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Monday, March 30, 2015

Real-world anecdotes on mobile usage: WiFi, Whatsapp, Roaming & Batteries

I just spent a weekend away with a group of friends. We all have smartphones (3 iPhones, 3 Androids), with a diversity of data plans, mostly from the UK but one of us from Denmark. Most of us are non-geeky/non-industry, but fairly heavy users.

It was interesting to watch the different behaviours - especially as we had severe travel disruptions in both directions, owing to power-failures in Amsterdam/Schiphol Airport on Friday, and severe wind/rain on the way back impacting both flights and rail yesterday.

The most obvious phenomena were:

a) Battery life / power availability is critical, especially when travel problems mean you're reliant even more on communications, but have least-easy access to recharging.

b) Roaming & WiFi-usage behaviour are fluid, depending on home operator (& plan) used. LTE roaming actually works properly, most of the time, now.

c) Use of applications/web on mobile while travelling is largely a function of travel experience & frequency. Perhaps unsurprising.

d) Travelling in a group nowadays inevitably means points in the day when you're all in the same place, silent, and on your phones. Especially when you find good coffee & decent WiFi.

The power issue has multiple angles - firstly, surprisingly few people in UK/Europe carry power-banks or cases with long-life batteries. Compared to bits of Asia where they seem ubiquitous, it's very conspicuously different. Separately, the provision of USB-based power (& maybe in future wireless power) in hotels, rental properties, airports, planes, trains etc is lagging a long way behind WiFi. I'm surprised it hasn't proliferated faster. Lastly, as people increasingly have access to 2+ devices (or friends), it would be good to be able to charge from any-to-any efficiently.

The differences that low/flat-rate roaming makes is astonishing. I have a flat £3/day plan from Vodafone (as did a friend) and we became the de-facto navigators and "leaders" as we had connectivity when walking about. The others grudgingly used data-roaming to deal with travel issues and connect to each other via Whatsapp, but were grateful for/horrified by their advice-of-charge texts. We also religiously checked every location - restaurant, bar, apartment, train station, airport - for WiFi & inherently *expect* it to be free. A simple code/password is fine. Notably, even the flatrate data-roaming users still use free WiFi, as we didn't know whether our £3 a day gives us an extra "bucket" (how much? how notified?) or if comes out of our normal monthly plan.

(As an aside - when I've been to non-flatrate countries recently, the "Welcome to Country X" and "You've used £xx of data already" SMS's came 30mins after I arrived, and 60mins after I crossed a threshold. Needs to be instantaneous, or else it's roaming-off + WiFi + local-SIM time again).

In nutshell - at the moment, most operators/plans are still ripoffs for international travellers. Giving users a flatrate & predictable price - about the price of a coffee or beer per day - seems to make a huge difference to both usage & perception. Per-MB pricing is awful for roaming, especially where you have background apps or inbound messages/notifications. Free data-roaming would be even better, but at least at a low level, the price is just another of the travel-related niggling costs like overpriced water or taxis.

(One thing I'd note for airports - it's really frustrating to have to keep going through the WiFi access process in different parts of the venue, because they're treated as different IP subnets or something. Everyone walks for miles in airports, especially Schiphol. If it's unavoidable, it needs to be password-free, just click-n-join).

Whatsapp (or its competing peers) are indispensable. A group of people from the UK & Denmark, meeting in the Netherlands & travelling via France and Belgium are not going to use SMS/MMS+roaming premium to communicate with each other, especially when 3+ have access to WiFi or flatrate data at any point. 

Sidenote: If RCS is to have *any* remote chance of competing, it needs to completely eliminate roaming or international charges beyond data access, allow simple group creation, support iPhones easily, be accesssible via WiFi etc. Will RCS ever be as ubiquitous, as cheap & as usable as Whatsapp for situations like this? Almost certainly not. I'm due to give it another good kicking in an upcoming blog post, so I'll leave that for now.

The TripAdvisor Cities app is loved by everyone & evangelised by me a lot (What's nearby! Reviews! Offline maps!). Various others are worthwhile too, for finding attractions, food, drinks etc. (I like Thrillist, another friend has "Unlike City Guides"). Google Maps rules for logistics but can be a bit variable with local public transport routes & schedules. 

