-primary policy clients on devices, for example from services provided by cable operators.

Takeouts from this:
  • Be skeptical of most alleged "WiFi offload" figures - they're usually nonsense
  • Most smartphone WiFi usage is private - traffic that would never have used cellular anwhere
  • Be aware that WiFi/cellular onload happens, as well as cellular/WiFi offload
  • Claims that "nobody cares which network they are on" are either ignorant or duplicitous
  • View all discussions of cellular/WiFi combinations through the lens of WiFi-primary users as well as cellular-primary viewpoints

Friday, June 12, 2015

Qualcomm's MuLTEfire is what LTE-U should have been, instead of LAA

Yesterday, Qualcomm rather quietly announced a project called MuLTEfire on its blog.

It describes it as "a new, LTE-based technology that solely operates in unlicensed spectrum, and doesn’t require an 'anchor' in licensed spectrum"

This is a very different proposition to the other type of LTE-U, called LAA (licence-assisted access), which requires a provider to "anchor" the service in a separate (licensed) band. That has proven very controversial in recent months, with fears that its coexistence with WiFi in the 5GHz band could prove damaging, with extra interference. There are claims and counterclaims there, with both technical and "moral" viewpoints.

But I've been critical of LAA for another reason - I think it is potentially anti-competitive, as it is only usable by operators that have (paid) spectrum for other LTE networks. It could be seen as a way of extending an oligopoly position into an adjacent marketplace, as inevitably its use in a band reduces theoretical capacity available to others, even if it behaves "politely".

My view of unlicenced-band cellular has been that it should be available to all to implement, in the same way that WiFi is. At least in concept, MuLTEfire is what I'd envisioned when I first thought about unlicenced 4G.  

(I'm not 100% certain, but I think I may have personally invented the concept of unlicenced-band LTE myself, as per this blog post from July 2008 . I also suggested SIM-free LTE a couple of months later) 

Fully-open unlicenced LTE has some rather interesting possibilities.  By decoupling LTE from the constraints of licenced spectrum - and, ideally, without a SIM card or with some sort of soft- or programmable SIM - then we could see a set of revolutionary new business models. For example, it would become possible for venues to offer "free 4G" to visitors, or for all sorts of novel "anti-roaming" propositions to be provided. We could also see true "private cellular" networks - which have already been proven in concept by the use of light-licensed GSM guard-bands and pico/femtocells in the UK and Netherlands.

Obviously, any company considering its deployment could equally-well use WiFi in the same places. But LTE-U in MuLTEfire might allow easier roaming, especially in devices which don't have SIM-based WiFi capabilities enabled.There are also all sorts of interesting options for hybrid MVNOs/MNOs, neutral-hosts for indoor coverage, and a bunch of other concepts I've got at the back of my mind.

In particular, given this is cellular technology, it is actually much more aligned with the notion of "seamless" connection than the WiFi is. I'm a deep skeptic of integration of WiFi with cellular, as it introduces too many compromises in terms of user choice and policy/preference conflicts.

Qualcomm's timing here is very interesting - the FCC has been asking for submissions about LTE-U / LAA, with the initial comments also due yesterday. And there's a big spectrum management event in Brussels next week - I'm presenting on Tuesday afternoon and will be mentioning LTE-U on a panel which also includes a Qualcomm speaker.

Now clearly, a lot depends on the details (eg IPR costs, whether the coexistence works as billed) and whether the project gets traction. But for a mobile-industry giant such as Qualcomm to even suggest a SIM-free variants of cellular is a major step forward, and one that I've been advocating for years.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

What's YOUR view of contextual communications?

In recent months, I've been drilling into the new "hot topic" of contextual comms. Martin Geddes & I are so enthused by the topic that we're running a workshop on June 15th in London (details here), and we're already considering follow-ups, maybe in the US later in the year.

We're combining both the "here & now" of context with a view on where we might be heading in the medium-to-longer term. Martin wrote a very forward-looking and provocative piece on the possible future recently (here).

