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Friday, June 20, 2014

The other side of the coin: a few telcos DO "get it"....

What a difference a week makes.

Last week I was in Munich at the NextGen Service Platforms event, listening to the last of the dinosaurs coming up with ever-more improbable reasons why the Internet asteroid was going to have to play nicely with terrestrial IMS networks. My rather bruising write-up is here.

This week I've been in Atlanta, at the WebRTC Expo. There's still a few dinosaurs prowling the conference hall, but they're mostly here on fact-finding missions about growing feathers or evolving into mammals.

In particular, I discovered a couple that have already made the leap from Mesozoic to Cenozoic eras. I was moderating a session featuring two of the telcos that have taken WebRTC (and also Telco-OTT models) to heart most closely: Telefonica and Telenor.

First off, a mea culpa. Last year, when Telefonica announced the end of its Digital unit as a separate unit, I assumed that this meant that the old-school telco "white blood cells" had rejected the Internet implants, pushing back against the innovative, risk-taking culture that spawned TuMe & TuGo. Turns out that I was wrong - it may well have been the other way around.

The new overall head of Communications Services for Telefonica is Ian Small, the former CEO of the acquired TokBox unit, the WebRTC platform provider based in SF, and which was inside the former Digital business. He's now in charge of delivering the future of voice, video and messaging for 300m-odd customers. And he recognises that traditional telephony and SMS is inevitably going to decline, so is out looking for interesting & plausible ways to replace the missing revenues. 

While he clearly has a lot of politics to deal with - not all parts of large businesses grasp change at  the same pace - I suspect that it's going to take an awful lot to convince him of the benefits of lower-than-common-denominator RCS/joyn or that IMS is an optimal platform for innovation. (My RCS Zombie slide from Munich got another good reception)

Telefonica is developing quite a few proof-points for disruption around voice and video:

  • TokBox, which is increasingly looking like one of the real leaders in offering WebRTC as a service, especially around video-based customer service & mobile SDKs, as well as its deal with Mozilla (see below). Its customer references now include brands like esurance (for mobile-app claims adjustment) and Bridgestone (in-store golf kiosks)
  • Tuenti, which I wrote about a few months ago, which combines internal-MVNO, Telco-OTT mobile apps, WebRTC and zero-rated data all in one. It subsequently blogged about its WebRTC work here - looks like it didn't use Tokbox, but did its own implementation. The fact that each business unit at Telefonica is free to create its own products quickly, ignoring the so-called "core" infrastructure, is class-leading in terms of organisational dynamics.
  • The now-defunct TUMe standalone VoIP app, and the still-lively phone-extension TUGo which seems to have quite a lot of fans. I've seen some other interesting demos as well.
  • A new deal with Mozilla/Firefox, which is intending to embed video-calling directly into the browser. Not web-pages, but as part of the furniture of the browser itself. Given that Firefox has 450m users, and auto-updates regularly, this essentially gets TF/TokBox to "half a Skype" almost overnight. Add in making new versions of low-cost Firefox OS smartphones WebRTC-friendly, too
  • Assorted partnerships, including with Intel, Qualcomm (chips for the aforementioned low-end devices, I'm guessing with hardware VP8 acceleration) and Ericsson
  • References to "intention", "purpose" and the value of voice/video beyond the transport of minutes of speech.
Overall, I still rate Telefonica as probably the large telco that most "gets" the future of communications, even though I'm sure there remain differences of opinion across the company. (The O2 Germany presentation in Munich about the harsh realities of IMS/VoLTE deployment being an obvious case-in-point, and I wouldn't be surprised to find a dipolodocus or two still wandering around Madrid).

Then there's Telenor. Unlike Telefonica, it still has its separate "Digital"-branded arm, which has done things such as its previous Telco-OTT content business Comoyo, and various other current projects. Like Telefonica, the difference here is organisational - Telenor Digital has the freedom to actually launch things, without getting explicit permission from the "mothership". This is very different to other service providers, where labs or "innovation centres" are often just graveyards of good ideas that have been sat-upon by vested interested elsewhere.

