Friday, June 29, 2012

The future of voice does not have to be dark - We'll be back in the fall to keep the discussion going

We’re taking a summer break here at the Voice on Telecom. We’ll be offline for July and August but will return in September. Things are moving so fast in the area we focus on – the future of voice, SMS and person-to-person communications – that we’re already excited to take in what happens this summer and look ahead to the fall and winter.
We’ve been writing this blog and been on Twitter since October.  In that time we’ve tried to reach across the whole spectrum, from four posts on gaming to analysis of Telefonica as a leader in innovation to our takes on new business models, the viability of OTT players financially, innovation in Africa, the Chinese New Year and South Korea, among many other subjects.

What’s had the most buzz?  VoLTE, Joyn/RCS and Telefonica’s Tu ME app. It’s fun that all three of those subjects are about looking forward, rather than dwelling on a gloomy financial outlook.

It’s remarkable how much has changed too in our short time online. We’ve seen the launch of Joyn, Rogers One Number and Tu Me as operators go “Telco-OTT”.  And there is a real sense of innovation and urgency among operators, including openness to finding new ways to make money off of voice and texting channels.  On this level, we’ve examined HTML5, WebRTC and in-web and in-game voice solutions.

It’s a broad, kind of vague, but fascinating topic we’re examining together.  So we hope you’ll come back in the fall and continue the discussion with us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Apple, Microsoft and how operators can tap into the creative potential of WebRTC

Attempting to guess Apple’s next move has practically become an industry in itself – all you need is a patent filing or a loose-lipped Taiwanese factory mole. In fact, a simple firmware reference will do. But even the tech bloggers probably don’t need to rummage through much trash in Cupertino to figure out that Apple – faced by the constant need to keep their consumer communication devices up to date with network trends – is working on a voice strategy for all-IP LTE mobile broadband networks.

A job ad earlier this spring removed any doubt – the company that already brought us FaceTime is looking for telephony software engineers with “experience in SIP, real-time transport protocol and VoIP related protocols," as well as "familiarity with telecommunication network architectures".

And Apple is only part of the story. Microsoft, in turn, has recently been advertising for HTML5-savvy developers to bring Skype to browsers. So what does it all mean?

It’s probably too early to say for sure. But for the rest of us it’s clear that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about real-time communication on the web (WebRTC) in the coming years. Microsoft and Apple are just some of the players – albeit two of the potentially most high-profile – in a still-nascent sector that could have a huge impact on the way we use the internet.

When services such as Skype become part of the browser experience, the possibility of integrating communication with web pages suddenly opens up. I can read my favorite Apple rumor blog on my tablet, see which of my friends are doing the same thing at precisely the same time, and start up a proper voice conversation there and then.

I don’t need to download a native application, and I certainly don’t need to know anything about web development. But do I need an operator?

That depends on the kind of communication I’m looking for. WebRTC has the potential to enrich communication in areas as diverse as social networks, e-health or education. The chances are that at least one of these offerings will be valuable enough for me to pay an operator for it. This gives operators the chance to develop their own applications and – at long last – force their way into the app store revenue party.

On the other hand, perhaps I’ll just be happy to surf the wave of creativity that WebRTC will inevitably unleash, as I glide from one voice-enabled page to another without paying a cent to anybody. And operators shouldn’t expect any favors from the competition, which will probably do everything possible to cut them out of the picture.

So it’s up to the operators to show they mean business. If they get it right, WebRTC can be the basis for a range of offerings that people won’t be able to do without. And it might reduce the chances of either Apple or Microsoft doing an end-run around the whole industry and succeeding with their own communications services ecosystem. How many bloggers see that one coming?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facebook and the (lack of) mobile imagination

The world is awash in Facebook news, and almost all of it centers on one theme – Facebook’s lack of mobile success. 

Facebook’s rocky IPO?
  All the financial worries revolve around the fact that Facebook is not making money from its exploding mobile user base (the Facebook mobile app is ad-free) and was seemingly not prepared for this huge shift to mobile.

