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Archive for December, 2010

FCC’s net neutrality short-term heavy pain, long-term gain???

December 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The newest FCC ruling about net neutrality will have far reaching consequences for VoIP. US operators will not be allowed to block VoIP from competing providers. This means that Skype, Google Voice, etc. will have free access to the operator’s networks.

It is unclear if Europe will follow the US. Not being able to block VoIP will mean that voice and SMS revenues will decline faster than before. Phone tariffs will no longer be able to include statements like “VoIP is not allowed or will mean the user accepts a more expensive tariff plan”.

However is allowing universal VoIP really bad in the long-term?

In case the FCC’s net neutrality would not have included this statement and operators would have continued having a “monopoly” on mobile VoIP what would have happened? Probably nothing major. And it is exactly this state of not being forced to move on and bring out innovative services to substitute declining voice and SMS revenues that is dangerous. Dotcoms are innovating at crazy speeds. Sooner or later they would find ways around a legal “monopoly”. However with the new rules the operator’s management is no longer exclusively thinking about rolling out LTE or not.

In Europe VoIP should also be declared open for general usage because otherwise there is a major risk that European operators lag behind in the mid-term and can never recuperate again…

GiffGaff the first community driven telecom experiment

December 22, 2010 2 comments

If you haven’t heart of GiffGaff, here is an intro video:

GiffGaff is probably the most innovative solution that I have seen in months that has come from an established provider (Telefonica / O2). It uses the community and social networks for support (socialCRM), sales and marketing. By doing so it saves costs and offers this in price reductions, prepaid discounts and hard cash back to its subscribers.

The idea is great and it really uses the latest social networks. Unfortunately GiffGaff is (still) limited to prepaid and pure telecom services (SMS, calls & data). It would be great if they could offer also long tail services.

Virtual Telecom Applications and an innovation architecture

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I have been looking into virtualization but what I find are mainly operation system based virtualizations. What I am looking for are application, integration and datastore virtualization solutions. Google’s App Engine and  Oracle’s JRocket Virtual come closed to what I am looking for application virtualization. Why do you need an operating system if you could virtualize your application directly? It would save resources and would be more secure. My ideal solution allows developers to write applications and run them on a virtual application server. This virtual app server can scale applications horizontally over multiple machines. Each application is running in a sandbox hence badly written or unsecure applications will run out of resources and are not able to impact other applications. We would need a similar solution for integration solutions. Both would need out of the box support for multi-tenancy in which either a tenant gets a separate instance or multiple tenants can share one instance if supported by the software. Integration should be separated from the application logic and so should data storage.

Integration is key because the virtual applications could be running on a public cloud but would have to be able to interact with on-site systems. Enormous high-throughput, security, multi-tenancy and resistance to failure are key. One API can be linked to multiple back-office systems or different versions. Different versions of an API can be link to the same back-office system to prepare applications before a major back-office upgrade.

A distributed multi-tenant data store should hold all the end-user and application data. Ideally in a schema-less manner that avoids having to migrate data for data schema changes.

All these virtual elements should be managed by an automated scaling and highly distributed administration that can let applications grow or shrink based on demand, assure integration links are always up and get re-established if they fail, store data in a limitless way, etc. But there is more. The administration should allow to deploy different versions of the same application or integration and allow for step-wise migration to new versions and fast roll-backs.

Why do we need all this?

The first company that will have such elements at its disposal will have enormous competitive advantages in delivering innovative services quickly. They can launch new applications quickly and scale them to millions of users in hours. They can integrate diverse sources and make them universally available to be re-used by multiple applications. They can store data without having an army of DBAs for every application. They can try out new features and quickly scale them up or kill them. In short they can innovate on a daily basis.

The Google’s of this world understood years ago that a good architecture is a very powerful competitive weapon. There is a valid trend to offshore technical work. However technical work should be separated in extremely high-value and routine. Never off-shore high-value work. Also never assume that because the resources are expensive, it must be high-value. Defining and implementing this innovation architecture is extremely high-value. Writing applications on top of it is routine at least starting from number 5.

