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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The basis for "sender pays" data is rather fluid....

I've talked before about the notion of 3rd-party payment for a user's mobile data access, for example a venue owner or conference organiser sponsoring "free mobile broadband" for certain customers or attendees.

mBlox in particular has discussed its notion of "Sender Pays" data for chunks of content. For people without flatrate data plans, having a clear method to ensure the customer isn't going to face a big bill for downloading per-MB has to be a good thing.

However, the general contention that "Sender Pays" is analogous to the postage system's model is unfortunately rather underminded by this proposition by the UK's Royal Mail to make the "receiver" of letters pay as well....

(Note: my view is that "sender pays" content represents a small proportion of the overall opportunity for third-party sponsored connectivity, as I see content as merely a small, uni-directional sub-category of all applications. Most apps are bi-directional, with the user themselves sending a good proportion of the overall traffic. This is especially the case for user-generated content services like Qik)

Nice to know that evolution to two-sided markets isn't solely the domain of the telecoms industry.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Upcoming event on all that's cool in comms - eComm Europe

I've name-dropped the two SF-based eComm events before - always among the most fascinating of events, ranging from Voice 2.0 startups to visionaries thinking about industry governance and spectrum policy, with a handful of cool apps & mobile services thrown in for good measure.

This time, it's on this side of the Atlantic, in Amsterdam from 28-30 October. I'll be there, speaking about voice-on-LTE and radio issues, and no doubt throwing my oar in on some other themes as well.

I'd definitely recommend it - it gives a great flavour of the direction that comms technology could / should / might go, as well as some meat on businesses surround it. It's not explicitly pro- or anti- large operators, but it definitely is anti-status quo. Generally, the carriers that are represented there are the ones that "get it" - the conservative old guard tends to stay away. Quite a good barometer, really.

The details are here

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Net Neutrality in wireless

Another quick post.

I generally find it too hard to get worked-up about net neutrality, as in competitive markets everything tends to sort itself out. In the UK I have a choice of mobile broadband providers - some open to all content/apps, some more restrictive, with an array of price plans, coverage and customer service. I choose which I like.

The US tends to be more complex, because of the relative lack of true nationwide competition, and the barriers to consumers having (or trialling) multiple service providers, because of a lack of contract-free prepaid offers. It's much more difficult to exercise choice if you're locked into a 2-year monthly contract with onerous penalty exit clauses.

One solution may be for the FCC to impose a trial region (state?) for true open-access, let it run for 24 months and scrutinise the impact on user behaviour, network management, congestion and so forth. However, this would need to be imposed *after* network build-out, to give a true apples-for-apples comparison with differentiated-service territories. Even then, it would be necessary to monitor ongoing opex and operations to ensure a "fair fight".

The observation I'd make is that there appears to be clear consumer appetite for broadband pipes, even if they sometimes get congested. Another option could be that some form of naked and unmanaged pipe should be made available on a mandatory basis - perhaps as a % of total capacity in the air & backhaul, so customers could opt for best-efforts if they wanted, versus a fully-managed virtual partition of the rest of the network.

RCS Phase 2 - some progress

I'm utterly buried with work & travel this week, so can't dig into this very deeply, but the GSMA has just announced its next iteration of RCS.

A key feature seems to be support for PC clients, which makes a huge amount of sense - and indeed, is just about the only area where there's historically been traction for these kind of enhanced operator services, through the efforts of software vendors like Movial.

That said, at first sight the press release seems to focus on multi-device sharing and interoperability, rather than integration into web-based services. My view is that RCS would probably get most rapid traction if it came as a slick Facebook plug-in, or interoperable with other social networking platforms.

The problem will likely be that most of the mobile operators will try to "own" the address book and hook it into subscription databases, rather than leverage a more open (or at least access-independent) contact list located online.

Should also be interesting to see what happens if I put MNO#1's RCS client onto a PC or other device connected via #2's mobile broadband......

I'll try & get a full briefing from GSMA or one of the partners when I can, although it's not likely to be until next week at the earliest.

Incidentally, the membership list for RCS supporters still seems to be missing a few important potential members, like Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM, HTC, Facebook, Skype , Palm, Vodafone, H3G, Sprint, Cisco and so on.

Although after the treatment of Google Voice by the Apple AppStore guys & the ensuing FCC brouhaha, the RCS folk must be smirking about their chances of getting a client onto iPhones without direct support from Mr Jobs....

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Quick musing on Cloud Computing

I just heard the phrase "Everything as a Service" during a presentation on Cloud, SaaS and other forms of managed service offering.

I have no problems with hosted software in general - I use enough myself for email, blogging and so forth. I also outsource an awful lot of other things - financials to my accountants and so on.

