Friday, December 30, 2005
2005 is almost done. I thought it would be nice to do a quick roundup of the various opinions we posted, incase you missed any. Thanks to all the readers who have sent emails to us - we had a lot of fun voicing our opinion and it good to hear that you had fun reading too.
So here is the Round-up:
Technology Related (oldest to newest)
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Whoa Corporate Rat! I still cannot seem to resist a good ol' geek talk! One more of the year, OK?
It is just plain hard-work when you are trying to join a communications club that is several decades old with multiple generations of engineers developing distinct applications and services.
What is happening in the VOIP world is nothing new. Standardization is inherently complex. It becomes doubly more complex when you consider voice communication is of vital interest to multiple societies. It becomes triply more complex when the infrastructure being replaced is the most used and the most stable in the world!
Discussing your arguments:
1. Text based Protocol: Yes, SIP could have been XML based but THANK GOD it is not ASN.1.
2. Refusal to standardize services: I don't know why the IETF should do this? Do you really think we could get two carriers to agree that Call Forwarding RNA should terminate in an intercept or ring forever? Or that Music On Hold is an "expected" feature in business applications all over the world?
I think the push for standardizing services has more to do with carriers being apprehensive that they will be locked into a proprietary solution. Industry groups like the SIP Forum are the right place to standardize services for their customers. OMA is another good example.
3. The Royal Routing mess: This is a legitimate argument. I am not too worried about Record-Route headers (HTTP has them too BTW). The SBCs, acting as giant B2BUAs in the sky, have made things a bit simple :-D.
I think the SIP community needs to solve the hard problems (which I consider are routing issues): Lifeline services and lawful intercept.
4. Bloat Bloat Bloat: If you examine carefully, most of the complexities have to do with trying to model the PSTN in SIP. The industry secret is: You don't need intelligence in the network for Alice to find and talk to Bob and you don't need all this bloat for Alice to buy phone service with a handful of cool features... all you need to know is your outbound proxy and your service proxy. IMS architects, please listen!
5. This is not what SIP is meant for: Most of the original SIP "zealots" are healthy, wealthy, and Directors at rather successful companies... let's leave it at that :-)
6. Forking: LOL! It's Forked ;-) !
7. E2E Architecture: I will let RFC 1958 speak for me. I rather like the fact the I didn't have to wait on the SBC Yahoo! CallCenter for two hours since I got IP connectivity: Hosted email, music downloads, video on demand, chat, online bill pay, webmd.com... the phone companies still have BIG BIG plans for all of this... since 1955!
Skype is a remarkably successful and proven business model. It is always very easy to build a good proprietary solution. Going back to the email world example, Lotus did this rather successfully with cc:Mail. But, we don't even discuss SMTP interoperability today... SIP will get there. The page that the SIP folks can take from Skype is:
1. Make configuration dead simple! Sorry, SIP endpoints suck at this!
2. Solve the NAT/Firewall issues. Good progress here!
BTW, Vonage has 1 million paying subscribers and they solved the same two issues that Skype did. And they are standards based (MGCP right?).
8. Backward Compatibility: Most of us have moved forward to 3261. Most carriers will not accept SIP solutions that are "ancient".
What blows my mind is that the technology is ready for a Google, Microsoft, or Y! to become the voice communications provider to the whole world! Just like email!
Isn't that just incredible? It's time one of them offer free phone service to the PSTN as well!
Several years ago, I was the lead architect for a team that was building an H.323 Gatekeeper. I remember having attended a conference where a mild mannered bearded professor talked excitedly about something called ‘ZIP’ which seemed to be an IETF initiative that was pitched as an alternative to H.323 complexities. When I got back to my office, I researched on this new thing called ‘ZIP’ and the promise it had but found nothing. I then realized that ZIP was the german equivalent of the english SIP (when pronounced). I still remember having read the first IETF draft on SIP – it was a breath of fresh air compared to what I was building as far as protocols went. Actually, even though the first draft was out in 1996, I got involed only in 1998 when the SIP draft was still a breezy 101 pages cover-cover. Infact, I was so convinced about SIP that I started a SIP group with no budget funding and working in spare time. That was till we made our first release and sold to a whole bunch of customers. That's when the company woke up to it and suddenly everyone was interested.
Well, that was then. This is now. After having spent several years in building SIP components, Proxies and App server frameworks and then talking to customers who built on top of them (my past company is one of the most successful SIP infrastructure vendors in the market), I cannot help but think whether SIP was really ‘simple’ to start with simply because the standards never really encompassed everything that a real-life telecom deployment needed (which to a great degree H.323 did) . Over the years, SIP has grown into a veritable behemoth (269 pages in the SIP Standard, 25 pages of the SDP offer answer model and over a 150 drafts related to all things SIP) and I bet no one really thinks it to be simple anymore.
