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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Vacation + H2'2015 Research Plans

A quick note - I'm going to be mostly offline over the next 3 weeks, as I'm travelling places with very limited Internet connection. Response to client inquiries etc is likely to be slow until August 6th. If you want to order a research report, you may wish to wait until my return before clicking "buy now", as I may not be able to send through the documents beforehand.

Also, a heads-up on some of my current expected research plans and other engagements for the remainder of the year:

1) WebRTC Report Update - I'm currently working on a summer revision to my main report, to be published when I return. Continued coverage & the most comprehensive forecasts & strategy analysis on WebRTC, spanning enterprise, SPs/telcos and consumer markets.

2) Contextual Communications - the first workshop I ran a month ago with Martin Geddes was a tremendous success, and we're looking into doing a follow-up, perhaps in the US. This is undoubtedly the next major trend in voice, video & messaging - and the more I dig into it, the more multi-faceted it becomes. Expect more detailed research & analysis in H2.

3) Network Evolution - I'm collaborating with Telco 2.0, as associate lead analyst on its Future of the Network subscription research stream. More detail to come in August, but I'm covering the full range of mobile & fixed network areas, from NFV/SDN to 5G, from IoT networking to spectrum policy. Reports issued during the year will cover telcos+WiFi, Gigabit Cable, Government-run networks, 4G Benchmarking, 5G roadmap and much more. Drop me an email if you're interested in content, briefings, or potentially purchasing a subscription.

4) Private Advisory - I've been working on various client engagements in recent months, with others in the pipeline. My coverage spans the full range of communications industry strategy & technology, from WebRTC use-cases, through regulatory policy work, to market assessment & forecast of disruptive trends, such as virtual/other SIM cards, WiFi, encryption & IoT. Please email for details or to discuss a project or private workshop: information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

5) Speaking engagements - I have assorted public and private conferences & other events already lined up in coming months, including the Paris WebRTC conference in December and the IIT Realtime Comms event in Chicago in October, and the next Great Telco Debate in London on Nov 4th. Please get in touch if you need a speaker or moderator on overall telecoms trends, or a more specific angle relating to voice/video/WebRTC/UC or 4G/5G/WiFi/regulation & policy

Lastly, I'm also doing an increasing amount of more general Futurism work & analysis. I recently contributed a chapter to the Fast Future book on The Future of Business, and I'll be at the Anticipating 2040 conference in October in London, run by London Futurists. While my main focus is around how improved communications technology will impact humanity, I'm also keeping a close (& cynical) eye on other areas of disruption such as drones, AI, robotics, human enhancement, biomedical innovation, future politics and other strands of development.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Telecoms Regulation and the mythical "Level Playing Field": A Flawed Analogy

Much of the recent discussion around telecom regulation, especially in the EU, but also the US, India and elsewhere, has been about the idea of a "level playing field". This is typically used in discussions about the role of telcos vs. the so-called "OTTs". The usual story is that telcos are subject to rules (eg on interoperability or emergency-call support) that Internet application providers are not.

There's just one glaring problem.

There is no "playing field". It cannot be "level", because it does not exist.

It's a flawed and misleading analogy, intended to set the frame of debate and discussion. It's a duplicitous move by (mostly) telecom industry lobbyists, to redefine the regulatory arguments in their terms.

Analogies are important. They can be hugely informative, or hugely misleading. They direct our thoughts, and can sometimes make an argument much easier to understand - but they can also distract and mis-direct our thinking.

I recently read a fantastic book by John Pollack called "Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell our Greatest Ideas". (I'm also now reading "I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like" by Dr. mardy Grothe).

So here, the analogy with a playing field contains a fundamental error - playing fields are where two teams meet, to play a common sport. You want a level playing-field so that one side isn't advantaged by the slope of the pitch.

But if the two teams are playing totally different sports, the flatness of the pitch is really not very important. 

If a polo team turns up against a rugby squad, or a cycling peloton vs. a swimming team or a lone golfer, the idea of a “playing field” is obviously ridiculous.

This is the case for much of the telecom vs. Internet discussion. SnapChat and Instagram are not playing the same sport as each other, or SMS. Skype doesn’t really map onto phone calls well either. Netflix isn’t playing the same game as the BBC. Google isn’t playing the same sport as anyone.

