I spent last week at the IIR NextGen Service Platforms conference in Munich, featuring a combination of material on Telecom APIs, WebRTC and "Legacy Network Evolution". Much of the emphasis was on service innovation for telcos. As well as myself, both Alan Quayle & Martin Geddes were attending and presenting.
By the end of the day, all three of us were muttering under our breaths - and being considerably more vocal on Twitter.
The main problem that irked us:
It isn't just legacy networks that need to evolve in telcos, it's legacy thinking.
In short, much of the day was taken up by presentations and discussions that combined myopia and lame excuses.
"We can't do anything with WebRTC unless we ask the regulators first"
"Our brand would suffer if we launched a service that didn't work perfectly"
"IMS means the end of silos [for communications]"
"French consumers are tired of downloading apps. They'll use embedded RCS"
"IMS will allow the creation of an ecosystem of OTT players"
"Consumers demand QoS"
"People would use more data if it was free - or if someone else paid for it"
"It brings universal reachability"
"3G was about Skype & Whatsapp. 4G will go beyond those silos, to Joyn"
"Everything can be linked to the phone number"
"We can do all the API & developer relationship stuff ourselves in-house"
"IMS is central to WebRTC"
"VoLTE will increase production costs for telephony, but we're making a bet on IMS as a platfom for other stuff"
"WebRTC is just another access"
There remains a worrying disconnect between market realities and the wishful-thinking, blinkered views still endemic in the telecoms world, especially, it seems, among those with a "telecoms academic" background.
- A lack of focus on real customer requirements & behaviour. There remains no understanding of why people like fragmented applications or why they are often ambivalent to QoS.
- A failure to recognise that "the web has won" and that using the web/cloud/apps domain - and business/development models - is the only way forward for telcos.
- A rigid belief in the primacy of network QoS, despite (a) not understanding the limits of network maths/performance/wireless/coordination, (b) not understanding that QoS value is very use-case dependent, (c) not understanding that QoE is driven by many other variables than the network
- Specifically, a rather charming-but-scary belief that users will choose a less-attractive app that always works well, rather than a better/cooler/cheaper app that only works well most of the time
- A belief that usage of services will gain wide adoption merely because of interoperability (usually with a reference to SMS ancient history)
- A complete refusal to engage with areas like behavioural psychology, social dynamics, user interaction models, purpose/Intenet and, above all, design
- An inability to understand concepts such as "intention" and purpose - ie that increasingly the value of communications is why you communicate & what you're hoping to achieve, not the actual transport of bits that ensues
- Ignoring the use of non-carrier networks in the enterprise, 3rd-party unmanaged WiFi, home etc, even though statistically they are becoming much more common, especially for video-type communications.
- Overlooking the realities of the device marketplace - eg convincing Apple to implement anything it disdains, or equally trying to convince manufacturers of unlocked "vanilla" Android devices to implement software, which adds cost/time, yet appears unappreciated by users at point-of-purchase.
- Taking a very traditional telco view of things like "reachability", without considering that people don't always want to be "reached".
- Continued repetition of stupid cliches like "OTT" and "dumb pipe". These are usually a good indicator of cluelessness, unless prefaced with "so-called" and eyeball-rolling. I'm tempted to say that their utterance should be considered gross incompetence and merit instant dismissal.
Neither Alan nor Martin nor myself advocate that telcos turn into "pipes" - but equally, they have to identify the future sources of value in communications services if they are to remain relevant. This is about context, purpose, intention and "softer" things like that - delivered via APIs or rev-share deals, or on a freemium basis. "Interoperability" is not a consumer value in itself. It might help for some services, and it might hinder others. We all presented about things to do with voice or messaging that add value to the basic "telephony" proposition. But instead, we heard about VoLTE & RCS (!) as some sort of magical saviours that will help telcos "beat the OTTs" without any explanation of why that should be the case, and what real-world human use-cases will be impacted.
One speaker admitted that VoLTE (with SR-VCC) will increase the per-minute "production cost" of basic telephony. It's a brave CFO that takes the bet he offered - that IMS as a platform would generate revenues from new as-yet-unimagined services - in spite of the almost-guaranteed decline in telephony value over the next few years.
As for WebRTC, quite a lot of speakers seemed to think its main role will be extending out VoLTE or RCS as a sort-of cheaper/easier softphone alternative. Fair enough, it might be useful for running a VoLTE extension on a WiFi tablet. (RCS - well, let's just say I had a new zombie slide, so you can guess my views. My intro presentation here & WebRTC workshop here). On the positive side, it seems that a lot of telcos are at least trialling or prototyping WebRTC, although most are probably too tied up with getting basic VoLTE deployed and working to worry about a WebRTC Phase 2 extension to it.
In my view, it normally takes the telecoms industry 4 years to spot a good idea, 4 years to implement it, and another 4 years to realise it was too late. For WebRTC, those numbers seem to have been cut to 2 years, which ranks as an improvement of sorts.
I'm off to Atlanta for the big WebRTC Expo & Conference next week, where I'll be moderating a number of the service provider panels. I suspect we'll get to rehash some of the same arguments about IMS again, although hopefully the fervent & innovative web/IT-centric atmosphere will permeate a few telco-academia brainwashed skulls and osmose into the legacy mindsets about service creation....