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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Does telecoms NEED a unified control plane?

My IMS=Dead Parrot post the other week drew a significant amount of attention and argument, as I anticipated. It was followed by more comments in another post.

One of the consistent arguments that was advanced was that IMS is the only standardised mechanism for the control plane for telco-grade IP networks.

From my stance, a central part of my argument is that I don't see IMS as a suitable platform for future revenue-generating, customer-demanded services and applications, at a device level or through integration with Web/consumer electronics/enterprise/IT. I also think it is inflexible in terms of supported business models, for example around wholesale or SIM-free adhoc services.

In a nutshell therefore - is it better to have:

a) A cast-iron control layer for services that nobody wants, or...
b) A less-optimal control layer that permits more service innovation?

From a million-foot view, are we moving to a situation where the notion of a single, all-encompassing telecom control plane is a ridiculous notion, similar to the idea of a government controlling all its citizens through a single database and monitoring system?

(See what I just did there, political wonks reading this?)

Are the costs and inflexibilities and "injustices" (in technology, anything which is user-unfriendly) worth it, just to achieve pure elegance of the ultimate machine?

The more I think about this, the more the whole notion of a single IMS control plane for IP looks exactly like a totalitarian state, where everything is done "for your own good". Policy control is the equivalent of the nannying Health and Safety Executive, the HSS and SIM is the equivalent of the National ID Database and ID cards, DPI is the equivalent of pervasive CCTV cameras. And the whole thing is hugely expensive for taxpayers (end users) and doesn't actually work because there are always flaws in the system.

Personally, I much prefer to live in a libertarian society, where there are specific checks and balances at particular points. I'm happy with passport controls at borders, or fines for people jumping red lights. I don't mind tax evaders being pursued. I'm in favour of jury trials and punishing prison sentences. But I don't want to live inside The Matrix.

The Internet works well enough without a centralised control plane. Various point solutions like CDNs or peering points act as a form of decentralised, distributed and collaborative control, which works pretty well, most of the time. Other large-scale systems work well without central control as well - in fact, the whole basis of capitalist economies revolves around the concept.

Apologies for the high-level "philosophical" nature of this post. But after the last week or two of discussions, I am increasingly of the opinion that IMS has a flawed central assumption: that an all-encompassing "control plane" is necessary, feasible or even desirable.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Femto industry needs to get real about WiFi

I've had two conversations this week with senior, technically- and commercially-savvy representatives of the cellular industry, both from very well-known organisations at the core of the mobile world.

Both have expressed severe reservations about the femtocell model, at both technical and commercial levels. They mentioned various issues I've discussed before, including the need to support multiple operators within a single household, and the prevalence of WiFi in almost all devices creating meaningful volumes of cellular data traffic.

Yet I still see various protagonists in the femtocell industry suggesting that femtos could potentially replace WiFi as an access mechanism in homes or businesses. (I'm going to leave public hotspots for a moment, as their owners have typically made a multi-year mess of pricing and ease-of-use, which is another bugbear of mine).

In my view, the positioning of femtos as WiFi-replacements diminishes the credibility of the companies involved - not just in the eyes of those who actually understand WiFi, but also in the eyes of those skeptics in the hardcore macrocellular community who believe that "outside-in always wins".

Yes, there are marginal cases where the precise configuration of a connection manager client on a PC or iPhone might divert a few MB of traffic one way or the other. But the lack of awareness of how ethernet (yes, remember WiFi = WLAN = Wireless Ethernet) works and gets deployed and managed is sometimes scary. I've sat through hour-long panel debates on supposed opportunities for enterprise femtos without a single mention of terms like "firewall", "power over ethernet" or a recognition that companies like to manage *their* LAN without bits of it being managed by a third party that typically *outsources its own servers*.

The same arguments apply in the home. Ethernet and WiFi are now pervasive, and I see no reason that they're likely to disappear.

My view is that the femto industry needs to tackle this issue head on, and learn how to play *nicely* with WiFi, rather than pretend it's either irrelevant or a competitor. Otherwise it is going to find it hard to convince even the skeptics in the mobile industry, let alone the IT world.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Nokia using Windows, Microsoft using Java.....