I'm really interested in what "contextual communications" means to everyone else. There's no fixed definition at the moment, and I suspect that we're going to get an "Olympic Rings" multi-way Venn diagram. Some views of context will overlap, while others will be miles apart. For instance, I've seen or heard all of these described as Contextual Comms:

  • Sending web-form info to an contact-centre agent during "click to call"
  • Embedding video/telepresence into a robot
  • Using mic & speakers on a phone to map out a room acoustically & tweak the echo/noise processing
  • Use a media-server to analyse a caller's tone (eg angry vs. happy) or facial expressions, and adjust the experience or script for a salesperson
  • Using a device orientation sensor to work out if a phone is flat on a table, or help to the ear, and adust the UI accordingly
  • Using machine-learning and analytics to assess the best time to call someone
  • Mechanisms for indicating the purpose of a call
  • Embedding a call into a timeline or activity-stream interface for UC and collaboration, so it can be recorded, captured & seen alongside text commentary or speech analytics
I'm sure there are dozens more as well. I'm looking forward to distilling some sort of map or ontology, so we can collectively understand this new landscape a bit more clearly. Is it one thing with lots of variants? Or 5 separate trends with a little overlap?

Do YOU have a good example or definition of Contextual Comms? I'd love to hear from you, either via a comment here, or by doing an interview briefing.

And if you'd like to talk about it publicly, we're offering all the workshop attendees an chance to present or demo their view - basically an "open mic" section of the day to showcase their unique take on context.

If you'd like more detail about the event, or to get in touch separately about context, please comment,  see this page to book a spacea, or email information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.

Monday, June 01, 2015

WebRTC & Contextual Comms may help so-called "OTT" apps avoid regulation

Last week, the Belgian authorities tried to claim that Skype is a telecoms "operator" and should comply with a similar set of laws to fixed and mobile telcos, especially around data-retention and lawful interception.

The Indian regulator TRAI has been undertaking a consultation about whether so-called "OTTs" should be somehow "regulated". (TRAI's consultation document is one of the most woefully-written and factually incorrect pieces of official literature I've ever read).

Slightly different but in the same general domain, the UK Government is looking at ways to limit the use of encryption and anonymity with Internet communications services, again to collect metadata. (Sidenote: I think some of the proposals are rather technically ignorant and will get sidelines - and it's worth noting the UK remains one of a dwindling set of places without either official ID cards, nor a requirement to register SIM cards).

A major principle that keeps cropping up is that regulators, telcos and governments assert that services such as Skype and WhatsApp are somehow "equivalent" to traditional phone calls or SMS, and therefore should attract similar regulation.

This also intersects with another set of regulatory pushes (notably by Telefonica's increasingly shrill & incoherent policy team) to try to force interoperability onto 3rd-party communications apps. Sometimes calling it "platform neutrality" this seems to be a transparent attempt to reduce competition from new voice/video/messaging apps by dis-allowing "walled gardens". Given that the only likely medium for mass interop is the PSTN (and E.164 numbers), this is a blatantly defensive move to ensure the old phone network remains at the centre in future. It's unworkable, but unfortunately the current EU Commissioners seem more keen than their predecessors to try to implement stupid/unworkable ideas from the telco lobbyists.

Yet this is all very rearward-looking. The most successful future communications apps are not going to be yet more "free standalone messaging" services that look like SMS or WhatsApp, nor "cheap generic VoIP calling" ones that emulate Skype. 

Those ships have sailed already. It's another reason why most telcos' "IP communicator" apps will fail, especially if based on lower-than-lowest common denominators like RCS.

Instead, any new winners are going to be unique in some way - features like disappearing messages (SnapChat), blending realtime 2-way voice with asynchronous (eg Talko), embedded voice/video as a secondary feature in other social or business apps (probably with WebRTC), or with a strong contextual-comms element (using the user's physical status or intended purpose).