Infact, I think SIP has pretty much become a subject of its own market hype as well as lack of completeness of thought in the original ideas espoused. As far as I am concerned, today, SIP stands in the market as a ‘HTTP similar expandable protocol’ but to the developer, stands as a ‘Massive hack of spaghetti headers and rules”.
Of course, this does not really affect the top level app developers. The folks making middleware are the ones who deal with this mess. So if you are building a great new service on SIP, you probably have no idea what I am talking about. Heck, you probably don’t even need to know much about SIP. You probably just invoke APIs like CreateConference(email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) and ta-dah ! You are done ! I’m not trivializing what you are doing – moving to a protocol independent service based architecture is what it should eventually come down to. But then, it still does not take away the fact that the folks doing application and stack platforms (BEA, Oracle, Radvision, Flextronics Software Systems, Ubiquity) are still cussing out loud. And their cussing matters, because if your infrastructure ain’t upto it, your pretty apps will eventually come crashing down.
So here are my thoughts on what’s wrong in SIP:
Text based protocol: Yes, a text based protocol is great to read and see as it flies over the wire. But who on earth needs to ? Do you really want me to believe that a person debugging a protocol cannot have a simple binary decoder built into his analyzer ? While being text based and touting that its ‘similar to HTTP’ excites the market, it is meaningless to a developer. Thanks to it being a text protocol with no message boundaries, we worry about buffer-underflows, overflows, not getting content-length in the chunk of messages that we receive and similar. Not to mention that we need expensive parsers that try and detect all gotchas to ensure that some sleazy string trick does not crash my parser. (Show me a simple SIP parser and I will show you 10 ways to break it). And then you need stuff like sigcomp to compress it so the wireless world can use it for the air interface.
The refusal of the IETF to standardize services: ‘We would like to encourage multiple ways to do one thing. It encourages development.’ Yes, I agree, when it comes to geeks in labs. In real deployment, we want two phones to be able to transfer a call successfully. Little wonder why it took upto 2003 (SIPit) for two different SIP phones to actually do a successful blind transfer. Had there been a recommended profile to begin with, we would not have un-successful half-calls for the next 2 years and by now would have moved on to better interop in more advanced scenarios such as conferencing (which is still progressing at a dreadfully slow rate over at XCON – mostly still stuck at requirements and framework level)
The Royal Routing Mess: SIP’s routing logic is probably the best example of how it has evolved to become a hack protocol. Strict routing evolved to Loose Routing. To make sure implementations don’t break, it was decided to support both. Then came the logic for loop-detection which got so painful that it was then suggested to do away with it and just fall back to Max-Forwards (keep looping till a count goes to 0 then break the loop). As if that was not enough, the recently introduced concepts of Globally Routable UA Uri (GRUU) essentially another hacked mechanism to differentiate between an instance of a UA vs. the general AOR that of a UA that could reach any instance of it (complicated ? don’t worry, most of us find it messy too) make this space even more miserable.
Bloat Bloat Bloat: SIP is a bloated protocol. As as said before, show me a minimal SIP parser and I will show you 10 ways to break it. As the market rides the hype of SIP, our poor friends at the cell phone companies are struggling to fit in good robust ‘text-based-HTTP-similar’ SIP protocol stacks into their phone while making sure a simple message to it does not reboot their phone. On top of it the complex 300 page RFC with processing rules just adds fuel to the fire.
‘This is not what SIP is meant for’: unless you are blind to the market, you would notice that 90% of SIP deployments that make money are in networks that choose to do in SIP what the PSTN did. Continuous harping on ‘This is not what SIP is meant for’ is meaningless. If this is true, then close the case for SIP. Don’t complain about the PSTN mapping to SIP when almost all deployments making money want that. This very ‘holier than thou’ attitude is one strong reason why SIP deployment is just about nearing the mature stage where it should have several years ago. (Do you know, doing a CLIP/CLIR in SIP was fairly undefined till a year ago ?). Every time folks at groups such as TISPAN post in the SIP working groups, they are met by technology zealots who repeat the ‘This is not what SIP is meant for’ to a point of fatigue.
Forking:This one construct is the achilles heel that adds un-neccessary complications to message handling. Who really needs it and why does it have to be an integral part of the base specification. If it is a part of a base spec, everyone has to implement it,
whether they need it or not. Move it to application scope and don't force 99% of the implementation world to worry about providing for situations such as HERFP.
‘End-End Architecure’ : The End-End Architecture and concepts are great. I understand that is what drives the IETF. But realize that SIP is being used in many networks that do not strictly follow the puristic Internet Architecture. So instead of shunning. I’m not knocking the End-End Architecture – its great, but even the original authors of such architecture ideas talk about situations where the purity of the end-end architecture is not realistic.
