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Saturday, February 09, 2008

IMS MMtel - does anyone apart from Ericsson care?

This may come as a surprise to you, but there is a 3GPP standard for a "PSTN replacement" form of VoIP. Supposedly, it will enable both fixed-line (TISPAN) and mobile operators to deploy a single, bearer-independent telephony application that will supplant existing circuit telephony and bring new revenues from its ability to blend speech with video, messaging and other elements. It will be, allegedly, the basis for Telephony 2.0

It's called IMS Multimedia Telephony, or more briefly, MMtel.

Ericsson takes every opportunity to talk it up, insisting that it will drive IMS business cases, be usable over everything from DSL to HSPA to LTE, will help operators defend against 3rd-party VoIP, and may even itself be a developer platform.

But if you haven't heard of it before, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Almost nobody has. I ask plenty of people who should have heard of it - operator applications people, interoperability bodies like the MSF who work on IMS interconnection, a variety of SBC vendors, VoIP specialists, handset platform providers. Almost universally, I get blank stares when I ask "what do you think of MMTel?". And the handful who have heard of it usually display zero enthusiasm, or even pitch an alternative approach.

Ericsson seems alone. Even the main book on the subject is written by people from Ericsson Research.

The problem is evident from the name. The word "multimedia" was last considered sexy in about 1995. MMS has been a failure. Sure, people like video stuff like YouTube, but they don't want videotelephony or videosharing except in a tiny fraction of circumstances. Generally, multimedia doesn't need to be realtime - it's more important to capture multimedia for later upload to social networking sites or for other applications. I've written before about the uselessness of things like video share.

Yes, it will be possible to "delete" all the multimedia baggage from MMtel and just use it for "plain vanilla" VoIP. But I bet that's not the cheapest or best-optimised method to deliver it.

The next generation of voice isn't about adding & dropping extra streams of video or messaging. It's more about three other things:
  • 1) Today's telephony but better - better quality, better coverage, lower price
  • 2) Intelligent telephony - calls which use the user's context better. So perhaps the telephony application knows that the phone is on charge, in a darkened room, and hasn't been moved in 5 hours. It injects an announcement before connecting saying "the user may be asleep - press 1 to go straight to voicemail"
  • 3) Non-telephony voice - as I've discussed before, it is becoming important to blend voice with other applications. A variety of VoIP mashups will add value to both consumer and enterprise services.

These ought to have been the central tenets behind the standard for next-gen telephony, not pointless focus on minuscule niche requirements like realtime video. 3GPP (and Ericsson) need to seriously rethink MMtel.

But at least they can take heart from one thing. The fact that nobody else has heard of MMtel means they won't need to work too hard to re-educate the market and its expectations.

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