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Monday, March 10, 2014

WebRTC, VoIP & mobile comms apps: bringing new power-dynamics to human interaction

When two people want to arrange a meeting, an interesting social negotiation occurs. Do you meet at one person's office, the other's, a convenient cafe, a hotel lobby, or at an event? Who initially suggests the time and the format? Who decides whether to invite other people to the meeting as well?

Numerous factors determine the choice. Is one person travelling? Does someone work from home rather than an office? Which has the busiest schedule and the least time to go out? Who requested the meeting?

.... and, perhaps the most important: who has the most power and influence in the interaction?

If you're a salesman, you'll probably go to your client's site.
If you're friends, you might meet over lunch, somewhere convenient.
If you're an employee, you'll go to your boss' office.

It's a blend of power-dynamics, pragmatism and context. Who's got the money, the influence, or the persuasive capabilities? Or the best coffee machine?

It's much the same, but more subtle, in personal relationships as well. Who goes to whose house? Who's the inviter vs. invitee? On a date, do you choose "neutral ground"? Whose choice of restaurant or bar? Again, it's a complex, fluid social interaction.

But in communications, we've never really had the same situation historically. You phone each other, perhaps arranging via email in advance. In a social context, we've also called or maybe SMS'd.

But this misses a lot of the richness (and unpredictability) of normal human social interaction. It gives the caller unnatural power over the callee - the ability to interrupt, for example. You always meet on "neutral ground" - that of the E164 number and the inter-operated phone network. But this doesn't recognise the normal power-dynamics or context. 

For example, I recently got a "pitch" call from an agency representing an industry association, for a briefing at MWC, which I was not attending. This unsolicited call, while I was roaming, had a withheld number. It interrupted me, and cost me money to answer an unwanted and irrelevant call, as I had no idea of its purpose. The much-vaunted universal "reachability" of the PSTN and mobile telephony was a liability, not an asset, in that instance.

In a B2B context, these issues occur regularly. I regularly get offered briefing calls by vendors. Often, they require me to use a US dial-in number, or install a browser plug-in for a web-conferencing call. That's fine if it's a paying client or prospect - they're the ones with the money and I want their business. But if it's just a random briefing requested by a PR/AR representative, then the power-dynamic shifts. I've started to insist on vendors contacting me on Skype (free, and I can use a headset & type my notes easily). I'm fed up with clunky plug-ins that need me to "check configuration 15 minutes before the call". I want an emailed PDF/PPT rather than a "driven" web-presentation so I can look ahead and see which slides I want to spend most time on, skipping waffly preamble if I'm time-constrained. Typically, I don't want to do video, as I am an unapologetic multi-tasker.

In other words, I'm starting to use the power-dynamics to my advantage and preference, albeit accommodating of others' needs "by negotiation" - for example, where corporate firewalls or policies prevent dialling UK numbers or using Skype. I don't want to be an arrogant "don't you know who I am?" boor, but at the same time I see no problem in using my preferences as a starting-point.

However, at the moment I don't have a "conferencing service" that I use regularly myself, nor an easy way to record calls, so normally I'll run with whatever someone else suggests.

In a personal context, the dynamic changes again. I use a mix of email, phone, Skype, WhatsApp, SMS/iMessage & Facebook to communicate with my friends. I know that some of them are Facebook refuseniks and so pick other channels. I know some friends always have phones on silent or buried in their bags. They in turn know that I'm often travelling, and generally dislike unexpected phone calls. Some of them tend to send lots of photos or like messaging stickers. Some are overseas and neither of us want to incur international charges. Sometimes I speak to someone who's pseudonymous, or where I don't want to use my normal phone number (eg B2C interactions where I don't want to get SMS spam).

Again, there's a social negotiation involved, with a side-order of pragmatism, tolerance or sometimes just pure showing-off. It involves persuasion - for example, various friends use Instagram, but I don't, yet. I might in future. Or I might not. Let's see - I might just try it if enough of them hassle me. It's human.

All this is going to get much more complicated in future. I don't think sociologists or anthropologists have really tackled this area yet, but it's going to be interesting to watch.

It's also something that technologists fail to grasp - especially those on standards bodies, for whom ubiquity, interoperability and "reachability" seem to be paramount. But that's not the way real people interact, in real life. We're driven by fashion, convenience, inertia, power, prejudice, taste, context and lifestyle.

We're also increasingly empowered to exercise our preferences. The simplicity of downloading and using a mobile app (be it "OTT" or "Telco-OTT" or embedded in the device) gives near-instantaneous choices. It also makes it much easier to push our choices upon other people.

WebRTC will take this a stage further again. Firstly, it makes it easier for people to find tools that suit them. Maybe I'd prefer video if the UI was better? Maybe I'll invite vendors wanting to brief me to my inbound presentation-management platform where I drive the slide-deck, or can flip through it offline in a separate window. Maybe I want to record the interaction, or tag it, or have someone else listen in? Maybe I want to give "guest access" to an enterprise system via a browser? Or trial something? Maybe I just want to "cut the number" and move to a URL as my primary communication identifier?

Of course, WebRTC is democratising, in that both sides of an interaction can exploit it. But my sense is that it, along with a continued rise in the use of mobile apps, a lot more of the normal social power-dynamics will be brought into day-to-day communications.

It will also be interesting to see how companies respond to this. I see no reason why I should give people my phone number, if I prefer something else. If I'm the customer, and I'm paying you money, then you should contact me on my terms. Web forms will start to evolve to having pull-down menus with a choice of preferences, rather than trying to mandate an E164 phone number. We already have direct-marketing preferences and opt-outs (email vs. SMS vs. post), and I suspect that will extend to voice, video and IM connectivity in future as well.

I'm sure we'll hear howls of complaint from the standards-mongers bemoaning the lack of ubiquity, and the risk of "walled gardens". But they're probably the same people who insist people come to their (walled) offices for a meeting.

If you disagree with this post, you're most welcome to have a chat about it. In my local cafe. Or via Skype, or in a WebRTC meeting-room of my choosing. Unless you're a favoured colleague/contact, or pay me a ton of money, in which case it's your call.

*NEW* March 2014 Disruptive Analysis WebRTC Report & Forecast Update DETAILS HERE


Mickey said...

Thanks Dean! Quite clear and brief explanation about voip and communication system. You are right dean, along with increased use of smartphones and internet, use of mobile apps has also increased. And people having smartphones have got a solution to make cheaper international calls from their mobiles.

Alex Fefegha said...


This is a good piece, we are currently rolling out WebRTC technologies with our business communication software for SMEs.

We see it is easier for them to adopt. WebRTC can be the next stage. Just think more support should be provided on browser side, mobility in the Enterpise be a buzzword, may be a fad but the average desk worker still sits on a 8 hour day daily....