Losing ground of reality while dreaming about ‘Web’, ‘Presence’ and ‘Revolution’: SIP enables a lot of new services – but losing sight of reality while dreaming of next wave solutions such as servelets and SIP-CGI is again, not being realistic (for example, the long argument at SIPPING about draft-stein-great which raises real problems which seemingly are not important enough for SIP). Again, please look around you at the deployed networks and see what they are doing. And while you are looking, look at IMS too. Hopefully you will wake up then. It’s all traditional networking folks. As an example It’s unbelievable, that the Working Group has such a hard time accepting the fact that Session Border Controllers (SBCs) are a reality. Infact, when Skype first announced that SIP was not ‘good enough’ (this is one of the later links – I lost the original post by the Skype architect about SIP not being good enough) the SIP stalwarts responded by blasting the Skype architecture and why it was not ‘scalable’ (again, lost that link). Well, today Skype has done in one year what SIP could not do in five. The SIP folks finally woke up to the reality and are now trying to define P2P overlays on top of SIP. I applaud the effort, but it’s a little too late.
Backward-compatibility burden: SIP is burdened by the load of backward compatibility more than it should be. While this is good talking material to the press ‘We designed a protocol that is always backward compatible’ it’s a living nightmare for developers. If there was short-sightedness in a specification, admit it and move on, and if the backward-compatibility is expensive, drop it. Developers will fix their code. Really. It’s much better than having a brittle implementation with a long ‘case’ statement.
The SIP that the marketing world sees is very different from the ‘under-the-hood’ look. I just hope that the process of SIP evolution does not come crashing down. Infact, the only way to stop that eventuality is to move to a services based architecture where protocol becomes irrelevant (once the bad work is done, let it hide deep inside, never to be seen again). So Yay for SIP servelets ! I just hope the working groups move fast enough and not pursue their goal of complete end-end purity at every step, because if they did, by the time they had a solution that was perfect, teleportation would be a common means of travel, the single pill that cures all diseases known to makind would have been discovered, and we would all have bought vacation homes in Mars – no one really would care much about SIP then.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
The more I talk to people, the more I am convinced that in this world of convergence, he who controls user content is the one who controls the money.
Last afternoon, I spent a wonderful few hours validating a new business plan with a Silicon Valley executive with an illustrious past who is looking at starting his own thing in this ‘Citizen’s Media’ space. Obviously, I cannot comment on his plans, but would like to talk about my view of ‘Citizen’s Media’
What is ‘Citizen’s Media’ ?
The marketing world always needs a catchy phrase to describe any new technology that hits the market, be it an evolution or a revolution. ‘Citizen’s Media’ essentially refers to the concept of involving a wide network of participants who in addition to ‘reading information’ also act as ‘contributors’ of information. So Wiki, Blogging, Podcasting and similar are all examples of ‘platforms’ that fall under the Citizen’s media space.
Citizen’s Media (CM) as a concept has been covered and iplemented in various places. Backfence.com is one example which is a community based site that allows community residents to share and discuss information for others, constantly adding to ‘live news’ for others to read. There are many more such examples.
Forbes, however, asks a relevant question: ‘Is there money in this space ?’. There is no question that blogging, podcasting, RSS feeding et. al. are the new wave communication mechanisms that define “Web 2.0”. However, who is really making money off this ? To address that question, let's discuss what Citizen’s Media addresses and the business models around it.
TV vs. Internet
Imedia has an interesting report which details the trend of online-advertising vs. advertising on TV. In short, online ad revenue has increased 33% last year at $9.6b. Compared to this, the Pay Per View and TV advertising is $60billion but its not growing. In other words, it looks like online advertising is steadily eroding ad-money from traditional channels. And why not: the same article reports that viewers spend 34% of their media consumption time on the internet. In my previous article, I had also provided some references to broadband adoption which is very healthy.
The fact that TV advertising is not growing much and that online advertising is growing very fast is a clear trend that content providers recognize the online medium as a revenue generating space. A growth rate of 33% with an existing revenue of $10b is enough for me to think there is money for us to play, eh ?
Modelling a business around it
Every business is eventually a derivation of the classical producer-consumer paradigm. In the case of Citizen’s Media, there are some basic questions to answer:
- Who will use this service ?
- How do you attract producers to contribute quality time & information & consumers to participate ?
- Who are the value-chain participants ?
- What is your risk mitigation strategy ?
Who will use this service ?
An important demographic to model around. Are you targetting the top 5% of the earning market or the bottom 30% of the middle class market or the vast mid-section of teeny-boppers ? Existing Citizen Media solutions have been embraced by what I call the 2nd tier of enthusiasts – those who are not professional, have free time and don’t have the money nor network nor agents to approach a Comcast or a DirecTV for a slot. This represents the vast majority of producers of this CM space.
There are ofcourse, savvy professionals who have seen the profits and the reach of such a system, such as Om Malik’s GigaOm blog (which is a good read, by the way) , but they represent a very small percentage of the larger producer space of today.