The levelness – or bumpiness – of the “playing field” is a useless analogy. It is becoming manipulatively used to try to push regulators towards the ideas of mandated interoperability, emergency-call support and so forth.

It’s basically the Football Premier League trying to convince the world’s sports authorities to forcce rugby, American Football, tennis, hockey and beach-volleyball to all use the same size & shaped ball as them. It’s Bernie Ecclestone trying to get F1 rules applied to rallying and Nascar.

A much better analogy would be to try to get telecom regulation to work along the lines of the Olympic ideals and principles – fair play, mutual respect, and a focus on outright excellence, but with appropriate checks and monitoring. Those ideals can apply to all sports, with each specific one having its own set of rules.

The fragmentation of voice, video and messaging into diverse applications, and especially their shift to being features embedded in other apps/websites, means that “voice” is not a singular sport. We already know that messaging isn’t homogeneous, because we’ve had diverse forms for many years.

Trying to assert a “level playing field” between telephony, Skype, Talko and 1000 new WebRTC-powered apps is a completely flawed use of analogy. We can define some common Olympic-style principles (eg around privacy), but the notion that a pre-defined standard approach should be some sort of “baseline” for other proprietary modes of communication is ridiculous.

To use an extreme example, consider a mobile karaoke app. It is clearly about "voice". But equally, it is clearly not a "phone call". Same for a medical diagnostic app using breathing patterns, or a push-to-talk collaboration function in an oilfield-maintence worker's system. Walkie-talkie systems for security guards, a co-browsing tool for grandparents and children to read a book together from a distance, or any number of other applications are NOT the same "sport" or using the same pitch/field/velodrome/pool as phone calls.

Is there some overlap in use-cases? Perhaps. But that's more a function of telephony being a one-size-fits-all tool. Does a Swiss-Army knife have functional equivalence to a sushi-chef's knife?

The myth of the "Level Playing Field" needs to be expunged from current EU thinking on the Digital Single Market, especially with regard to communications applications. There are some valid areas where "levelness" is important - security, for example - but the majority of  the telcos' inputs (eg on interoperability or the spurious "platform neutrality") are self-serving irrelevance.

Pick your analogies more accurately, and you get the right to lead opinion. Pick flawed analogies, and you deserve to be viewed with suspicion that you're trying to muddle the debate.

(A few other telecom analogies are awful too - "dumb pipe" is completely wrong, and "over the top" invokes images of dominance/power that are false too. "Delivery" and "Distribution" applied to data are nonsensical - there is no equivalence with physical goods being shipped. Even "neutral" is questionable).

Friday, July 03, 2015

Videoconferencing does not replace business travel

I did a short radio interview the other day, about London airport expansion, and the possible new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. I wasn’t speaking about the choice of one location vs. the other. Instead, I was speaking as a frequent traveller, and why additional capacity is likely to be needed in the first place.

Some of the reasons are aviation-related: congested airports have no wiggle-room if something goes wrong. I’ve suffered big delays when weather or other incidents has meant that airports can only operate at reduced capacity, with greater spacing between landings and take-offs. Then there’s a desire for more direct flights from London to cities across Asia, the Americas, and MEA. Changing planes in NY or Singapore or Istanbul is always possible, but that just adds more time (and additional fuel-heavy take-offs). Various other reasons apply too.

But I’m not an aviation specialist. I’m a communications industry analyst & consultant.
What really stumped the radio-host was when he suggested videoconferencing might replace most business travel, so fewer flights would be needed and therefore perhaps less airport capacity.

I responded that ironically, about half my own travel is to events/clients actually involved in the videoconferencing industry, or in other aspects of advanced communications. I regularly attend and speak at video, UC & WebRTC events in person, have private workshops with operators or vendors, meetings with investors and so on.

Could I do some or all of these via a phone-call or video session? In theory yes, some could be done remotely, but in my view they would be much less productive – and many wouldn’t happen at all. This isn’t just my personal dislike for video either (I prefer voice-only, in general), but a more general observation.

Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that the people who pitch online alternatives as a replacement for in-person meetings probably don’t do much of either. There are at least 10 reasons why audio & video-conferencing is not a replacement for business travel.
Firstly, it is worth noting that the applicability of video/collaboration tools will necessarily depend on the type of meeting involved. There are multiple “use-cases” for physical business travel, each with different characteristics:

  • Short one-to-one meetings (maybe 1hr in length) for sales calls, introductions, catch-ups with colleagues etc. These can be sub-divided into company internal meetings (eg boss/employee) or external (eg salesman/client) which have different dynamics
  • Internal small-group meetings, eg a project team distributed across multiple locations. Again, these can be internal or external (eg consultant presenting to the board)
  • Site visits, where someone is shown around multiple physical parts of a location, has a variety of meetings & so on.
  • Trade shows where the emphasis is on booths and the “show floor”
  • Conferences of 1-3 days duration, with multiple presentations, panels, break-out sessions etc
  • Seminars (maybe 1-3hrs) with a few speakers and predominantly “broadcast” mode with some Q&A
  • Interactive workshops where people interact in small groups
  • Team-building sessions combining a mix of presentation and social/bonding activities
  • Many other types of “meeting”.
While any of these can use the same transportation mode (ie a flight) they would all need to be re-invented with different forms of conferencing or collaboration application. Some are easier than others – informal meetings with a small dispersed project team, for example, can be done with a simple audio or video bridge, ideally with file/screen-sharing as well. Webinars can replace some seminars.

But a full-on trade show, with demos and new products, as well as private meeting spaces for confidential discussions, cannot really be replicated online to any reasonable extent. Neither can good interactive workshops, or even summit-type conferences. As a regular panel moderator and conference chair, I don’t think anywhere near the same experience could be done via video as in person. Maybe in 10 years time, with Oculus Rift version 8 and some advanced haptic interfaces and full body-suits, but I’m not convinced.

Some of the limitations of videoconferencing-style replacement for physical meetings:

  • Lack of detail – while you can replicate lifelike scenes with 4K video, it’s still not fully immersive without stereoscopic vision, ultra-fast frame rate etc.
  • No way to support culturally-important actions like handshakes or physical exchanges of business cards
  • Security and privacy – how can you be sure that the quiet chat over a virtual coffee remains confidential?
  • Subconscious awareness of body language and micro-expressions
  • Cognitive absorption – what part of your concentration is diverted to seeing how you appear on-screen to other people?
  • Technical complexities of managing virtual events with multiple parties, using different networks & devices. WebRTC and its peers only go so far
  • Dependency on camera/sound crews, cameras, microphones – which then mean you get an “edited” version of an event rather than your own choice of where to sit/stand/walk around
  • Lack of sync between timezones. Do you want to get “virtual jetlag” by attending the breakfast session at 9pm at night in your timezone & listening to conference presentations until 4am?
  • How do you facilitate networking over meals, provide “back-channels” to whisper to your neighbour during sessions, manage realistic arguments or back-and-forth discussions and so on?

Overall, while online collaboration is OK for some use-cases, it is generally a second-class citizen, with numerous almost-intractable limitations. It would reduce the effectiveness of companies, compromise security and productivity, and advantage people with geographic proximity.

In many ways, videoconferencing is becoming more important. In future we may have access to contextual communications tools which may improve some interactions so they're better than real-life speech and vision. But it’s usually more accurate to consider it as a “better phone call” or “richer than an email exchange”. It’s a big step down from interaction in person. Conferencing can enable extra conversations, or allow extra people to attend existing physical meetings remotely. But that is not the same as replacing the core in-person conversations.

Ironically, better remote conversations may lead to more international business and travel. A more-effective initial introduction via video/voice may well lead to new relationships being built. And later, those relationships will often involve in-person meetings, for site visits, events, interactive workshops and so on. Certainly, without my extra “reach” via both conferencing and social-media, I wouldn’t have nearly as many international clients to work with.

It’s also worth noting that while videoconferencing might be able to replicate some aspects of traditional meetings, the latter have evolved as well. Many conferences now employ techniques that are experiential or immersive. Group exercises, interaction with voting terminals, not to mention the improved venues and carefully-crafted social interaction episodes.

A similar story is true for consumers. Wearing a virtual-reality headset in a tanning salon is not a substitute for feeling the beach sand between your toes. Videoconferencing into your distant family’s Xmas dinner doesn’t work, if you can’t taste the turkey and pull the crackers. Listening to a rock concert on the radio doesn’t compare to jostling and jumping with other 
fans of the band in the arena.

Nobody can conclude a deal with a video-handshake in a virtual restaurant, or experience Burning Man by conference-call. 

Those are "contexts" that cannot be replicated online.

You have to be there.