But interestingly, in the unticketed queue for the Rijksmuseum, waiting in the rain, I was the only one to wonder if we could book online & save ourselves an hour's wait. Job done - but that's because I could remember my credit card details & sort it all before we moved and lost our place. I want the ticket PDF or Passbook entry on my screen, please. (I'd never have charged it to my phone bill, or used an NFC terminal, obviously - I'm not *that* weird & geeky).

I also found out that one of my friends gets ripped-off for calling family in the UK Channel Islands because the number ranges are considered "international" and are outside normal inclusive calling plans. That's a complete joke. She didn't realise she could save a ton of cash by using SkypeOut or similar services. It makes me wonder how much of the remaining revenue in telephony is from "the inertia of ignorance". This isn't value-based pricing - it's just hoping customers don't realise their old behaviour should change.
Oh - one other thing - as far as I know, none of used much SMS or *any* phone calls while away. Telephony is now so far past its peak among certain demographics that it's almost an irrelevance except in emergencies or stressful situations (eg my rebooking of a cancelled flight, while walking to the tube station - but I'd have preferred to have it in the frequent-flyer app, rather than via the dialler).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Initial thoughts on Enterprise Connect #EC15 & WebRTC

I'm in Orlando at the big Enterprise Connect conference and trade-show, covering business communications, especially for large corporations and government. Its main focus is on unified/disunified communications, collaboration, and contact centres / CRM. Yesterday was the WebRTC "conference-in-a-conference" and today is the main session with kickoff keynotes (and various briefings), although yesterday had some general plenary panels too.

Note: this was written on March 17th 2014, so "yesterday" refers to the 16th
While I'm here mostly as I was invited to speak on a WebRTC panel, it's interesting for me to compare and contrast EC with many of the more telecom operator-centric events that I go to, on a more general level.

The first thing is that there seems to be much more pragmatism and individuality among enterprises than among telcos - they are focused on solving their specific problems, in their industries and specific geographic regions. There is much less need for businesses to feel the need for "industry-wide" solutions and standards, and more willingness to experiment and customise.There is a sense that most big companies will have their own in-house software development teams, as well as relying on systems integrators, consultants and a variety of vendors, cloud platforms and other systems. Few businesses have cookie-cutter communications functions or apps, even if the ultimate technology building blocks (eg SIP, HTTP) are the same.

The second thing is that there is much more of a sense that the "end-user" - whether an employee, an external partner, or a customer, is in a position of choice and control. While there is a slight wistful feeling that everything used to be much simpler when there was just a phone, fax and email, there is also a sense of excitement that new developments lead to improved productivity and better engagement. 

There's no disparaging reference to "OTTs" (or spiteful over-defensive recourse to regulators), merely a pressure on suppliers to come up with better, cooler communications systems that fit employees' or customers' needs. While security and compliance are important for many, so is customisation and empowerment. I hear phrases like "use the best tool for the job" a lot, or "multi-channel", as well as BYOD, cloud services and "customer journey". There's a recognition that employees or customers will migrate to whatever application or interface mechanism best suits them - and it's up to the enterprise and its suppliers to get it right, or give developers the right APIs so they can instead.

The third thing is that enterprise communications vendors - some of them the same companies that also sell to telcos - have a much greater awareness of user-interface design, the need to fit their products around users' purpose and workflow, web/app integration, and the need for optimised functionality. Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Google, Unify and a whole host of others are at pains to show how slick their mobile apps are, or their ability to allow business processes to be adapted with visual tools. The word "workflow" is uttered 10x more than I'd ever hear in a telecom context.

Other things:
  • I see the word "context" everywhere too. This is definitely the epicentre of the Contextual Communications trend I've been mentioning - and I can see it evolving further with the use of WebRTC, sensors, big data analytics and so on. Compared to the "any colour you like as long as it's a phone call" mentality of telecoms, it's refreshing. So much for VoLTE being "innovative". Aspect and Altocloud are among those doing context-based WebRTC applications for contact centres.
  • Cloud is everywhere. That's not really news, but it is striking.
  • Microsoft Lync (now clunkily renamed Skype for Business) is everywhere too. How it supports ORTC/WebRTC will be critical in future - although as every competitor has a full API of some sort, I'd be surprised if S4B doesn't as well.
  • Messaging and timelines are everywhere. All the new collaboration tools look like they're heavily influenced by Facebook, Twitter and the like. This is good. 
  • Apart from Mitel (which just acquired Mavenir), nobody seems bothered by the idea of integrating with telco applications, VoLTE or (I'm joking here) RCS. I asked a major telco's business videoconferencing unit representative if they'd be using ViLTE/IR.94 in future, and he didn't appear to have heard the term before.
WebRTC is also heavily represented, but often as a means to an end: an enabler or option, rather than a holy grail of some sort. That said, it's telling that the keynotes all now assume that everyone knows what WebRTC is, rather than introducing it as "a new technology for putting comms into your browser" as is still common at other events. It's also clear that WebRTC is not just "production-ready" but is also in polished, real products being bought and used in anger.