In terms of consumers it really depends on the content being fleshed out. Teeny Boppers have a lot of time and inclination to stick to CM blogs, podcasting and similar. Don’t trivialize this market – they were solely responsible for ensuring that digital camera equipped phones outsold digital cameras by a good margin. At the same time, blogging and podcasting draw many professionals, many of whom spent at least 4-5 hours a day on these forums. So my take is that the age group of 15 – 35 is the target space for the CM space as far as consumers go.
How do you attract producers to contribute quality time & information ?
Quality of Service ,revenue and outreach: Provide them a platform where it is easy for them to create their shows and take care of marketing, viewer base and quality casting for them. Use the right tools and platforms and build on existing technology instead of starting from scratch. There are lots of innovative social network platforms such as Ning and similar that already have a good amount of work put in to build on top of. Make a simple to understand business case that does a what-if analysis for them. Show them, how, via ads, via content selling as well as providing premium services they can make money (By premium services, I mean, let the basic show be free, but when people get stuck on it, provide, say, an ‘advice channel’ hosted by the producer, where consumers can pay $2.99 for 1 session and take advice from the host – just an example). Also strike the right partnerships with the right OEMs and service providers who can market your service. For example, tie up with a Verizon and have them push this new service onto their OEM phone manufacturers.
Who are the value chain participants ?
In any successful business that survives more than a few years, everyone in the value chain needs to profit. Remember you are trying to run a business. So keep profitability in mind. Identify the players:
The providers (you) – This is a captial intensive game. Your network must be wide and your quality of hosting superior before you get into the market. Strike the right partnerships. Talk to the right content distributors (remember, you are a provider not a distributor). The success or failure of a service is more often than not dependant on how well you market the solution. Marketing ! Marketing ! Marketing !
The Producers – your first line customers. Make sure their entry price to use your service is not high for them to shy away. Remember, they are 2nd level amateur users for the most part. Deploy a risk-reward model. Modulate your subscription cost as a function
of the popularity of their content. Let them make money by getting a chunk of what you earn from them. Let them set up their own innovative ways to manipulate their content for secondary revenue streams.
The Consumers – the people who are eventually responsible for everyone else’s revenues (just like TV viewers are to TV producers). Spend enough time striking the right partnership deals for maximum distribution of your selected demographic. First choose your target market and go hell-for-leather in marketing to that segment. Don’t try marketing to the wide world – different demographics have different sweet spots.
What is your risk-mitigation strategy ?
A colleague of mine recently told me that to stay alive in this industry you must continuously re-invent yourself. Even if you are the first to deploy a solution, eventually the giants of content will wake up. How do you protect yourself from being trampled all over, undercut and oversold ? There are many mitigation strategies including:
- Defining how you will stay ahead of the others in terms of technology and consumer expectation mapping
- Expect to get bought over by one of the goliaths who want to ride on david’s shoulder – sell out, make your money, do something new
- Striking the right partnerships to ensure that a collective force which is in a win-win relationship can offset hostile takeover bids
- Keep your opex under control – if you don’t want to sell out to bids, expect serious profit margin erosion when the biggies step it. Opulent opex at that time swings back to slap you hard.
- Create a ‘we are not your competition but your partner’ targetted pitch for different ‘people’. The first people to get scared would be the Payperview TV goliaths. They already see their billions slipping – but they are not really your competition, since they are a distribution channel. Make this pitch clear to them and identify areas you can work together. Leverage their network further with a possible partnership. The same holds true for other identifed ‘friend or foe’ market.
Infrastructure exists. The Market Exists. The failure or success of making the CM space into a profitable business is certainly possible but needs good planning and of course, a lot of luck. However, if you don’t do it, someone else will. So I’d be watching the folks in this space. If you are a VC and find a good team trying to play in this market, Invest !
VOIP is a giant leap forward in dragging us "Call Processing" types out of the dark ages to the modern world. SIP is the motivation.
While SIP improved the interoperability between systems, it did not take away the inherent complexity of developing voice applications. Many of us VOIP application vendors basically built proprietary constructs from scratch (a HUGE benefit) that helped develop applications rapidly.
The net result is that voice applications continue to be developed by a select few.
Don't get me wrong. We all use the latest and greatest available today: Object oriented design patterns for vastly improved software quality, SOAP for remote data access, CPL or equivalent for simple routing, VXML and MSML/MOML for media control, and a services oriented model for application delivery. However, they continue to be proprietary to the application vendor.
The best we can do is claim SOAP or SIP as the "API" for developing applications. Want to integrate a cool conferencing application as a "converged" application? Sorry, besides SIP "interop", no can do!
Carriers are wising up to this.
They are demanding an open environment that doesn't lock them into a particular vendor. Initiatives like IMS are forcing vendors to rethink and offer an open and integrated solution.
How far away are we from being able to place a call with a simple function call from any computing or communication device? Time will tell.
