About 10 years ago, it became fashionable to say that "voice is just another sort of data on an IP network". VoIP, it was suggested, just turned telephony into mere bits, just like any others.
I want to extend and explore that description of subset/superset: I assert that "content is just a special sort of application on an IP network". It's just big chunks of software.
In both cases, there is a strong empirical evidence of truth, but the one word which is out of place in each sentence is "just", at least in the short term. Nevertheless, both assertions provide a view of how things change over much longer (10+ year) periods.
First, a quick re-cap of voice and VoIP. Certainly, at a network transport level, it is entirely feasible to get good voice quality with VoIP - most international calls use packet connections in the backbone. Millions use Skype and other VoIP services on the public Internet, while corporate IP-PBXs are mainstream. So at one, level, voice certainly can be viewed as just another form of IP traffic.
However, the word "just" is still not fully appropriate yet. Voice telephony has some very specific qualities that still mean it needs to be treated differently, and retains a quite high "value per bit". Aside from the obvious issues around latency and the need for realtime connectivity, it has some other , which have kept it at 60%+ of telecoms revenues. Firstly, numbering introduces barriers to entry and a need for interoperability. Secondly, regulatory issues remain wide and critical. Lastly, it has some very specific user-interface and experience issues - call setup times, the need for useable diallers and phonebooks, the natural human focus on time metrics (minutes) rather than IP packet volume, and so forth. There's also a hundred years of legacy experience, which conveys a lot of weight, authority - and sometimes arrogance.
The result is that voice telephony is indeed "special" - but over time, its importance and specialness are starting to wane. Basic voice revenues are falling - even in mobile, in some cases. The "phone call" is starting to blend into more complex voice interactions, new "voice 2.0" models are emerging in which context adds as much value as the media stream, and so forth. Networks are still designed with voice as a "special case", rather than just another packet stream. Voice is becoming blended with other applications and services, but arguably it is still over-represented and over-regulated compared with its long-term social and economic value.
Now, content. Compared with voice, the term "content" has always been a bit woolly in terms of definition; I've heard people refer to spreadsheets or even voice conversations as "content". But for most people in the industry, it tends to refer to visual programming media, chunks of written material, music, some images and so forth. The Wikipedia definition is:
"information and experiences that may provide value for an end-user/audience in specific contexts. Content may be delivered via any medium such as the internet, television, and audio CDs, as well as live events such as conferences and stage performances. The word is used to identify and quantify various divergent formats and genres of information as manageable value-adding components of media"
Like telephony, content tends to bring with it some specifics that do make it "special" - regulation, legal and commercial rules (censorship, copyright, reproduction rights & so forth). Video and audio content often requires special treatment because of their-sensitivity and huge volumes of data. And of course, there are decades (video) or even hundreds of years (text) of user experience. There is also a huge sense of entitlement by the media industry, that makes its advocates believe in their own uniqueness.
Yet for all its power and "specialness", it is starting to be put in its place. According to PWC/Cisco the entire market for digital media is worth about $300bn, including digital broadcast [non-Internet] TV. The software industry is also worth in excess of $300bn - and is shifting to either "cloud" applications or over-the-network downloaded apps like the iPhone. The video game industry alone is worth $30bn or more. Even the software piracy industry costs $50bn a year.
There's clearly many different ways to slice the statistics, depending on definitions or what's included/excluded - Internet vs. non-Internet, inclusion of things like SMS or web advertising, is user-generated material "content" in its conventional sense, and so on.
But to my eye, there's a close parallel here. Content is getting subsumed into applications like social networks or music-based communities. Amazon's valuation is about much more than the "content" stored in its warehouses or servers - it's the platform itself which is the core of the business. Facebook's value is about it's user base and APIs, not third-party chunks of media. Even for Apple, the AppStore is much sexier than iTunes, capturing a far greater share of industry attention.
And just like VoIP, digital content is also feeling the pinch of arbitrage on pricing. I don't just mean piracy - look instead to the failing of the print newspaper industry, as value moves to other application-based sources. (Are blogs "content"? I don't think of this post as an application, but I'd wince if someone called it content, in the same way I wince if they call me a blogger). And in future, what might happen to the value of news or live sports/music, if I stream and back-up all I see and hear to a server in the cloud via "life-streaming" or a similar application? Do content rights apply to my optic nerve?
Just as I think that the telecom industry is facing a dead-end in the notion of communication as simply sessions (see my recent posts on IMS), I think the media industry is similarly constrained in thinking of content as "chunks" of video or audio material. I also think that designing next-generation networks that are content-centric is as wrong as creating them session-centric.
Let's be honest. Ultimately, if voice is just data, rthen content is just software. We're not there yet, but they're both inevitable in the long term. Lobbyists and incumbents in both cases will plead for special treatment - justifiably, sometimes. Both telephony and content come with huge expectations on the part of users and regulators, and need to be protected in various ways.
But let's not lose sight of the end-game either - or entrench decades-old prejudices or business models in the underlying technology architectures. The content tail should not be allowed to wag the future application-networking dog.