Long tail support challenge. Can reputation be the solution?

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Launching thousands of services in a long tail marketplace might not be as hard as it used to be. However supporting millions of users with these thousands of services definitely is. Technology seems not to be the limitation of telco long tail, support and monetization are.

What support is needed?

Consumers as well as small, medium and large enterprises have different support needs. For simplicity let’s focus on small and medium. Hundreds of thousands of those are available in most countries. Often IT skills are in the best case basic. No dedicated IT staff. Just a helpful colleague if any. Time and resource shortage are plenty.

Before reaping the benefit of any long tail service, people will have to learn about what is being offered: product awareness. Additionally once the product is purchased, help with configuration/customization, product training, product integration, consultancy, product questions, etc. Finally when things go wrong: rapid workarounds and bug fixes.

Traditionally telecom operators have used sales teams, help desks and support  organizations to offer more basic types of support. Scaling these organizations up to provide the previously listed items is often not possible. And if it were, it would be economically inviable.

Why is long tail support different?

Google, among others, promotes a services-based marketplace inside  its Google App Marketplace. Although a step in the right direction, it will not resolve all the issues.

These long tail services could be an answer for established brands and the more straight-forward support tasks like product training. However a developer that on a Sunday afternoon builds a cool app and all of a sudden is surprised that 50.000 companies downloaded it on Monday, is not able to offer any reasonable support.

What do small mom&pops support services need?

Specialization and economies of scale would be two key factors. The “lucky developer” has specialized skills around application development. However does he or she has knowledge about how to integrate a corporate single sign-on solution into it? Probably not. Also when the developer will be helping one company, he will not have time to help another one.

So our “lucky developer” will need people with additional skills and be able to increase his/her bandwidth.

Option 1: Community Support

By offering the tools on the marketplace for an online support community to build around this “lucky app”, companies can help one another and don’t repeatedly ask the developer the same type of questions. Some communities have demonstrated to be offering faster and better support then most commercial support organizations. However there is a problem here. Bug fixes can only be provided by the “lucky developer”. (S)He can choose to open source the application code but that would very likely allow others to quickly copy and extend the app and destroy all market advantage.

Option 2: Commercial Product Support

The “lucky developer” can foresee potential success and hire some external company that gets trained on the app and is able to resolve most of the bug fixes. A trusted third-party that can have an escrow with the “lucky developer” and take over development in case something happens to him or her.

However this would take time and would only take place for those apps that have a steady growth to success, not an overnight craze.

Some tools could be beneficial here.  Version control to share proprietary code with authorized third-parties to let them generate patches and in case of a deployed application access to a mechanism to test and deploy an updated version. Also standardized CRM solutions and multi-channel helpdesk access can offer a unified and high-quality service even for one person support companies.

Option 3: Commercial Specialized Services

Even if a third-party company gets trained on a product, this does not take away that customers will demand specialized services that are outside of the scope of product support. Examples could be security audits, SLAs about service availability, integration support & consultancy, performance benchmarking, commercial volume discounts & pricing, marketing, legal support, etc.

By itself this can be a totally new services marketplace in which both the “lucky programmer” as well as its customers can contract these services.

Tools are completely different based on which service is offered so standardized tools are difficult. Probably tools could become SaaS offerings from third-parties.

Option 4: Reputation

Bringing together community support, commercial product support and commercial specialized services is not enough by itself. All tools will not help without one key aspect: reputation.

How can the “lucky programmer” differentiate between 50 lawyers, 350 security experts, 20 performance benchmarking firms, 30 SLA validation agencies, 120 technical support help-desks,  etc.? The answer is reputation.

If a security expert has found security holes in some of the most famous Internet sites and he certifies your application then this means that your application is having a reputation of being save. The higher the reputation, probably the higher the fees the “lucky programmer” has to pay.  So not everybody will be able to afford the best, especially in the beginning. But then again, sometimes companies with a top reputation might want to offer their services for free for those “lucky programmers” that are likely to get them free press.