Quite a lot of new products are noticeably WebRTC-based, such as collaboration solutions like Unify Circuit and Cisco Spark (the renamed Project Squared) and the OnAvaya cloud contact-centre solution hosted on the Google Cloud (and with Chromebook integration).  That said, most of these also have other non-WebRTC options, either for legacy browsers, or where a better set of functions can be delivered via native applications. 

The Avaya/Google collaboration potentially points to really rich contextual customer-service features in future, depending on how much analytical and insight horsepower Google can bring to bear. Think about routing to different agents, using different scripts, plus video and other features, where the caller is using Android or logged into their Google account.
Various WebRTC-based PaaS and SDK providers are present here as well - Twilio, CafeX, GenBand Kandy have booths, and I've bumped into people from Temasys and Respoke (Digium) as well, while Avaya has an SDK to video-enable customer-service apps too. Interestingly, Vidyo is touting its own video-enablement  SDK, which is not WebRTC-based, although it is working with Google to get SVC capability working on the VP9 codec.

There's also a lot of interest specifically in mobile apps with embedded video-calling for customer service. Avaya demo'd a golf-related commerce app, which it said it said it had added video to in just 2 days with a single engineer. Other vendors also touted their ware for app-embedded video, and I was taken out for an evening by a major US enterprise, to discuss how they could enhance their customers' experience with something similar.

But perhaps the most eye-opening bit was the presentation by a number of enterprises - Medweb, UTHealth [University of Texas] and American Express - about existing, long-standing WebRTC deployments and their learnings from their use and deployment. Some are using it to improve vanilla videoconferencing, but others are integrating it into apps and workflows much more extensively. Medweb has a telemedicine kit which can give a video consultation while streaming output from a medical device (eg a USB-plugged ultrasound scanner) over WebRTC datachannel.

The bottom line: enterprise retains its lead in WebRTC in terms of sophistication of use-cases. While there's various cool WebRTC consumer apps - as well as big guns like Snapchat - it's really the corporate uses that are the state of the art. Contact centre use of WebRTC is nothing new, but it's definitely the turn of UC/collaboration to take the stage at the moment, with app-integration and workflows the next in line.

In fact, I'm starting to suspect that one of the main near-term opportunities for telcos with WebRTC is within their internal IT and communications infrastructure, rather than new subscriber services. At MWC there was an announcement of a WebRTC-powered video contact centre for operators, and at EC the lead customer on stage for Cisco Spark collaboration was from Telstra.

Note: Disruptive Analysis' research and forecasts on WebRTC include detailed coverage of enterprise use-cases, as well as telecoms and consumer web. For more details on the report click here or message me if you are interested in private consultations and advisory services.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

NEW: Inaugural Contextual Comms Workshop June 15th

The feedback to my recent post and presentation on Contextual Communications has made me realise that this is a major, long-term trend that deserves more coverage, analysis and client interaction. It's also prompted a number of discussions with regular collaborators and partners.

When both myself and Martin Geddes agree on something, it usually means we are (a) right, and (b) ahead of the crowd. Both Martin’s long-term exploration of Hypersense and my near-term research into WebRTC say the same thing: a key emerging growth area is “contextual communications”. It spans multiple domains - telecoms, enterprise, consumer web/apps, IoT, verticals and beyond.

You are invited to join us and senior industry peers in London on Monday 15th June - Martin & I are holding a day of insight, debate and networking where we will explore this important topic.

The phenomenon of contextual communications is a fundamental shift in value for voice and messaging, and will largely define video communications models in entirety. We are moving away from stand-alone telephone calls and SMS, where the data transport was central.

