Telcos as Voice Platforms – is it finally happening?

Posted by on June 2, 2012 in Blog | Comments Off

Telcos as Voice Platforms – is it finally happening?

Back in 2005, there was a lot of chatter about “Mobile 2.0.” It was the subject of great excitement amongst key thinkers at the time, mostly the so-called “mobilists” in Europe who were far ahead of the game in terms of understanding the true potential of mobile before the iPhone brought it to the attention of Silicon Valley innovators (many of whom still think, incorrectly, that Apple invented the smartphone).

In the major rewrite of my first book “Next Generation Wireless Applications,” I added “Mobile 2.0″ to the sub-title and described what I thought it meant, which was namely the intersection of open mobile APIs, client and network, plus Web 2.0 “programmable web.” This cocktail allowed for “programmable communications” using developer-friendly APIs and technologies.

I later refreshed the idea with some real-time aspects and details of the various device and browser API possibilities that I expected to emerge. Some of these now have, like the WebRTC work.

Returning to 2005/6, whilst Chief Architect at Motorola’s mobile labs in EMEA, I had my team build various voice mash-ups to demonstrate the new world of “Web/telco convergence.” Naively, I thought that this new world would be propelled by the advent of something called IMS (which telco guys will know well and Web guys will go “huh?”)

For the uninitiated, IMS was a new core technology for mobile networks that would replace older signalling protocols with the spiffy net-friendly SIP, which conceptually has a similar programming model to HTTP.

My “Mobile 2.0″ vision was predicated by the assumption that telcos/carriers would open their IMS networks to allow developers to access the SIP signalling in order to “chain” all kinds of interesting services on the back of telephony and messaging flows in their networks. This never happened. Carriers either didn’t invest in IMS or, those that did, failed to leverage the technology to create an open ecosystem, or, more accurately, a platform.

Roll on quite a few years and the word “platform” had become vogue amongst Web innovators – “build a platform,” many cried. Of course, platform (or N-sided) business models were not new. Commercial TV is a platform business model – the viewers get it for free and the advertisers (the real customers of TV) pay for access (to lucrative commercial slots).

The platform idea was heavily influenced by the success of Google who realised that an N-sided business model was the monetization secret that search had been, well, in search of: users get it for free, advertisers pay. If only Web innovators had been paying attention to the so-called “bricks and mortar” businesses, they would have discovered this sooner. The model is old, but the scalable potential is new because of the so-called “long tail” benefits, which means millions of advertising slots versus only a few on commercial TV.

Later on, the “Telco 2.0″ guys went crazy about N-sided business models, as if they too had just discovered the idea. Fair dues to Torrance et al, as I think that the concept was probably very fresh for most carrier folk used to the single-sided business model that has dominated the carrier world for decades.

When I consulted for O2 UK in 2009, I promoted the theme of open platforms to the board and got the CEO’s blessing and funding to build an open voice and messaging platform, which I called connFu.

Because O2 lacked an IMS infrastructure, the idea was to leverage the software-centric capabilities of Telefonica’s recent Jajah acquisition, a mobile VoIP platform built on SIP. This aligned with my other consulting theme: Software DNA, which I believe is an essential asset for any modern digital company, carriers included.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a little start-up called Twilio had entered the configuration, touting their voice and messaging APIs. Their CEO, Jeff Lawson, had got so sick and tired of trying to add (carrier) voice to his apps, that he decided to do it himself by building a set of APIs to work atop of  wholesale VOIP networks.

Whilst on a trip to Twitter’s Chirp conference, I took an O2 senior executive to visit Twilio and see what they were up to. The anti-telco vibe was palpable, but this may well have changed now that Twilio have probably realised that you can’t quite become a next generation “Web-carrier” without talking to the other old-school carriers who are good are charging lots of business folks for their services.

While all this is going on, the guys at Voxeo, who built Tropo.com, have been quietly building up their presence in the voice API world – and with a solid understanding of carriers (gained from their classic IVR business). I don’t think it’s any secret any more that the connFu project at Telefonica/O2 was built with Voxeo’s help and technology. I think that the partnership has been valuable in helping to think about how to partner with carriers at this interesting intersection of carrier-scale with Web-speed.

Telefonica are a big company. And, like all big companies, there are various currents and counter-currents of energy. The BlueVia platform is one of the best carrier developer programs out there and a great source of platform energy in the carrier world.

I bump into numerous (competing) carrier execs who tell me that BlueVia is number one. Apart from its innovative business models, BlueVia is one of the few programs that managed not only to avoid turning developers off, per usual carrier antagonisms, but to turn some of them into fans – a tall order for a telco.

BlueVia are still the ones to beat, but should try to get ahead of the game with some serious voice-API capabilities. They clearly did something right because Twilio hired away their marketing director (James Parton).

The birth of Telefonica Digital apparently reset objectives a little, away from the BlueVia open platform concept and back towards trying to “compete” head-on with OTT-like services, such as via the recently launched Tu Me. It seems that the part of the business that controls the priorities for Jajah didn’t really grok developers and the open platform thinking. Sadly for me, at least as connFu’s inventor, the connFu idea has stalled.

The interesting and exciting development is that I know of at least four major carriers across the globe who are now getting ready to release voice APIs and essentially copy the connFu concept that Telefonica pioneered.

The whole rationale and story for open platforms takes time to appreciate. The strategy is simple, but the execution is complex. It is not an obvious “quick win” that carriers are used to backing, based on their quarterly numbers mentality.

However, carriers have had time to mull it over and realise that platforms probably do have a role to play in their future. How big and how significant, nobody knows.

And that was always the point. When I consulted for O2 and Telefonica, I was clear that as there were no easy or obvious answers for innovation, the smart approach was to construct an agile organisational capability that would enable the innovation to take root. I argued – and still do – that much of this could be done by the clever application of modern Web paradigms, patterns and technologies – like open platforms and software DNA.

By using the best of Web ingredients — but within the context of being a carrier — telcos can do a lot to reinvent themselves. Of course, this is only one pillar of a wider strategic vision and plan, but a significant one nonetheless and not to be overlooked. It seems that carriers are finally understanding this, which is why my latest book,¬†Connected Services, is so timely. It documents the modern Web specifically for a carrier audience, including platforms thinking in its various forms.

[Paul Golding is a leading expert on carrier innovation, specifically when it comes to applying modern Web paradigms to achieve agility and growth. Unlike various commentators and theorists out there, Paul has dug deep in the trenches to actually execute numerous initiatives at the intersection of Web and Telco worlds. Paul offers various strategic consulting packages to senior carrier executives who are serious about transformation.]

 

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