I'd previously spoken to Telenor about appear.in, its simple web-based video chat service. Although similar to a number of other WebRTC "video room" services, it seems to have gained more attention than some, especially as it's designed to have minimal "sign-up friction". It also now has one of the few massmarket-ready WebRTC mobile consumer apps, and is allowing users to claim specific rooms (I've got appear.in/disruptiveanalysis allocated to me, for example).

But what really grabbed the attention of the conference attendees was the history of how appear.in was created - one of the least telco-like stories I've come across. As a web-centric company, Telenor Digital came across WebRTC quite a while back and thought it was interesting. So, last summer, it assigned 3 interns a project to try and create something cool with it. (The word "cool" continually featured in the presentation and Q&A - itself pretty unique for a telco-run initiative). 6 weeks later, appear.in was born, and indeed, seemed cool to the people who'd asked the developers to work on it.

As for how it got from that early version to actually being deployed? A lengthy cycle of testing, integration, focus groups, regulatory inquiries, BSS/OSS development etc? 

No. Try this instead:

"Well, it was summer in Norway at that point. And all the grown-ups were on holiday. So we just launched it".

Apparently a senior Telenor exec was quizzed by a Norwegian newspaper about his cool new Skype competitor. He had to give a tactful "I'll get back to you" answer.

Since then, appear.in has continued to grow (although no hard numbers have been released yet). It's appeared on the BBC's Click technology show, and has launched a mobile app version. Oh, and the "infrastructure" needed to run it costs about $300/month.

A critical aspect of appear.in is that it's as much about design ("cool!") as it is about technology. In fact, the Atlanta speaker Dag-Inge Aas has written his own excellent blog post about it on appear.in's site, here. In his words "WebRTC allows developers to focus on creating good, innovative user experiences, instead of worrying about the technology". That is completely antithetical to the traditional telco mindset of worrying about standards, interoperability, interface specs  before eventually - if ever - actually talking about the end-user's needs and behaviour.

As yet, appear.in is not being monetised. It's quite possible that the other units of Telenor may take a more conservative approach to future voice and video service creation. But I'm willing to bet that it's units like Telenor Digital that will make a difference in the medium term, and the fact that it has the autonomy to create and launch disruptive new services is a good sign. Compare and constrast "the grown-ups were on holiday, so we launched it anyway" with "we asked the regulator about WebRTC before we built anything, and got 12 pages of questions in response". Which one sounds like the web? And which one sounds like the traditional way of doing things?

It's about time for telcos to start asking for forgiveness if they need to, instead of permission just-in-case. And it's about time regulators and governments encouraged them to do so, by ensuring that any sanctions (if needed) are rare and proportionate.

As I wrote last week, the key thing is not migrating legacy networks. It's migrating legacy thinking and philosophy. Design-led approach, freemium models, a nuanced attitude to QoS, a "let's just do it" philosophy, web-style timescales and costs (3 developers x 6 weeks, $300/month) and a focus on communications intent & purpose are all critical.

It's really good to see a couple of telecom operators - or at least, certain groups within them - clearly demonstrating a break with the past. Yes, I expect there will need to be some compromises between old and new - but the mere fact that the innovators are being empowered to get things moving, is invigorating. 

Last week's event pretty much made me want to write off the whole industry and let it face the telepocalyptic fires. But I can see a few phoenixes rising, even before the conflagration has finished turning the deadwood to ash.

Interested in WebRTC evolution? Check out Disruptive Analysis' ongoing research. And thanks muchly to the WebRTC Expo team, for recognising me as one of their "WebRTC Pioneers".

One last side-note: another part-telco/part-Internet company, Truphone, was also at the show. As well as touting its multi-local SIMs (something I've mentioned before), it also did a cool WebRTC demo that I've been wanting to see for ages - forcing unfamiliar inbound callers to go via a web interface, and demonstrate they actually knew the called party, by showing themselves as a LinkedIn contact, or a Facebook friend. Think of it as "interruption management" - if I know you on a social network, I'll probably tolerate an unexpected call from you. Anyone else? Sorry, I'm not interested in being "reachable".

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