But I can't get around the feeling that there's a fundamental lack of awareness among people in the tech industry, that every individual and company has specific criteria for owning vs. renting anything.

There are some things for which people prefer opex (renting, 3rd-party services, leasing etc) and some for which they prefer capex (buying stuff outright). This applies to all aspects of expenditure, from hardware to software, from physical infrastructure to one's personal possessions.

Some people rent houses, some own them. Preferences vary by individual and by cultural background. Some companies prefer to own and control their IT and communications elements, others prefer the predictability of outsourcing or "cloud services".

I've yet to see any good analysis of exactly what determines the optimum mix of rent vs. buy, or how this changes over time. Clearly there are hard aspects to this, like cost of capital, or the tax treatment of depreciation or capital investments. There are practical concerns, like uptime or connectivity limitations. Yet there are also softer issues, like trust or fear of lock-in. For consumers, there's even an emotional element - how many people would choose to use a "jewellery service" to rent their wedding rings?

This isn't an area where I have very strong opinions - but I do think it's important to have a good set of filters and questions to sift through some of the rhetoric and hype.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Outdoor applications for mobile - underestimated?

I've been following the topic of indoor coverage for mobile for almost 10 years now. The general perceived wisdom is that most voice and data traffic on cellular devices involves communication from inside buildings (50%, 60%, 70% - pick your own number). This assumption has been the primary driver behind the growth of femtocells, and various solutions looking at WiFi offload.

I regularly see forecasts predicting that this proportion is going to grow, and certainly with the current usage patterns of 3G laptops and smartphones, that seems reasonable, at first sight.

But.... how solid is that assumption? I'm starting to wonder if the ground might be less certain than everyone thinks. Because fundamentally, the indoor/outdoor split comes down to use cases and applications. The problem is that most radio-network folk in the industry are often a long way from those thinking about next-generation applications, devices and services, and what impacts these might have on the network and traffic patterns.

I can see a few early signs of a new generation of "outdoor-centric" applications, that might reverse the trend. Most obvious is mapping/navigation in various guises. But there's also streaming audio/radio - it will be interesting to see how Spotify grows on mobile for example. Then there's the whole area of "augmented reality", cloud computing and quite a few other examples I can think of. Several of these might be more symmetric (or upstream-heavy) than current applications, too.

On balance, I suspect that any shifts will happen slowly, but it's quite possible that we'll suddenly all be surprised by a new app coming out of nowhere and getting rampant adoption, thanks to appstores and widgets and other mechanisms that make viral uptake simpler. I can think of a few hypothetical examples that might emerge, although I'm not going to mention them here. (Let me know if you're a VC, I might do one of them myself....).

It's not just applications either - factors around device and OS architecture will also make a difference. If iPhones supported background applications, cellular networks might be suffering even more pain than they are currently, for example.

If you're working in the radio part of the industry - on either the vendor or operator side - and you'd like to explore the risks of "outdoor applications" more thoroughly, please get in touch with me.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Content: just a special sort of application

About 10 years ago, it became fashionable to say that "voice is just another sort of data on an IP network". VoIP, it was suggested, just turned telephony into mere bits, just like any others.

I want to extend and explore that description of subset/superset: I assert that "content is just a special sort of application on an IP network". It's just big chunks of software.

In both cases, there is a strong empirical evidence of truth, but the one word which is out of place in each sentence is "just", at least in the short term. Nevertheless, both assertions provide a view of how things change over much longer (10+ year) periods.

First, a quick re-cap of voice and VoIP. Certainly, at a network transport level, it is entirely feasible to get good voice quality with VoIP - most international calls use packet connections in the backbone. Millions use Skype and other VoIP services on the public Internet, while corporate IP-PBXs are mainstream. So at one, level, voice certainly can be viewed as just another form of IP traffic.

However, the word "just" is still not fully appropriate yet. Voice telephony has some very specific qualities that still mean it needs to be treated differently, and retains a quite high "value per bit". Aside from the obvious issues around latency and the need for realtime connectivity, it has some other , which have kept it at 60%+ of telecoms revenues. Firstly, numbering introduces barriers to entry and a need for interoperability. Secondly, regulatory issues remain wide and critical. Lastly, it has some very specific user-interface and experience issues - call setup times, the need for useable diallers and phonebooks, the natural human focus on time metrics (minutes) rather than IP packet volume, and so forth. There's also a hundred years of legacy experience, which conveys a lot of weight, authority - and sometimes arrogance.

The result is that voice telephony is indeed "special" - but over time, its importance and specialness are starting to wane. Basic voice revenues are falling - even in mobile, in some cases. The "phone call" is starting to blend into more complex voice interactions, new "voice 2.0" models are emerging in which context adds as much value as the media stream, and so forth. Networks are still designed with voice as a "special case", rather than just another packet stream. Voice is becoming blended with other applications and services, but arguably it is still over-represented and over-regulated compared with its long-term social and economic value.