I'm horribly busy so don't have time to write reams of analysis, but the juxtaposition of two announcements today really caught my eye:

1) Nokia announcing a Windows-based netbook (sorry, "booklet"). I wonder if they'll ship all of them with 3G modems embedded - how will that play with retailers like Carphone Warehouse that want to sell them on multiple operators' networks? Most of the MNOs don't (yet) sell data-only SIM-only packages, so will the stores have to stock multiple operator-specific "flavours" of the PC?

2) Microsoft announcing a Java app for featurephones, intended to hook into web/cloud services like Facebook and Twitter (and Windows Live mentioned quietly). Microsoft has long neglected the still-huge featurephone marketplace, so given that its smartphone business is only trickling along, this is perhaps an interesting way to get a foothold in emerging markets' mobility ahead of Google & Apple & BlackBerry.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

IMS post up on Carnival of the Mobilists

Many thanks to MobileStance, this week's curator of the Carnival roundup of mobile blog posts, for including my IMS/LTE post.

See the rest of the week's articles here

It's been interesting to get some back-channel feedback on the post. I've had a couple of emails along the lines of "Oh no, IMS is alive and well and coming to an operator near you", and quite a few more messages and phone calls amused and agreeing with my sentiments.

Interesting that relatively few people are willing to openly comment on the post itself, though.... it wonder if I will be made to suffer from having broken the "code of silence"....

Friday, August 14, 2009

Facebook messaging - an SMS substitute?

I use Facebook quite a lot in my personal life.

I've started noticing how much it's impacted on my use of various other messaging services. Firstly, about 50-60% of incoming messages to my main Yahoo! personal email address are now Facebook notifications and alerts. Secondly, Facebook IM has now risen to about 50% of my total IM sessions, typically with a different set of people to those I contact via Yahoo! or Skype IM.

I'd also say that since the beginning of this year, I've added maybe 120 Facebook contacts, compared to maybe only 30 new friends' numbers in my phone. And there are definitely some scenarios where I'll prefer to send people Facebook messages rather than email - especially if it relates to an event, but also because the threading makes it more like an ongoingand personal conversation, perhaps because you're only a click away from someone's profile, so you always have a better idea of what's going on in their life, compared with normal email.

But yesterday saw a new example of Facebook messaging - I was due to meet a friend around lunchtime, and she posted a message on my Facebook wall saying "be there in about an hour". The thought process there is an interesting one - firstly, there's an assumption that I check (or am alerted) to Facebook regularly enough to view it as "almost realtime". Secondly, that it's not much clunkier than getting an SMS (wrong, in my view). But also, I realised that she *probably doesn't have my phone number stored in her handset*, or wanted to avoid the cost of sending an SMS. She has an iPhone with flatrate data & an easy-to-use Facebook client... so she sent a message instead.

More interestingly, it was actually a public "wall post" rather than a private message, so there's an interesting sub-communication to any other mutual friends that they should think about dropping by, if they're also in the area at the same time.

I'm struggling to think of an easy way that a mobile or fixed operator could do the same thing - a sort of casual open invitation to a large group of people, as part of what is otherwise a simple person-to-person message. It's probably the sort of thing that Twitter's good at, if I knew more than 2 people who actually use it. In this instance, nobody else turned up, but I got a message later in the day saying "oh, I wish I'd known earlier" - from someone who doesn't (yet) have always-on Facebook access.

Apart from anything else, it would be almost impossible to come up with a decent charging model for this - I reckon in this instance, 80% of the value was in the person-to-person arrangement of logistics, and 20% was in the offhanded mention for other people. Given that there were perhaps 20-40 people in my social group who might theoretically have been interested, could a telco ever price and bill this?

Despite the title of this post, I don't think Facebook will kill SMS any more than Twitter will. But I find the interplay and hidden value in different messaging platforms fascinating. It's also exactly the sort of unintended, casual use that IMS messaging almost certainly couldn't replicate.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mobile IMS and LTE networks: Dead Parrot

I listened in on a call yesterday that discussed the ongoing issue of voice and SMS on LTE networks. I've written before about 3GPP and certain vendors trying to use LTE as a lever to strong-arm operators into adopting IMS.