The best bet the industry has now is SIP Servlets. This technology has the provisions in place for rapid application development, an asynchronous programming model, and state of the art data access. Reputed vendors like BEA, IBM, and Oracle have application servers that are battle hardened in the Web world. They are scalable, robust, and boast of a stable developer community. The "traditional" PSTN community is also attempting to converge on a similar effort with JAIN SIP. This really completes the picture.
The new year looks promising! Is it time to talk about "Call 2.0" ?
Sunday, December 18, 2005
As you keep growing in your career, there will be a point in time when all of a sudden, you will look back and say “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” ! This revelation comes to you, not in Wonderland, but in the midst of a lonely and confusing battleground known as the “Corporate World”.
Some thoughts on what it takes to continue to have a smooth ride in this battlefield:
- Tame your Ego: Almost every good engineer has a tremendous ego. They think they are the best in the world, and often, they are surrounded by sycophants who keep reminding them of this ‘truth’. Get over it. As you go along in life, you will realize that there are many who are as good as you and even some who are better than you. If you have not met anyone yet, you have either not been exposed to a wider audience or your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash (okay, I ripped that straight off Topgun). Taming your ego is the most critical requirement to keep moving ahead. Remember, unless you work on bleeding edge research, no one really needs a genius. Most companies need ‘smart’ people who ‘work hard’. Infact, I’d much rather have 3 ‘smart’ and ‘hard’ workers in my team who gel with each other instead of 1 ‘genius’.
- Keep your boss happy: For many, it’s ‘fashionable’ to trash their boss. Your boss may be incompetent, lame or useless in your eyes. Just remember:
- Your boss is your career path, as long as you are under him. Use it as a bridge instead of hacking away at the steps.
- More often than not, there is a reason he is your boss and not the other way around. Your boss may actually be incompetent, or, maybe, you just think you are the only person who does real work in the company and you wonder why you are not the CEO. (In which case, that usually means, ‘Wake Up’)
- Use Email for correspondence, not communication: Really, this is one of the most important ‘inter-personal’ skills in the Internet Age. If you have a problem with someone, if possible, walk to his desk, or pick up the phone. The worst method to solve the problem is to continue a conversation over email. Remember this: email does not show emotions. Use it to exchange data, but not to resolve arguments or issues. More often than not, your email can (and will) be misinterpreted. This problem is compounded when you have multiple folks participating in that mail chain. Everyone gets defensive when a lot of people are involved.
- Take your performance reviews seriously: Lots of folks think ‘performance reviews’ are a time when they can show their ‘protest’ by not filling up their reviews well or putting in one line corny responses. It’s a message to their ‘boss’ saying ‘look – I really don’t care. I think I am above all of this’. This again, makes the list of ‘stupid things to do’. It is your career. Push it and track it ! As your boss, I will try and push you to the right direction, but you should be willing. If you have a problem, discuss it. If you have a question on how your career is shaping, bring it up ! It takes two to tango. If you keep up with the ‘indifference’ assuming that golden opportunities will be laid at your feet, just because you think you are worth it, you are in for a rude awakening. If you don’t shape up, someone else will take your place. Don’t grumble if you lose your spot then.
- Take Lateral responsibility: I’ve always been a very strong believer in taking lateral responsibility. By lateral, I mean expanding your scope to do something that you never did before. If you are a great engineer, after a few years, try your hand at some customer interaction. Or try your hand at some project management. Again, try it before you trash it. Not everyone can do this. Fine – but if you are willing, the more areas you have hands-on experience in, the better you are in becoming an all-rounded corporate individual.
- Keep yourself honest: What you do unto others will eventually circle around to you. As I mentioned before, remember this: jobs come and go, friendships last for ever. Never do something that could tantamount to back-stabbing those who have put their trust in you. A successful career is built on trust and ethics. It is just not worth it to go any other way.
- The air is thinner at the top: As you rise, you will notice that to get higher, you will have to realize that its not just about you. To rise to the very top, besides being excellent at your job, you need to be able to gel well with the rest of the management team at your level. You need to have good equations with those who matter, whether you like it or not. And finally, even if you are perfectly qualified, there has to be an availability in terms of need as well as budget to move you to this new slot. You are no longer one engineer amongst thousands where jobs are a-plenty. You are now vying for one spot amongst probably only five or ten in the company. Competition gets tougher here - and how well you do your job is just one of the various dimensions you are judged on. This isn’t a perfect world, my friend.
- Don't sweat things you cannot control: As you climb the corporate ladder, there will be many things that may bug you. Don't sweat things you cannot control. Over a period of time, every things evens out. In your initial career path, promotions, growth etc. is very linear and predictable. As you keep growing, you will see your career depends on many other dimensions. As long as you keep your focus and keep working away at your goals, over a period of time, everything evens out. So don't analyze your career in days or months. Track it over a few years and work towards the goal and do what you need to achieve it. Ignore stuff you cannot control - thinking about them will only aggravate you - and trust me, there will be many such things as you continue your path.