Contextual communications can be divided up in multiple ways. In some instances communications will be in a context (eg a web-page or device), but the more interesting trends are where it uses contextual data. The context can be fixed, or changing over time.

In the new model, the value comes from the use of increasingly smart software machines that assist us to get jobs done. For them to work they need contextual data about our purpose or intent - which can come from "virtual" world (your online context), the real world (sensors), or analytics and big data.


The impact will be widespread - and beyond most peoples' initial assumptions. The revenue bases of telephony and mobile messaging are up for grabs. There will be winners and losers in Web apps, CRM and enterprise social media, all driven by this trend. The fit with domains such as UC, IMS, WebRTC, NFV and VoIP is up for grabs. Questions around regulation, value-chains and platform/OS control abound.

The new world of contextual communications is made from generic data transport, open media protocols, pervasive sensors, machine learning and advanced analytics. Between us we have created a detailed map of the emerging ecosystem, and a roadmap to this future. It is based on our long experience as observers at the leading edge of voice innovation, our deep combined knowledge of the complete technology stack, and our practical field expertise as consultants and high-profile public speakers.

We have been running similar workshops together for nearly 4 years in the US, Europe and Asia. (Our last joint presentation in Bangkok in late 2013 is here and between my & Martin's portfolios had had over 30,000 views). This is the only public event we currently have planned for this year, so it’s your only chance to find out what we’re telling our consulting clients. We both believe this workshop represents a qualitative jump in our understanding and your revenue opportunity. Attendance is limited to 30 people, and if the past is any guide we expect to sell out.

Who should come? Anyone in a voice/video product or technology strategy or marketing role. You might work in any one of the players in the ecosystem:
voice & app platforms; network equipment; sensors & devices; machine learning; analytics; B2C messaging (CRM, call centres); UX designers; telcos (voice + network strategy); search; regulators; or investors.

The price is £695+VAT. A 30% discount is available for a second attendee. The event is being held in the Westbury Hotel, Mayfair, London.

Email me at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for details on attendance and payment, which can be made by credit-card, Paypal or PO/invoice. I will also be at Enterprise Connect in Orlando March 16-19th, NGMN 5G Conference Munich March 24-25th, Monetising OTT in London March 26th if you wish to discuss this area with me.

Number of attendees

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The roadmap to contextual communications: sensors, apps & analytics

One of my major research themes for 2015 is "Contextual Communications". I believe that this will be a critical trend in telecoms, web and mobile applications, devices, IoT and enterprise productivity over the next 5 years and beyond.

While this very closely ties in with previous work on Future of Voice and WebRTC, it goes considerably beyond those domains, and also embraces sensors and aspects of Big Data. On a long-term view, its trajectory intersects with hypervoice/hypersense.

I'll be holding my first public Contextual Comms workshop on June 15th in London, along with Martin Geddes. Details here.

Contextual communications involves both placing voice/video in context (eg embedded into an app, website or device) and applications which use contextual information to help the user achieve a particular objective or purpose. 

Here, "contextual information" can be of three types:
  •  Virtual context: What you or your device are doing electronically, eg which website, app or content you’re using. It could relate to which web-page you're on, the fields of a form you're filling in, the music you're listening to, or the point you're at in an enterprise workflow or a game. In essence, this is software-originated context.
  • Physical context: This is information from sensors - most notably the device microphone(s) and camera(s), but also location, movement, temperature, power/battery, heart-rate, biometric sensors and so on. With processing, this can yield information such as local acoustics (and hence whether you're in a street, room etc), the position of other people around you, your identity via fingerprint or voiceprint, work out if you're walking/driving or showing signs of stress.
  • Analytic & Big Data context: When linked to cloud platforms (or perhaps a local database), additional insight can be factored into the application: perhaps past behaviours and preferences, web cookies, records from a CRM system, or stored data from your past virtual and physical contexts. Inferred context is also important here - for example your mood or happiness. (See also this post on sentiment analysis). There may also be 3rd-party context provided via mashups and APIs.

It is this three-way blend of context sources - and the history/predicted future from analytics - that presages a new era for communications. 

We already talk about adding richer application information into communications services. The page you’re on, or the function in the app you’re using, could help inform a customer-service agent or a friend or colleague why you’re calling, and maybe let them guess what you hope to achieve, and how they could assist. 