A year ago, it seemed like IMS had finally been put out to pasture by the mobile industry. Some innovation was occurring with partnerships like 3/Skype and E-Mobile/Jajah and Mobilelom/fring. But I underestimated the perpetual and desperate attempts by vendors, the 3GPP and the GSMA (through the ill-thought-out RCS initiative) to position it as the "default" choice for services on LTE networks. Although some vendor representatives grudgingly admit that LTE doesn't *mandate* IMS, it's still being heavily skewed towards it.

I've long held that IMS voice is precisely the wrong choice for mobile networks, for assorted reasons relating to handsets, web integration, emphasis on "multimedia", dependency on SIM cards and the overall cost/complexity involved. I'd now go further and say that the whole notion that "sessions" are a good way to describe human-to-human communication is fundamentally wrong - look at social networks as an example of this.

But despite the efforts of certain vendors to embrace the inevitability of integration with Internet applications, others still seen unable to grasp the realities. They can't bring themselves to mention words like "Skype" or "Facebook", "iPhone" or (whisper it) "Google Voice and Google Wave". They can't even bring themselves to use words like "handset" or "smartphone", still referring to "terminals" as if they were dumb green-screen boxes from the 1980s.

I'm simply staggered that some people still brazenly claim that IMS is "inevitable" in mobile, using phrases like "platform of choice". It just defies reality, especially from an end-user perspective.

Initially, I was going to make an ostrich analogy. But then another bird seemed more appropriate....

(With apologies to John Cleese and Michael Palin)

Scene: The Mobile Infrastructure shop. An operator enters a vendor's shop.

Operator: 'Ello, I wish to register a complaint.

(The vendor does not respond.)

O: 'Ello, Miss?

Vendor: What do you mean "miss"?

O: I'm sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint!

V: We're closin' for lunch.

O: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this IMS platform I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

V: Oh yes, the, uh, the 3GPP standard...What's,uh...What's wrong with it?

O: I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. 'E's dead, that's what's wrong with it!

V: No, no, 'e's uh,...he's resting.

O: Look, matey, I know a dead application platform when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.

V: No no he's not dead, he's, he's restin'! Remarkable platform, the 3GPP standard, idn'it, ay? Beautiful combinational multimedia services!

O: The multimedia don't enter into it. It's stone dead.

V: Nononono, no, no! 'E's resting!

O: All right then, if he's restin', I'll wake him up!

(shouting at the cage)

'Ello, Mister IMS! I've got a lovely fresh LTE network for you if you show...(owner hits the cage)

V: There, he moved!

O: No, he didn't, that was you hitting the cage!

V: I never!!

O: Yes, you did!

V: I never, never did anything...

O: (yelling and hitting the cage repeatedly) 'ELLO IMS!!!!!

IMS!!!! Come on, wake up! IMS!!!

(Takes application platform of the cage and thumps its VoIP and messaging servers on the counter. Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor.)

O: Now that's what I call a dead platform

V: No, no.....No, 'e's stunned!

O: STUNNED?!?

V: Yeah! You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up! IMS platforms stun easily, major.

O: Um...now look...now look, mate, I've 'ad just about enough of this. That platform is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not 'alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged wait for a suitable LTE network.

V: Well, he's...he's, ah...probably pining for the Rich Communications Suite

O: PININ' for the RCS?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that?, look, why did he completely ignore the Internet the moment I got 'im home?

V: The IMS prefers ignorin' the Internet! Remarkable platform, id'nit, squire? Lovely multimedia combinational services!

O: Look, I took the liberty of examining that platform I got it home, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its LTE network in the first place was that it had been NAILED there by the standards committee.

(pause)

V: Well, o'course it was nailed there! If I hadn't nailed that platform down, it would have nuzzled up to those OTTs, opened its APIs, and VOOM! Feeweeweewee!

O: "VOOM"?!? Mate, this platform wouldn't "voom" if you put four million sessions through it! 'E's bleedin' demised!

V: No no! 'E's pining!

O: 'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This platform is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! This is a late platform!