- Never burn bridges: When you leave groups or organizations, always make sure that you leave cordially. Many people leave in a huff almost to prove a point ('See, I can get a better job - you folks are not worth my time!'). The point is, this is a very small world. You never know if your new job works out, or, in future, if you will ever have to meet or work for the same people you left. You just don't know. I've had situations where I have had horrible bosses, and I moved on to other divisions - however, by keeping good relationships, those same people have passed on strong references to other companies I was interested in working with a few years down the line. Bottom line: Don't convert work problems into personal problems.
- Always strive to be the best: Above and beyond all, always strive to be the best in your chosen field. Read a lot - keep a track of everything that is going on in your technology. Don't just limit yourself to the work given to you. Stretch out ! And oh, you will always find people who seem to rise just by 'personal relationships'. I know, its irksome. Let it go. Eventually, if you are really good (and no, it doesn't matter what you think of yourself, it's what others think of you), you will reap in rewards far above others.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
In my previous article about IPTV, I noted that very soon, revenue will be all for those who own the user content. Even though 'providers' would likely lose money on individual revenue streams (like voice, TV), business from 2007 would all be about 'service bundling'.
This week, I read three somewhat predictable articles:
a) Yahoo! offers PhoneIn and PhoneOut services - cheap voip based calling in response to Skype's SkypeIn and Out services. While that is ho-hum, what is interesting is that Y! plans to charge a measly 1cent for phone calls within 'developed countries' and 2-3cents in other countries.
b) Adding to the melee of Carriers going VoIP, BellSouth lauches VoIP calling based on 8x8 solutions
c) Update: 12/12/05: Microsoft enters a partnership with MCI to deliver PC-phone calling
Let's step back and talk about the bigger picture. It is not just an ad-hoc 'me-too' trend of people jumping into the same bandwagon. It's the sign of a trend.
But first, the infrastructure question:
Is the infrastructure ready to deliver ?
Broadband Internet is coming of age. Liechtman Research reports a very healthy growth of broadband here in the US. Relative growth trends can be seen around the word, developed and developing countries. One of the critical areas of success for voice and video over IP is the availability of high speed IP links to the user. Unless your last mile is capable of delivering a fancy service, that service will soon be written of as a loss making proposition.
As a testament to the success utilizing the Internet to deliver voice, Vonage took a plunge and a few years ago rolled out its VoIP only service. It works, and works well. This was needed for the industry. Whether Vonage eventually succeeds, gets bought out or goes under as the biggies push their way in is another matter. They proved to the community that phone over IP works rather well. And if it did not work, you would not be seeing a scramble by the larger names to deliver voip.
So lets put aside the question of is the infrastructure ready. Yes, it is ready enough to be able to deliver.
So What is going On ? What is the Trend ?
The million dollar question. First lets look at who all are diving into this battle of 'voice over IP'. This is not a comprehensive list, just a list to show a variety:
- Search and Content - Google - a search and content delivery company. Makes their money, for the most part out of advertising. They launch google talk, and then hire Sean Egan, the lead developer for GAIM to work for them. In addition, they think great things will happen with their Google Talk program, and launch a dedicated blog to discuss their product.
- Search and Content - Yahoo! - similar profile to Google. They lauch SIP based communication with their Y! Messenger and then launch their phoneIn and phoneOut service at ridiculous costs
- Desktop/OS kings - Microsoft - the king of the desktop world. In the early 2000s they launched their Live Communication Server to deliver voip along with Windows, then fell silent after a while. Recently, they snatched up Teleo to accelerate their VoIP story, again. And today (12/12/05) I also read that they will also deliver PC-phone calling with MCI.
- Online sellers - Ebay - pretty much the de-facto standard for online selling/buying purchased Skype for a ridiculously high amount.
- Cable providers- such as Time Warner and Cablevision - traditionally playing in the TV space steadily tread forward in introducing VoIP (they are one of the most feared community, since they own some of the highest speed networks - fiber- today)
- Traditional Voice Operators - SBC, Cingular, MCI etc. all jumped into the VoIP space for a while
Now that all seem to be eager to step into each others toes. Why ?
Ask yourself this: Let's assume that it is a given that there is this high-speed, reliable network around the world that is essentially ready for everyone to use and you can deliver anything over it.
- What then, stops a content company to provide a great search to their users for locating a great TV clip from all the TV stations of their world, then, for a subscription fee, delivering the TV episode over the Internet ?
- What then, stops the cable network from adding interactive TV to the standard TV programming package while at the same time, using the TV as a great video screen for making a video call to a friend while you watch a program that you like and want to share ?
- What then, stops a company, that never was a Telco, to partner with a hardware manufacturer that builds an IP phone that looks just like the one you have today, but just that it works over IP, while at the same time offering you a neat one-number reachability no matter where in the world you travel ?