But the broader 3-way meaning of “context” offers much greater possibilities. Exploiting sensors to blend in “real world” data, as well as analytics, extends the use-cases hugely. Modern handsets (and other devices such as tablets and wearables) tend to have multiple sensors - perhaps two microphones, two cameras, orientation sensors, location-awareness and more. Future device chipsets will incorporate even more "cognitive" smarts.

So for example, an application that knows you're in an airport - and running - might make a decision to send an incoming call to voicemail. Coordination of a device's speaker and microphone, might allow it to guess it's inside a pocket or bag - and perhaps adjust the ringtone level. A phone might recognise its orientation lying flat on a table, and adjust to "speakerphone" mode, detecting multiple speakers around the room, and adjusting their volume levels, if one is further away. 

Perhaps a "friends and family" communications app might dial-down the noise suppression, to allow the sounds of waves crashing on a beach to give a genuine sense of "wish you were here". Whereas a smart, contextual business communications app might want to block out the backgroud hubbub, for that panicked "where is your booth?!" call from the show floor at MWC.

Going a step further, a contact-centre's software might be able to detect customers' rising stress levels and combat them with special offers, or escalation to a supervisor. (Clearly, the dividing line between context and privacy-invasive creepiness will need to be carefully monitored). 

How does this relate to WebRTC? Well most obviously, it is the technology that allows communications to be moved away from standalone functions (eg phone calls, or dedicated VoIP/video calling apps) and contextually-integrated into websites and apps. At that point, it becomes much easier to blend the communications events with the outputs from other OS or device APIs, either relating to sensors, or just to the application "state" at that time. 

One long-term vision is what colleague Martin Geddes describes as “hypersense”, an extension of “hypervoice”. It’s well worth downloading the Communications 2025 white paper (here) and watching the video – it posits a future where the “cloud” and a personal “avatar” knows what we want to do, and blends a whole range of contextual drivers (apps, online activity, sensors, analytics, personal knowledge of your behaviour and preferences etc.) and helps you have a more productive, healthier life, blending in communications at its core. Think of it as Siri crossed with any number of Sci-Fi artificial intelligences, helping you both proactively and reactively. 

But that is a long way off. Contextual communications applications which blend physical, virtual and analytic contexts with machine-learning will take some time to come to full fruition. Developers and device OEMs will have to gain experience in multiple new areas, with diverse APIs and styles of interaction. There are huge leaps in technology, design, psychology and probably law, to overcome first.

So the question is – what are the steps along the way? How does context go from where we are today (eg really poor and limited “presence” indicators, or in-app messaging) towards some combination of physical and virtual context being used meaningfully by developers, in the short-to-medium term?

It is important to recognise that within each of those domains, there are separate sub-categories of context that will get integrated first. For example, we will see coordination of multiple microphones, or speaker and microphone, or motion-sensing. Developers will likely be offered "sensing" APIs that span a number of inputs (although this will depend on how OS and device creators integrate and expose the capabilities).

The same is true of combining virtual context data-sources: we will find WebRTC contact centres combining which page is a user is on, coupled with the device it is being viewed from, to determine the best way for the agent to interact. The examples from the apps I mentioned the other day - such as language-exchange blended with online status and preferences - are further good examples.

Certain sorts of analytics context will be combined early on too – but mostly “small data” (eg cookies, customer records) rather than true “big data” such as realtime analysis of past behavioural patterns, or combining multiple cloud-data sources. Predictive context - where the software guesses what's going to happen in the future (eg where you'll be, when it's going to be a better time for a call) may be a while in arriving, and will likely need persistent network connections to cloud services, rather than purely local on-device analysis.

Overall, Disruptive Analysis thinks that the bigger picture of Contextual Communications is one of the key trends for vendors, developers and telecom operators over the next decade. WebRTC is a critical component and enabler, but it is also important to keep an eye on its convergence with the physical world of sensors, wearables/IoT and the cloud-analytics domain. 

Ultimately, the winners will be those applications - and device-based enablers - which help communications adapt to the users' real context and purpose, helping them achieve whatever it is they're doing more effectively - whether it's closing a sale, winning a game, or simply connecting with a distant loved-one.

The theme of Contextual Communications will be re-visited regularly. Please sign up to get this blog by email, consider buying the WebRTC research report, and get in touch if you're interested in custom internal workshops and projects. information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.