The interesting thing here is that not only would these be differentiated but it would also seem impossible, or at least much harder, to claim (note: I'm not a lawyer) that these are "equivalent to the phone service".

I also think existing services need to assert their "non-equivalence" much more vehemently - and point to the lack of innovation in telephony and SMS over decades. 

Regulators should not be accepting telcos' arguments that they need to cross-subsidise network investments with profits from over-priced, near-obsolete services.

In the Skype case, I'd say that one option Microsoft has in Belgium is to ditch the interconnection to the PSTN, and possibly move to a video-only model. Both would indicate that it is not a "phone service" but something entirely different. Given that there is no successful telco video-calling service (nor, with RCS & ViLTE as proposals, will there ever be) it would be much harder for the authorities to claim equivalence.

A more interesting defence of Skype's uniqueness could come from analysis of the proportion of calls preceded by a messaging session. In my view, the user experience of Skype is very different to the PSTN, as it is not based around unexpected, interruptive calls, but is instead an "escalation" method of rendezvous and arrangement. You use presence, chat with IM, and then say "OK for a call?". That is different to traditional comms experiences.
In fact, I'd argue that designing a new service to be too unique & differentiated to meaningfully interoperate with the PSTN or SMS means that:

a) It stands a chance of success, against 100s of "me too" apps and installed bases of 500m+ for entrenched competitors.
b) It will be harder to capture with pernicious regulations and telco lobbying, as it's clearly something new, and not just a cheaper substitute for protected legacy services.

Having given this a lot of thought, I've reached the following conclusions:
  • New communications apps SHOULD NOT interop with phone calls (like SkypeOut or iMessage) if at all possible. If they do, they risk being classified as "similar" to regulated services.
  • Avoid using E.164 phone numbers as identifiers as possible, for similar reasons
  • Ensure that user behaviour and features are very clearly distinct from traditional "calls" or SMS, to the degree that "interoperability" is meaningless
  • Concentrate on communications-as-a-feature rather than as a standalone service, unless it is a completely unique and differentiated format. WebRTC is the likely key enabler. (Click here for my research report)
  • Create "clear blue water" between legacy phone-calls / messages by using contextual communications capabilities that cannot be replicated in traditional telco service. Focus on how, and why a specific instance is occurring, and use external data to help reach the desired outcome.
  • Where there is a specific business need for interop, avoid using 3GPP/telco standards wherever possible (SMS, SS7, IMS, RCS) and use the web or proprietary mechanisms instead.

As a reminder, I'm running a workshop on Contextual Communications on June 15th in London, along with Martin Geddes. Sign up here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

WebRTC platforms & distribution partnerships: From evangelists to acolytes

Over the last month I've been to a number of WebRTC and related events - AdvancedComms Asia in Singapore & HK, WebRTC World Expo in Miami, and GenBand's Perspectives customer/analyst conference in Orlando, as well as numerous meetings and calls with WebRTC-related vendors, users, investors and clients.

A couple of themes that have emerged are mostly continuations of existing ones - the overall pendulum of WebRTC swinging towards enterprise "disunified comms", a broad recognition of the equal (or greater) importance of mobile WebRTC-embedded apps vs. browser experiences, and the continued steady growth in profile of telcos and other service providers. All of these I've covered recently on this blog, or in my regular WebRTC research report updates for clients.

But one additional trend really jumped out at me last week at the GenBand event: the importance of distribution and integration partnerships, for WebRTC PaaS players. It's something I'd started seeing signs of at Enterprise Connect in March, but some of the impressive activity that's been done by GenBand's Kandy "ecosystem" really threw it into stark relief, and brough a few separate things together for me.

The headline: Evangelism is not enough

Lots of WebRTC companies are out pounding the conference circuit, not just for the technology itself, but also at specialist events for healthcare, finance, general web-design and so on. They are running hackathons, providing developer out-reach via web forums and other avenues, and generally "getting the story out there", especially to the long tail of developers.

That is absolutely necessary. But it's not sufficient.