Convergence is all about creating new opportunities. It's all about delivering great new things to the end user. And don't forget, its all about striking fear into the hearts of established businesses.
The message is clear: He who own's content owns the money. For several years, content has been fragmented because of the infrastructure. It was just not ready to deliver bandwidth rich content to users (we are not taking T1 enterprise links, we are talking home users).
Businesses now need to re-think what it takes for them to stay ahead of the game. They are suddenly being attacked by other segments in the battle for user co
ntent. It's not just voice. It's not just data. It's not just video. It's not just mobility. It's a service that is capable of bundling all of these attributes into a service bundle.
The writing on the wall is inevitable - since attribute providers will be wiped out by a cost game. If you are an SBC, offering only VoIP for $20 a month, a TimeWarner+Google combination will step into your space that offers 'basic cable TV + VoIP + Video Calling + a my user portal which can be set up to customize its services based on user viewing/browsing habits' all for $19.99. Oh heck, to add to it, also throw in a Music On Demand service for your new iPod Nano for a measly $2 add on per month.
A 'single stream' service provider cannot compete with price - they need to stay above the red, while VoIP is the only service they have. On the other hand, these new content combinations have the benefit of hedging their losses + profits across multiple service streams in their bundle. And on top of that, they will likely amass 3 times the customers a 'single stream' service provider can target.
Get the picture ? Get innovative. Think user content. Stop thinking only telephony.
Monday, November 21, 2005
IPTV is another area that I have been tracking for a while. I read recently that Cisco bought Scientific-Atlanta for close to $7 billion. I wasn't as exasperated as when I read that eBay bought Skype for a total of more than $4b, because I think I know the direction where this is headed, and it has more potential that what eBay might do with Skype ! Scientific-Atlanta is a well known hardware, STB, dish provider in the IPTV world, and amongst others ,has good in-roads in delivering equipment to SBC for their IPTV trial (if I recall correctly, having partnered with Alcatel).
First let's talk about IPTV in general and if I think it will ever see light of day in terms of earning profits. After all, most of us who have gone through the last downturn of all things IP have grown to be more cynical about anything that does not make money yesterday. In addition, it is much easier to say 'Gee, I don't think it really is going to work' vs. trying to lay out a vision saying 'Here is why it will work' and 'here is how to do it'. So I am going to go out on a limb to say I see good potential here, both for consumers and operators. I am going to reserve my comments on the 'Here is how to do it' part - you'd need to employ me to answer that for you ;-)
So, do I think IPTV is a revenue generating source for operators? I don't. Infact, I think IPTV will eat at operators margins and actually may result in losses for them for quite a while after deployment.
What ?!? And just a few lines above I said it is a promising business model !
Let me explain: Convergence is about "service bundling". It's about being able to offer a variety of services integrated together as a whole to consumers to enhance their user experience. Trying to dissect a convergence service into individual streams and questioning "Will voice make money" or "will IM make money" is naive at best. Think of IPTV as another delivery system for converged services. While IPTV on its own may be a loss making proposition, being able to tie in the eternally lucrative TV/content delivery system using an IP backbone and common service delivery architectures mean that a smart operator can bring in multiple service sources and stitch them together to offer a lucrative whole. And that is where the money lies. Not just in IPTV, but in effectively being able to use IPTV as one of the mediums to bundle services.
Cisco sees this for sure. Their strategy is that if any service is delivered over IP, they need to be in that business. After all, a majority of the world happens to use Cisco routers - it just makes sense for them to fortify their dominance in IP by also being able to provide delivery of IPTV, and more importantly converged services via their robust infrastructure. For a while now, Cisco has been upping its 'IP' play by talking about the importance of applications and intelligence in the Internet.
Anyway, I digress, back to IPTV. Some very valid concerns:
IPTV has been in the pipleline for a while, often called a utopian dream. Why will it work now ?
The most critical assumption IPTV makes is the availability of last mile broadband. This was the biggest challenge for any multimedia service based on IP. Parts of Asia, Europe and US have shown significant increase in rate of broadband adoption over the past 2-3 years. This is one of the main reasons why I am very gung-ho about broadband based services in the next couple of years.
Another reason is maturing of trials around the world. It typically takes an operator a trial of around 1-3 years to roll out services. Several trials are close to completion (PCCW, MaglineTV, FastWeb, SBC, BellSouth, China Telecom and more) and they expect GA rollout in Q2 2006.
Finally, at the same time, several other IP based networks are being rolled out and the commercial success of providers such as Vonage and Skype have proved to the general public as well as operators that IP works. These networks include 3GPP IMS for mobile services as well as a lot of new age content delivery services spearheaded by the likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, such as programmable Maps, advertising mechanisms that actually work, new age applications and more. The important thing here is that during the short span of 2003-2005, several companies have put their money where everybody's mouth is and have individually proved them to increase customer stickiness and potential for revenue generation.
