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Sunday, December 27, 2015

New Year Rant: 10 Awful Tech-Industry Terms to Stop Using in 2016

In the spirit of the holiday season and New Year, this is another list about 2016. 

But it's from me, so it's a rant, rather than clairvoyancy with a crystal-ball.

There's a bunch of words and concepts used in the technology industry that make you look like a fool, or at least lazy and sloppy. They're often meaningless, duplicitously-used to "misframe" an argument, or just generally cringe-worthy. Some of them I've tackled before, and yes, mea culpa, I've been guilty of some of them before too. But I've learned from the errors of the past, and apologise unreservedly for any historical fluffiness and telcowash.

So let's double-check our terminology in 2016, call out offenders, and make a collective New Year resolution to ditch the telco-industry b*llocks....

1. Digital 

Meaningless drivel. The last time the word "digital" was informative or cool was in the 1970s, or maybe, if you absolutely must, relevant for newer telecoms switches in the 1980s. But apart from retro nods to Casio, it's now just a useful short-cut to determining if someone is ignorant, tech-illiterate, or desperate for a marketing hook - think "digital agency" as cringespeak for advertising, or "digital single market" for the EU's half-witted bureaucrats and their fawning legions of lobbyists. 

And don't get me started on the clueless telco and vendor folk talking about "digital" services. Because hey, we don't want to go back to those awful days of the analogue Internet in the 1990s, do we? I suppose I should be happy that at least some of the politicos have switched over from the similarly-execrable "ICT", but frankly "digital" is even worse. So sneer at the digitalistas with both pride and prejudice – and perhaps a raised middle-digit.

2. OTT 

This one I've tackled before, but it bears repetition. "OTT" just means "bits of the Internet we don't like". It's arbitrary, divisive and hypocritical (all telcos have websites & Internet apps). It’s also a form of telecom industry self-harm, as the "O" for "over" conjures images of a vertical hierarchy, with content/apps/comms being at the top (and therefore implicitly better) than everything "beneath". Along with “dumb pipe” the false-dichotomy of ISP vs. OTT is at the base of many of the industry’s current woes, as it re-frames a simple reality in a deliberately antagonistic way. Telecoms industry regulators and lobbyists who use “OTT” are especially unfit-for-purpose, and should be fired for incompetence.

There is an exemption for anyone saying “OTT” if they also refer to networks as “UTF” (Under the Floor) providers, as that’s where the plumbing goes.

3. Transformation 

I have a little bit more tolerance of this word, as it is slightly better than some of the industry’s other gibberish. Elements of the industry are undergoing profound change, yes… but that’s mostly being forced by events, with grudging acceptance, rather than true enthusiasm. Even where networks are genuinely being “transformed”, it is rare that the culture, process and business model is following suit. More generally, it’s important to note that telcos, and their networks and services, have been in a state of constant flux for the last century, often with discontinuities in technology.

Either way, the only meaningful use of the word "transform" I've heard this year was by my Haitian guide when I visited in July - to describe a voodoo curse which he reckoned was turning him into a cow. To listen to some of the snake-oil merchants in the telecoms industry, you'd think we were watching something similarly magical occurring, rather than just mythology.

4. Seamless 

Another one I’ve taken aim at before – seams are important. Seams are borders, where important things happen. Pretending that they don’t exist denies their significance – and can lead to mistakes or complacency, in terms of user perception, technical capabilities, pricing, security and more. A prime example is the combination of WiFi and cellular connectivity for smartphones, where two very different domains exist, and blending them needs to be done with care and humility. Creating frictionless shifts between one and the other is important – much like real-world borders. But the premise of “seamlessness” removes visibility and agency from end-users and other market participants – and often presupposes (wrongly) that network operators are the only/most-important actors involved. Seamless transitions allow inertia and lock-in to be perpetuated, rather than allowing users or app-developers scope to make “wrong” decisions.

5. Carrier-grade 

This is another term which exemplifies the telecom industry’s arrogance and self-absorption. It imbues certain bits of infrastructure – or engineering practices – with a magical aura of uniqueness and competence. And while many examples are indeed praise-worthy, they are far from the only purveyors of excellent network engineering. Corporate-grade networks are often just as secure, resilient and cost-effective – but also often more flexible. Military-grade networks are often more secure. Consumer-grade networks or various ad-hoc networks are often more democratic and market-responsive. Internet-grade networks such as Google/Facebook data-centres or Akamai’s CDNs are often cleverer. 

Telecoms carriers are not “special flowers” nor sit in “ivory towers”. Continually using terms like “carrier-grade” perpetuates the arbitrary distinctions between telecom and Internet worlds, and fosters harmful distinctions that inhibit service-providers from making pragmatic, market-aware decisions.

6. Engagement 

This is not limited to the telecoms industry, but is a general example of horrific marketing-industry and social-networking semantics and practice that needs to be stamped out. “Engagement” usually involves forcing people to “interact” when they’d often rather not, or measuring social-network actions in a cringe-worthy fashion. My recent example of WiFi “monetisation” charlatans bragging of “engaging” users for 45 seconds highlights the misanthropy present in this way of thinking. The whole area of “click-bait” posts, or those stupid list-based websites that force you to find the “next page” button, or click an invisible “x” on an intrusive floating advert are others.