Now, content. Compared with voice, the term "content" has always been a bit woolly in terms of definition; I've heard people refer to spreadsheets or even voice conversations as "content". But for most people in the industry, it tends to refer to visual programming media, chunks of written material, music, some images and so forth. The Wikipedia definition is:

"information and experiences that may provide value for an end-user/audience in specific contexts. Content may be delivered via any medium such as the internet, television, and audio CDs, as well as live events such as conferences and stage performances. The word is used to identify and quantify various divergent formats and genres of information as manageable value-adding components of media"

Like telephony, content tends to bring with it some specifics that do make it "special" - regulation, legal and commercial rules (censorship, copyright, reproduction rights & so forth). Video and audio content often requires special treatment because of their-sensitivity and huge volumes of data. And of course, there are decades (video) or even hundreds of years (text) of user experience. There is also a huge sense of entitlement by the media industry, that makes its advocates believe in their own uniqueness.

Yet for all its power and "specialness", it is starting to be put in its place. According to PWC/Cisco the entire market for digital media is worth about $300bn, including digital broadcast [non-Internet] TV. The software industry is also worth in excess of $300bn - and is shifting to either "cloud" applications or over-the-network downloaded apps like the iPhone. The video game industry alone is worth $30bn or more. Even the software piracy industry costs $50bn a year.

There's clearly many different ways to slice the statistics, depending on definitions or what's included/excluded - Internet vs. non-Internet, inclusion of things like SMS or web advertising, is user-generated material "content" in its conventional sense, and so on.

But to my eye, there's a close parallel here. Content is getting subsumed into applications like social networks or music-based communities. Amazon's valuation is about much more than the "content" stored in its warehouses or servers - it's the platform itself which is the core of the business. Facebook's value is about it's user base and APIs, not third-party chunks of media. Even for Apple, the AppStore is much sexier than iTunes, capturing a far greater share of industry attention.

And just like VoIP, digital content is also feeling the pinch of arbitrage on pricing. I don't just mean piracy - look instead to the failing of the print newspaper industry, as value moves to other application-based sources. (Are blogs "content"? I don't think of this post as an application, but I'd wince if someone called it content, in the same way I wince if they call me a blogger). And in future, what might happen to the value of news or live sports/music, if I stream and back-up all I see and hear to a server in the cloud via "life-streaming" or a similar application? Do content rights apply to my optic nerve?

Just as I think that the telecom industry is facing a dead-end in the notion of communication as simply sessions (see my recent posts on IMS), I think the media industry is similarly constrained in thinking of content as "chunks" of video or audio material. I also think that designing next-generation networks that are content-centric is as wrong as creating them session-centric.

Let's be honest. Ultimately, if voice is just data, rthen content is just software. We're not there yet, but they're both inevitable in the long term. Lobbyists and incumbents in both cases will plead for special treatment - justifiably, sometimes. Both telephony and content come with huge expectations on the part of users and regulators, and need to be protected in various ways.

But let's not lose sight of the end-game either - or entrench decades-old prejudices or business models in the underlying technology architectures. The content tail should not be allowed to wag the future application-networking dog.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Various quick things

I'm hugely busy at the moment, but a couple of quick things:

Skype's reported acquisition is very interesting, and it will be interesting to see what evolved. I'd expect to see:
- either collaboration or competition with Google's Wave. I'm increasingly thinking that the 100-year notion of a phone call or session as the basic unit of telecoms "conversation" between people is nearing end-of-life (well, on 20 year view, anyway)
- perhaps a proprietary carrier-grade service for VoIP on LTE or HSPA+, avoiding the IMS / CSFB etc conundrum
- I've got to believe that $100bn of profitable SMS revenue worldwide is a very tempting target, especially given the success of local alternatives like MXit in South Africa
- maybe the MVNO / SIM approach being targetted by Truphone and others

I see that 3UK is launching Novatel's MiFi. EDIT: Apparently it's actually a Huawei device (see comments). I'd thought it was the Novatel, but in a custom plastic shell; I stand corrected.

The UK's leading political blogger Guido Fawkes agrees with me about the faddish nature of Twitter.

I'm also skeptical about Android - I've said before that it's massively over-hyped and according to Andy, it seems like AT&T agrees with me. He's also had another great post up recently about service vs. product.

Symbian's David Wood has a blog post evoking something I wrote about a year ago - femtocell-optimised handsets.

Lots of noise about netbooks supplied via mobile operators, perhaps subsidised - but I'm waiting to see the outcome, as I reckon the market opportunity has been overestimated. I'm hearing anecdotal evidence that customers recognise it's cheaper to get a separate retail netbook and data contract rather than a bundle.