The WebRTC PaaS market needs not just evangelists, but acolytes too. These are third-parties who are "devotees", or "followers", or assorted other religiously-inspired terms that imply not just "belief" but also provision of active help in the priest in performing the rites.

Translating the metaphor to IT terminology, this means systems integrators, channel-partners, consultants and others who assist in the "go to market" for the PaaS providers and their SDKs. (A fairly similar argument also applies to WebRTC gateway vendors, although that's somewhat different given upfront costs and existing infrastructure. I'll cover it in another post/report).

This gives a multiplier effect, as various types of partner are able to reach out to their customer base, adding broader marketing and sales resouce, adding value through other products or software customisation, or giving an impression of greater credibility and stability.

I see at least important 4 go-to-market channels for PaaS providers, each with sub-divisions:
  • Major software companies embedding PaaS (or components). Temasys' recent announcement with Citrix for its browser plug-ins is a good example, as is Kandy's expanding role within SAP's applications, and also as a basis for its own fring application. At Enterprise Connect, I liked CafeX's integration with Humanify for contextual-comms in B2C websites as well.
  • Systems integrators. Acision announced last year that it was working with Capgemini, and Kandy is working with Tech Mahindra among others. I know from my own research sales and consulting that other major firms are interested in WebRTC, but it's less clear if they will "roll their own", work with established PaaS players, or pick-and-choose for particular projects.
  • Telcos & SPs: While some telcos are developing their own PaaS offers, others are acting more as solution integrators, combining an existing platform with other elements. Tata Communications is using SightCall's PaaS, as well as various other vendors' products in its Click2RTC offer.
  • Consultancies & agencies: There is a broad range of "general" web, comms and mobile-app professional services companies interested in WebRTC. They range from high-profile WebRTC specialists such as Quobis (which also has its own software products) through to "digital media agencies" that work with brands or B2C players on overall web/mobile strategy and design. Acision's work with Blacc Spot and Kandy's with Deloitte's Digital arm are examples.

The categorisation can never be perfect - various companies can exist in multiple roles, and sometimes the PaaS offer blends into the background, while sometimes it's more transparent as a "resell". But the general principle is the same - the PaaS provider gets the benefit of extra scale and reach, as their ecosystem is doing some of the heavy-lifting.

The relationships have to work two ways as well - the PaaS vendor needs to invest quite a lot of effort to turn a couple of isolated deals into a genuine "ecosystem", where there are genuine feedback effects. At the moment, I'd say Kandy is probably ahead in terms of brand-name partners, and seems to have invested quite a lot to get its message across, at least in North America. The heavily-branded tour bus is a nice touch.

There is also another spin on distribution here - some WebRTC PaaS providers have another ready-made channel: their own existing developer programme/community for other APIs. Twilio and AT&T are the two most obvious proponents of this approach, as well as Tropo although its acquisition by Cisco rather changes things.

I'm going to keep a close eye on the evolving partnerships here. I suspect some don't get much further than a press release, while there are certainly others that have not (yet) been publicly announced. 

I'm also curious to see if any of the gateway-specific SDKs evolve into full PaaS platforms (eg Oracle's, Sonus', Broadsoft's), or indeed the UC-centric APIs from Unify or Avaya. A number of those companies - notably Avaya and Oracle - could also WebRTC-ify their own company's vertical market apps via their own platforms. Cisco+Tropo is an obvious candidate for that as well, while Tokbox could potentially be leveraged by other units of Telefonica.

The bottom line is that the various WebRTC platform providers are doing a better job in 2015 at promoting their role in the industry. But signing up third parties and ecosystems should have a multiplier effect.

More detail on the WebRTC market, PaaS, gateways, channels and vertical solutions is included in the Disruptive Analysis research report & updates. The next edition, due in early July, will consider the channel/ecosystem dynamics in greater detail. To order the report & updates, click here.

If you want to discuss a more specific research project, or brief me on your company, please contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com .