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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Interoperable does not mean "federated" - lessons from email

When I've recently debated telecoms "traditionalists" about #TelcoOTT and the Future of Voice, I've noticed that a familiar theme is around interoperability.

The argument sometimes goes along the lines of insisting that we shouldn't have "islands" for messaging or voice or social networks. There is then a rapid leap to conclude that the traditional model of interconnected telecoms networks/services is something to be emulated in future. (And, indeed, enshrined in platforms like IMS).

In general, I think that fragmentation is always a stronger and more powerful trend than convergence. I have been presenting slides highlighting the importance & value of "divergence" for more than 15 years now.

But let's leave aside the hypothetical discussion about silos for a minute. There is definitely value in having *some* services or applications interoperate at least *some* of the time, that I will agree.

But there is a critical distinction that is not made by many:

Interoperability does NOT imply "Federation".

Federation is where every network has its own, dedicated service or application platform, and they interoperate via standardised network-network interfaces. This is familiar from services such as today's telephony and SMS. In those cases, there is a direct link between network infrastructure and services - so each telco has its own services and network, and interoperates/interconnects at their "border". A call starts on one telco's network, and ends on another's - AND, critically, it uses BOTH telcos' application platforms as well. The user has a service identifier (number) which is directly linked to the access line.

But that is not the only model of interoperation

There is another hugely-popular form of fully-interoperable communications, which is not "federated" in the same way. It operates in a fashion completely divorced from the network and access mechanisms.

That application is email. It interoperates almost perfectly. But it is not tied to an access provider (although your ISP can give you a dedicated email address too). It can be accessed on any device, via various protocols (POP3, IMAP and so on). It has been enhanced over the years. it can be web-based or client-based. And it works pretty flawlessly, most of the time.

A good way to think about it is that you can email yourself, using multiple accounts or apps on the same device - or across multiple devices. You, the user, might choose a primary email account, but it's decoupled from the access part. In theory, you can have private email "islands", for example inside companies, that don't interoperate.

I think the email model is a possible way to evolve voice telephony and make it more useful and enduring, especially in mobile. You could have multiple "lines" from multiple service providers, on a single device. At one level they would interoperate perfectly, but they might have separate special features or business models, in the same way that Gmail is different to Hosted Exchange or assorted others. (I still pay a subscription for Yahoo Mail Plus, because I like the disposable email aliases & the spam filtering is really good).

However, for this to happen, there needs to be a disaggregation of phone numbers from SIM cards, and will likely need to be done via Telco-OTT and LTE networks (or perhaps WiFi). It might be possible to have multiple "VMVNOs" on a single SIM as well, I guess - perhaps using multi-IMSI.

I think that future service/app interoperation will be driven by business model needs, or customer demand. If 100m users demand that Skype interoperates with Google Voice (or VoLTE), I'm sure Microsoft will consider it. Various IM and VoIP services already interoperate, either directly like MSN-Yahoo messengers, or via an exchange like Xconnect.

But while interoperability will continue to have value, I see zero - or perhaps negative - value in the legacy federated model. If anything, it enshrines business model and technical rigidity. It would be difficult to have an interconnect agreement between a fully-paid and a freemium telephony service, for example, as payments would have to depend on the status of each party.

In my view, email is the "forgotten" ubiquitous service. While it might be deeply unfashionable, and with revenues that are both small and hard to extricate from wider Internet usage, it is worth examining as a model for future interoperability. In particular, its standards do not require a specific type of access service, or enshrine a business model. Also, because it is easy to sign up for 2nd, 3rd, 4th or n'th accounts, it is a low-key way to extend your brand or ecosystem, without the pain of negiotiating users' switching barriers.

As such, an interoperable but non-federated model could also be the solution to the "speaking agency" problem I outlined in yesterday's post.

1 comment:

piper said...

Actually email has gradually turned into a federated model. The days were everybody could directly send messages to any SMTP server are gone due to spam. You now have lists of trusted email providers that are known to fight spam. If you're not on the list, you can't send email to most people. The providers on the list do 'email transit' in telco speak.

The 'Leave private message' links you sometimes see on personal homepages are a better example to show that classical federation is unnecessary.