Speculation that Facebook might buy independent browser company Opera?  This is largely about leveraging Opera’s huge mobile browser presence, and gets to the same message as our last post on Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko.  From Rethink Wireless:

The new wave of mobile platforms will increasingly rely on slimline operating systems, with most of the work being done in the HTML5 browser, and content streamed rather than downloaded. This opens the opportunity for web players to seize the reins of the mobile experience and weaken Android and iOS - and also puts browser makers on center stage. Firefox developer Mozilla has already unveiled its cloud OS system, Boot2Gecko, and it would be logical for Facebook to follow suit with a browser partner.
Rumors of a third try at a Facebook phone, including hiring away Apple engineers?  Obvious. Facebook does not want to be just an app on an Apple phone. It wants its own platform. This means building a phone, which is going to be very hard for a company with no hardware experience.

The Facebook phone rumors in particular have generated much skepticism and speculation, with news reports suggesting Facebook could or should buy both Nokia and RIM, among others. GigaOm gave the most lucid summary of all this action:
In many ways, the battle to control the mobile experience is a logical extension of the walled-garden building that both Facebook and more recently Google have been engaged in—that is, an attempt to control almost every interaction with users and thereby convince (or force) them to spend more time within the company’s ecosystem, where more data about them can be harvested. That was the rationale behind the launch of Google+, and it has been Facebook’s primary motivation for virtually everything.
There are a couple questions here.  Is Facebook well positioned to be this kind of company?  And can any company – including Apple – accomplish this in a mobile world of 6 billion phones?

The real question here, however, is … why?  Why didn’t Facebook see their mobile revenue problem coming? Why weren’t they better prepared?

Could it be that Mark Zuckerberg, who is all of 28, is too old?

Yes, that seems a silly question (and people are starting to argue that Facebook will do fine), but it also recognizes how disruptive the shift to mobile is, even for “digital” companies that are experts on the internet. Analyst Eric Jackson says Facebook could fade into irrelevance by 2020 exactly because it is a “second generation” internet company as we enter the “third generation” of mobile.

Maybe we need to wait for kids born after 2007, who grew up swiping at smartphones from the beginning, to solve the mobile revenue puzzle.  Kids like this one that we featured in a post on France Telecom and its OTT efforts:

Or maybe it just means that there is still a window for the people who know mobile best – you know, telecom companies – to make their mark and not concede the playing field to Google, Facebook and all the other OTT challengers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Are latency and quality of service the keys to crowning the next mobile game master?

We’ve touched on the possibilities of developing the mobile and social aspects of gaming through better voice integration. But let’s get down to the details.  The mobile gaming market is now dominated by either simple games like Angry Birds or Doodle Jump, or mobile versions of the old games included for free on PCs, such as FreeCell and Minesweeper. 

Both these categories are incredibly successful, as mobile gaming companies have leveraged the huge installed mobile user base and the emotional attachment players develop to games that occupy their commutes and spare moments. The gaming demographic is also skewing older, with wealthier players who are more willing to pay for content but also with less time to sit in front of their TV playing at home.

But what about the next step, as in making money? How can operators and gaming companies create experiences to attract both serious gamers to the mobile sphere and casual gamers to more involved – and more lucrative – games?

How about quality of service?

Today most teams in popular multiplayer PC-games like World of Warcraft communicate on services like Skype or Ventrilio, running in parallel to their game, while also using text chat within the game. This ad hoc system could run into trouble if used on mobile networks, especially if the network neutrality debate ends in a way that encourages more operators to follow the lead of TeliaSonera and start charging for mobile VoIP use.

Also, just practically, simultaneous texting and playing, on either a tablet or smartphone is a challenge considering the size of the keyboard on either device.

Latency is also a huge issue in games. Just the slightest pause could mean that your avatar gets shot and killed, especially when facing a player from a high-speed broadband connection.

Fixing this is not as hard as it might appear. Only a small portion of gaming data needs to be prioritized to increase the user experience – perhaps voice communication and certain immediate game functions (like bullets flying).

The gaming industry is in flux right now. The distribution system for the dominant consoles like Wii, Xbox and PlayStation has been oddly unaffected by the digital distribution, with millions of games still sold at stores and then taken home to be inserted into the console.

That is changing, just like in music, movies and journalism. And that means there are openings for new players, whether they be EASports alumni, Czech gaming studios, Japanese social networks … or a telecom incumbent.

Device manufacturers and operators need content that separates itself in terms of quality and functionality. But what if their app stores featured real-time on-line games with integrated voice?  Or prioritization through quality of service? What if the players were billed in the game instead of on their phone bill?

Could this help them compete against the likes of Apple (AppStore) and Google (Google Play, formerly Android Market)?

And will they hit the play button in time?