This is not to say that it’s a bad thing to allow people to interact with you. Yes, they should be able to comment or share if they choose. But that’s the point: they are choosing to interact. They have agency, and take action. They should not be encouraged or forced to “engage”. It’s the coercivity that is wrong.

7. Content (& especially content-marketing)

“Content” is just one-directional application data, which flows from a “publisher” to a “consumer”. Despite some commentators’ and legislators’ ignorant comments, it does not constitute the whole Internet. While the likes of Netflix and the BBC are clearly important, so too are Amazon, Twitter, Skype, SAP, email, backups to iCloud, downloaded virus definitions and innumerable enterprise applications and services. The latter are communications, transactions, applications and raw data – not “content”. Yet too many laws and structures are designed with an historical “media” mindset, rather than an IT or Internet-native one. For example, the majority of the Net Neutrality discussion was centred on “content” and “content provdiers” – although to be fair, some regulators have talked about “edge providers”, which is a slightly more generic term.

Hopefully the rise of ever more non-content mobile apps, plus also IoT devices and traffic, will make more people (especially regulators and politicians) aware that networks are used for much more than lumps of video entertainment, media websites and music. 

To be honest, “content” is mostly another sleazy, marketing-inspired word anyway – often used with a hidden meaning of “that stuff we can embed advertising in”. That also gives rise to the most repugnant use of the term – in “content marketing”, which is basically just “long-form spam”, often masquerading as journalism or analysis. The technology industry is widely infested with dodgy “content marketing” – particularly corporate blogs masquerading as independent sources of news or analysis. You know the type: one-sided puff-pieces which laud a particular type of technology or product or brand. “Why WiFi-calling is transformational & will change telecoms for ever and allow operators to fight back against the OTTs with new digital services and improved customer engagement” (posted on WiFiCallingForEver.com, with a tiny note at the bottom that it’s sponsored by VendorX.com). The worst content-marketing of all is that derived from fake, quasi-corrupt, pay-for-play industry “awards”, where marketing companies offer “sponsors” a full package of PR and churnalism “content” in exchange for a “submission fee”.

8. Rich 

Obviously exemplified by the ludicrous RCS of zombie fame, the word “rich” also crops up in various other telecom and Internet contexts as well. It usually means “we didn’t have any proper designers involved, so we just threw in as many random features as we could, hoping that people would muddle through and ignore the incoherent clutter”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Apple use the word – or even Facebook. I’m scared to look, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Yahoo or LinkedIn have used it, though. Rich services or apps don’t even have the redeeming benefits of rich food – they’re unpalatable as well, as bad for you.

Applications should be right not rich.

9. End-to-end

Whenever you see anyone in the telecom talking about “end-to-end” capabilities – especially QoS – you should laugh and dismiss them and their products/services immediately. In almost every case, the so-called “ends” just refer to arbitrary points over which they have some modicum of visibility and control. They are never the actual ends where a service is generated or consumed, just points on an architecture diagram where somebody else takes over responsibility. So for a streamed video, there are origination servers (perhaps even the production, editing and encoding process) and the end-device, with screen and associated processors and memory. Quality of experience ends at the retina, the eardrum – and maybe even the cortex of the brain. A great example of the end-to-end fallacy is around VoIP, where much of the quality and performance is gated by the device’s silicon and its microphone and speakers, as well as the various processing algorithms used. The network is important – and bits of it may indeed be well-managed. But they’re not “ends”. 

I’m writing this in an airport, where BA takes responsibility for getting me from gate to gate. It conspicuously doesn’t refer to my journey “end-to-end”. The handful of airlines which offer limo-service  to and from your home and hotel would have a better claim – but even they can’t control the traffic on the roads outside Heathrow, just the seat you sit in. 

10. Ecosystem

This is the term beloved of people who used to say “value chain”, especially as it allows a temporary warm & fuzzy feeling from its environmental and natural background. But for that very reason, it’s a lousy analogy. Ecosystems aren’t “built”, they evolve. It means a group of interacting organisms AND their (physical) environment and resources. It implies co-dependency – if one part of an ecosystem gets removed, damaged or destroyed, it has an impact on everything else. It’s not just a convenient term for a software or web company’s developer and partner programme.

While real ecosystems might have some symbiosis, they also typically have an apex predator, plus lots of unfortunate other creatures and plants that get eaten, or just manage to scratch a living, before rotting after their death with the help of microbes and parasites. Hmm, maybe it is a decent analogy after all. I’ll leave it to the reader to identify the parasites in the mobile “ecosystem”.


So let’s have a collective New Year’s resolution to avoid telecoms-sector “trigger words” and acknowledge what we actually mean in 2016. Let’s get rid of:

  • Digital
  • OTT
  • Transformation
  • Seamless
  • Carrier-Grade
  • Engagement
  • Content
  • Rich
  • End-to-End
  • Ecosystem

And, I’m sad to admit, there’s also probably a number 11 that’s past it’s sell-by: “Disruptive”. But yeah, let’s forget about that one, given that I was disruptive before it went mainstream. I reckon I can claim some form of retro-irony exemption…

Rant over. 

Happy New Year!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do not forget BSS/OSS