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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

IMS: from "walled garden" to "open prison"?

I'm getting more and more skeptical about IMS as an application platform. Sure, as an underlying IP transport mechanism, it seems to be a fair bet - basically an "off the shelf" carrier-grade IP core, for both fixed and mobile operators.

But higher up the stack, for applications? Various parties such as the GSMA are trying to pitch the idea of interconnected, purely operator-controlled IMS domains, with everything QoS-able, billable and predictable.

On the other hand, there's the Internet model - best efforts, completely open to any application provider, and with "lots of good free stuff", plus the promise that users (or advertisers) will pay for "premium, even better, stuff"

While listening to a conference panel on IMS last week, a lot of my thoughts suddenly coalesced into one critical point:

- IMS is only about services
- The Internet is about services or applications

Here, I'm defining a service as something you're billed for. The exact model doesn't matter - per-transaction, flat-rate, monthly bill, post/pre-pay, whatever. You, as a user, don't "own" anything, you're just paying another party (typically an operator) to do something on your behalf - send an SMS, initiate a push-to-talk session, stream TV to you, forward money to someone, and so on.

An application, on the other hand, is a piece of software. It might do exactly the same thing as a service, but it's yours to control. You've bought, licenced or downloaded that software (perhaps for free) - or its resident on a website for you to use (Google, Amazon etc). You're paying someone else to develop it, and distribute it to you - or else they might give it to you for nothing, because they make money from someone else, with whom your bit of software works. It might be developed by a huge software company able to cut deals with service providers easily - or it might be developed by two guys in a garage in Palo Alto or Bangalore, who wouldn't know who to call at Vodafone or Sprint, let alone do the negotiations required.
To me, for example, Yahoo! Mail is an Internet application - it's free, useful and clever. But Yahoo! Mail Plus is a service. It adds value, some measure of QoS, and extra capabilities. I'm happy to pay for it.

I could give various arguments as to why IM, or VoIP, or even SMS, should really be classed as applications rather than a services. Or possibly even just classed as features - some of the core capabilities of an OS.

But these are obviously contentious, raising issues such as cannibalisation, QoS and customer billing relationships.

So, instead, another particular case in point, which really highlights the limitations of the IMS/operator worldview. Can you imagine, in an IMS world, the emergence of something like PDF? That someone would be able to invent an application as useful as Adobe Acrobat, and distribute it free as a browser plug-in?

No. We'd all be paying for some lousy document viewing service. And consequently it would not have become as ubiquitous and as valued as it is today. Same is true for Macromedia (now, of course, Adobe again) Flash.

Bottom line? IMS advocates - you need to add an application story to your services rhetoric. Yes, I know you want everything to be billable and shudder at the word "pipe", but you're going to have to give your customers - and application developers - the opportunity to create and consume a bunch of good free stuff as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These arguments make a lot of sense. In my view, there are only two things that a (fixed or mobile) network is relevant for: a) get me a voice connection to another person, and b) get me a connection to the Internet. Increasingly the Internet will also be used for person to person voice communication, but i do not see how or why the stuff we get from the Internet today (from Ebay to gaming) would move onto and IMS core.