'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the LTE network 'e'd be pushing up the daisies!

'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the handset!

'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!!

THIS IS AN EX-PLATFORM!!

V: Well, I'd better replace it then

O: If you want to get anything done in this industry, you've got to complain until you're blue in the mouth

V: Er, sorry guv, but we're right out of platforms

O: I see, I see, I get the picture

V: I've got a DPI and differential QoS box

O: Does it work?

V: Not really, no

O: It's scarcely a replacement then, is it?

V: I tell you what.. if you go to my brother's infrastructure shop in the cloud, he'll replace your platform for you.

O: Alright

Mobile payments = logo on a plastic card #2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about O2 launching "mobile payments" by simply sticking their brand on a plastic card, with the focus on pre-paid credit cards, often used by teenagers or those without bank accounts in a given country.

It's a lot easier than messing about with NFC or various other clunky handset-based payment mechanisms, with convoluted value chains and numerous practical difficulties. Done well, it can probably share back-end software components and may over time evolve to something mre sophisticated.

But for now, convergence at a brand level in payment services is much easier than at a technical level.

Evidence of this is provided by UK mobile retailer Phones4U now doing much the same thing.

I'm sure others will follow suit (and perhaps have done already - these two are just prominent UK examples).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

OTT is dead... long live ACPs

Credit where credit is due - Alcatel Lucent seems to have "got it" around the inappropriateness and confrontational aspects of the term "over the top". This contrasts with many others in the telecoms industry who seem to use the term only because their PR people won't let them say "parasite" and spit on the floor during presentations.

It was actually at the pre-MWC analyst day in Barcelona, held by ALU this February, that I put some of their executives on the spot, asking if they felt "over the top" could be seen as a rather dismissive and derogatory term for a telco's hoped-for future customers. It was the first time I'd asked the question publicly to anyone. Given that ALU has probably been the most consistent big-vendor proponent of Telco 2.0 and 2-sided business models, there was a certain level of embarassment I could sense. I've since seen quite a few ALU presentations talking about "non-user revenues" and the possibility of operators partnering with "upstream" players like Internet content and services providers.

In that February blog post, I suggested the use of the term "IAP" for "Independent Application Provider", similar to ISVs in the software industry, as being a good example of a neutral, non-judgemental term that could help foster a more healthy and collaborative tone.

I've just seen a post in the FierceWireless daily newsletter, called "Customers will pay for a better mobile experience" and sponsored by ALU (I can't find a link yet, it's not yet up on the Next Gen Comms microsite) which refers to ACPs - third party Application and Content Providers. It talks about "partnership options" with network operators, "bandwidth availability", "subscriber data profiling" and "leveraging the incumbent IP assets of the new phones".

No mention at all of the OTT acronym, and a very telling comment that "network providers must find a way to monetise new apps to drive increased revenues.... without stirring the net neutrality [hornets'] nest.". Separately, I see that ALU has just bought a content delivery network, so I assume it will be helping to look for common ground and ways to generate win-win business models here.

It will be interesting to see if anyone else follows suit. If I was at NSN, Ericsson, Cisco or a few other vendors, I'd choose now to swallow my pride and establish "ACP" as an industry-wide standard term, and get on with helping "under the floor" operators grow up and partner with Skype, Google & co, rather than continue seeing them as implacable OTT enemies.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Which web services should ISPs give maximum QoS to?

Just a quick cynical thought here.....

...I'm doing a bunch of research at the moment on whether there are particular Internet services that broadband operators (fixed or mobile) might choose to prioritise, or indeed deprioritise/throttle. I'm especially interested in whether there's any real-world business models where "upstream" service providers actually pay cold hard cash to the access network owner to get extra QoS / bandwidth guarantees.

It's just struck me that there's certainly one group of websites that it's worth ISPs prioritising if at all possible, even if they don't actually charge for it: speed-testing services.

I wonder if any of the DPI boxes have been programmed to recognise "speedtest.net" or similar, and make sure that there's as much optimisation as possible thrown at that particular HTTP session?

I'm reminded of some car companies which (rumour has it) only give reviewers the most "special" examples of their new vehicles to test....