June 23, 2004

in VoIP

I’m about to go off and attend the pre-dinner Supernova event. Looks like a great crowd. Plus I put an initial post on the Supernova blog. The copy is also retained below.

Presence Tense for Telecom

When Kevin asked me to write about Telecoms I was a little surprised. I can still stumble over telephony terms and the pronunciation of the acronyms. The largest of which VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) holds us back conceptually. For the VoIP opportunity is not the old telephony system at a lower cost. It is much more and that is my interest, not Vonage or AT&T CallVantage plans. These today are still traditional telephony over IP (PoIP?) and their rates continue to drop daily. Instead I’ve been blogging about online presence spirals, the implications for Skype, and what’s broken about social networks. For me the future of how we work, collaborate and hold conversations is up for grabs. So I’m turning up with three key areas. on my mind. Presence, mobility, and convergence. How will they play out for communication? I’ll also be keeping an ear out for regulations and power struggles.

Presence is gaining new visibility. It is most obvious when you have a buddylist just like we use in an Instant Messaging context. AOL, MSN and Yahoo popularized text messaging with simple presence (available, away, do not disturb etc.). A parallel thread exists in some markets with SMS messaging on cell phones although without presence. Less invasive message is winning. “Can you talk now?”. Rather than RING RING RING! When Skype launched we found a “voice-centric” messaging system without the connection problems. Text and voice converged, and in a single click it was much easier to call or escalate from text to voice. However presence can be leveraged in many new ways. Take the conference call. For the most part today they are structured and require a scheduled time slot. By contrast improve your understanding of presence and instantly conference calls become more accessible. Collaborating in real-time may be spontaneous or opportunistic (when the required parties are next all available). Convoq’s meeting products provide a good example.

In a world of presence voice mail will take on a new role. Voice mail in a presence-centric world may be the failure case. When the cost of connections enable open lines then the metaphor for our phone system is closer to Intercoms and Push to Talk solutions. Open channels become possible and mean we can be always-on. Why hang up? Presence will also give some sense of device (mobile, at home etc.). I know this may seem frightening to some. However there is research to substantiate that perhaps telephony should be less about talking and more about listening. See this quick summary.

Presence with this level of transparency has implications for individuals and companies alike. It is here where communications potentially dovetails with digital identity. Of interest is the amount of profile information we may be willing to share around a simple call connection. For all the complexity of digital identity when I finally receive a call from an email address at company X with a good reputation factor I can be pretty sure this is call from this individual. If there is a picture it will have the company picture. The profile will contain plenty of other information too. Additionally I may subscribe to other services to further check this “profile” even before accepting the call. This is just a minor example of how “smart profiles” will be part of the communications system. Now some of the smartest consumer centric profiles are out there in various social networking sites which with few exceptions have no “real-time” connectivity capability. They are like the white pages without the phone number. Social Networks are “postal” in format today. Yet within them we see tribes, networks and associations. Look to combine social networking with presence and real-time communications. It will require a people-centric solution.

A stark contrast exists with the other end of VoIP. Vonage and others providers deliver slightly enhanced service compared with the PSTN at a lower cost than your traditional telephone. Presence will change this form of telephony and the types of devices required.

I presume most in this audience are familiar with “Stupid Networks”. This is a decentralized world where potentially everyone can have a personal telephone exchange. Telephone systems meant big costs and ongoing expenses. Today we are very close to a Personal IP PBX. Software handles the majority of the functionality. Soon the IP PBX or the controls may be in my handset or wearable device. All those services you pay for become simple little applications. The Personal IP PBX may potentially provides a better method for sending out enquires on your behalf.

W-iFi is changing our homes. Concurrently hotspots are emerging all over the place. The PDA on Wi-Fi has limited battery life, however it can provide a high call quality cellular replacement. Handset devices are emerging that are both Wi-FI and cellular. What opportunities are there to integrate mobility with both desktop and home? When I walk into the house does my cell switch to Wi-Fi and connect that way? Can it also pick up my office line when I get home? Why do I need a landline in this world? While doesn’t my cell phone really communicate with my laptop etc.

I’m used to using my T-Mobile Nokia 3650 when I’m on the road. I can dial up almost anywhere without looking for a hotspot. That’s convenient, unfortunately the connection is slow. However I have friends in other countries that are using next generation cellular technologies and find it easy to do VoIP over cellular. That means programs like Skype will enable both simple presence and better voice quality than is currently available over a cellular network. Minutes may take a few years to go away; they will go away. Having a fat data pipe in our hands will open up many new opportunities.

A little change. A few months ago I became a regular user of two screens on my desktop. After a short time I found one became the document window and the other for monitoring my communications. Concurrently I upped usage of softphones and all the IM systems. I found it was easier to work, particularly collaborate virtually with a click to connect and headset than holding a phone and trying to type. I found myself engaging in more conference calls, more desktop screen sharing, and probing how to break the traditional cost barriers. The convergence of phone and text is merely the beginning. Collaborative workspaces that were ok asynchonously can now be connected with real-time text, voice and video. If you are using collaboration tools I’d look at how they integrate with voice and presence.

Device convergence. We are seeing PDA’s become phones and cell phones that act as PDA’s. Now we dual mode devices are connecting to both cellular WiFi networks. Seemless connectivity — no, not yet. There are other areas too. RFID tags and location specific info. New devices are emerging. WiFi handheld phone cordless phone for the home. Many of these will fail. My favorite example of this is the dial-centric softphone. It’s like going to Target and buying a new cordless phone. They are all much the same. So what I find most disturbing is new products that focus on the old formulas. We only dial when the phone doesn’t allow us to connect in one click.

Story to conclude:

Recently my 12 year old daughter had two friends over for the afternoon. During the afternoon both girls recieved calls on their cellphones from parents. They were coordinating pick-up times etc. In both cases Mom clearly knew where they were, it was just easier to dial the child directly. The impact I never spoke to the other parents that day. Calls that once added another social dimension (parent to parent about kids) disappeared, the kids empowered took care of it themselves. Better or worse? What is certainly worse is trying to find a cell phone for a child out by the pool when you are not even sure who’s bag is rining. Oh and yes my kids have cellphones. It is easier to reach them! Sometimes new toys have unintended consequences.

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