The same is true for buyers. If you see that an SLA validation authority, that is generally trusted, is certifying that the services was up for 99,9999% in the last 24 months then you probably want to buy this service over a service that is slightly cheaper but has no reputation for reliability. Also you will want  to buy bug fixing support from an organization that was able to meet a very tough SLA in the last 24 months and has all its customers raving about it.

What is your next move? Moving free to telecom or paid to the mobile Internet?

December 12, 2010 2 comments

At the moment teenagers are accustomed to paying for SMS (bulk tariffs) and voice calls (if they use them at all). However since mom and dad pay, they are just worried about staying below their parents ‘ anger limit.

Everything else in the digital world is free to them. Either legally free from the likes of Facebook or Twitter or illegally free from the likes of eMule.

We are at the doorstep of most teenagers switching from SMS enabled phones to smartphones and tablets. This means that there are two possibilities: telecom becomes free or mobile Internet becomes paid.

My guess: telecom becomes free. SMS will be substituted by Twitter and Instant Messaging. A 100-300MB of data traffic can easily pay for thousands of instant messages and social network updates. Likely free mobile apps that optimize data exchanges will be very popular with teens. The net effect will be that teens will no longer see the relationship between sending a message and paying for it. This will prompt them to move massively to the free mobile Internet.

However is there a way to move paid to the mobile Internet?

Not at the current prices. History would repeat itself like in the music industry. A digital technology comes but Hollywood tries to maintain an artificial high price even if distribution prices fall close to zero. CDs cost cents. Digital distribution even less. However you still find CDs that cost more than €15-€25. The result is that teenagers find ways not to pay.

How to do it differently? Move from micropayments (5-15 cents/SMS) to nanopayments (0.01 or 1 cents/event), micro-subscriptions (5-15 cents/month) or freemium. If mobile app designers could have access to a simple interface to charge nanopayments on your phone bill in a uniform matter, then they would not give you an article for free but they would want you to pay 0.05 eurocents for it. You wouldn’t mind such a small fee but lots of nano-cents convert to real money for a successful site. Also micro-subscriptions would allow teenagers to subscribe to a premium service without having any parents worried about phone bills. The last business model (freemium) has been described in another article.

Failure to teach today’s teenagers to pay for the Mobile Internet will mean that free will be tomorrow’s only Digital business model. This is not necessarily bad for site owners that can find ways around it via advertisement or selling customer’s data. However telecom operators will see their only income come from monthly subscription fees that will only go downwards…

The power of binary SIP

December 10, 2010 Leave a comment

With the world looking more at XML, SOAP and REST these days, it is perhaps  anti-natural to think binary again. However with Protocol Buffers [Protobuf], Thrift, Avro and BSON being used by the large dotcoms, thinking binary feels modern again…

How can we apply binary to telecom? Binary SIP?

SIP is a protocol for handling sessions for voice, video and instant messaging. It is a dialect of XML. For a SIP session to be set-up a lot of communication is required between different parties. What if that communication is substituted by a binary protocol based for instance on protocol buffers? Google’s protocol buffers can dramatically reduce network loads and parsing, even between 10 to a 100 times compared to regular XML.

What would be the advantages:

  • Latency – faster parsing and smaller network traffic reduces latency which is key in real-time communication.
  • Performance – faster parsing and lower load means that more can be done for less. One server can handle more clients.
  • Scalability – distributing the handling of SIP sessions over more machines becomes easier if each transaction can be handled faster.

Disadvantages:

  • No easy debugging – SIP can be human ready hence debugging is “easier”. However in practice tools could be written that allow binary debugging.
  • Syncing client & server – clients and server libraries need to be in sync otherwise parsing can not be handled. Protocol buffers ignores extensions that are unknown so there is some freedom for an old client to connect to a newer server or vice-versa.
  • Firewalls/Existing equipment – a new binary protocol can not be interchanged with existing equipment. A SIP to binary SIP proxy is necessary.

It would be interesting to see if a binary SIP prototype joined with the latest NOSQL data stores can compete with commercial SIP/IMS equipment in scalability, latency and performance.

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