We are now in a situation of the sum of the parts. It will still take a lot of business savvy and finger on the customer's nerves to put individually excelling areas into a combined service of excellence, and we will still see more failures than successes.
What sort of converged services can this provide?
- multimedia calling - your TV becomes your video screen for a video call over VoIP
- Presence integrated interactive-TV - based on your current preferences ('At Work', 'Available' , 'Busy' etc) the content provider could enable/disable options such as multi-party interactive participation or remote invitations to a video-game
- multi-device alerting - you have 'programmed' your interactive station (erstwhile called a TV) to register your participation for a distance learning interactive program, but you forgot. Half an hour before the program, you automatically get a message reminder on your cell phone. Oh and guess what ,since it is over IP, you could participate via your IP enabled Cell Phone.
- Viewer specific advertisements - so you are a Star Trek fan. You watch all episodes of Star Trek - so why waste time showing you ads about 'Dental Care'. Maybe, 20% more time focussed on telling you about the newest Star Trek DVD collection and a 'click here' link to buy which you can purchase via your remote control will yeild better returns for you and your advertiser ?
You get the picture. The biggest advantage of a common service platform is that the play for innovation increases manifold.
Who wants IPTV ?
- Internet Service Providers - they want a pie of the lucrative TV market
- Mobile Operators and MVNOs - to create value differentiation
- Consumers - they may not really know it till they get it. The convenience of integrated services is only felt when delivered, not when thought about.
- Traditional TV providers (Cable/Satellite) - After all, they own the ppTV market and keep cutting at each others throats with value differentiation and price cuts. For their own good, they have to constantly be ahead of the game
First and foremost, Cable and Satellite providers. Cable already provides a lot of high speed fiber and it is logical for them to capitalize on their high bandwidth network and make sure no other source can cut in. In addition, Cable and satellite providers will surely undercut their prices in a bid to keep their customers and lure in other 'Internet' users. They can afford it (especially cable, due to their low latency hi-speed networks)
In other words, deployment of IPTV will have different challenges in different areas. In places where pay-TV is predominant (such as Europe, US) the battle will be on bitter pricing and service differentiation, whereas in places where pay-TV is still not common and infrastructure investment is still less in comparison (India and others) it will mainly be a bitter pricing war and service differentiation may be a while away.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Somewhere around 2004, a set of vendors came up with a specification called 'Unlicensed Mobile Access' (UMA) . The problem that was being solved was this:
There is currently no standard mechanism that bridges the unlicensed spectrum (Wifi and related) to the carrier mobile network. There was a need to bring 'mobile services' to the unlicensed spectrum, especially for phones that could do VoIP while on WLAN/ethernet and switch to the mobile operator network when out of range. In addition to being able to call both from unlicensed spectrum and licensed mobile spectrum, it was necessary that the same services tha were configured in the mobile operator network was also available when I was connected via a broadband access point so that people calling me would not know the difference (and even the caller would not feel the difference between the two different networks, from a service availability perspective.)
So UMA was born. It is important to understand that is is an access technology and all it does is that it provides a bridge between unlicensed spectrum and the licensed spectrum of the mobile operator.
It is pretty much a no-brainer - this was just the bridge that operators and OEMs needed to make the dual-mode handset dream a reality. Infact, when it was first introduced, 3GPP IMS was still quite a distance away and operators and OEMs did not have a choice but to incorporate this technology. Infact, 3GPP release 6 also added UMA as an access technology. Hurray, just incase you still had phones that did not speak IMS by the time release 6 hits the market !
However, things have changed. Over the past two years, IMS has made giant leaps in deployment and the network infrastructure needed to make IMS a reality has steadily come into shape. In fact, as we speak today ,IMS is actively being trialed by several operators including Sprint, SBC, Verizon, mm02, Vodafone, BT and several others. (so as you may have guessed, I have a different opinion from what my colleague ElusiveCheese posted here - which is good - what fun is technology if we all agree all the time !)
At the same time, several OEMs are also putting in IMS ready software in their phones to be able to receive the services that IMS delivers (I am actually working with some of them, though not sure if their plans are public - google around and you will find public ones too).
Unfortunately for the UMA proponents, IMS progressed much faster than what the UMA folks thought would be possible and the delta time frame between UMA ready infrastructure and IMS ready infrastructure is less than a year apart - which is not much at all.
This brings to the front several disadvantages of UMA that were previously swept under the carpet because there was no other choice. Some of those are:
- UMA only works for GSM/GPRS networks. Bad luck, UMTS
- Even though UMA does handover between GSM/GPRS and a Wifi network, it does not handle access point - access point handover. Which means if a user roams from hotspot to hotspot UMA cannot continue WLAN based voice calling - once you step out of the first hotspot, UMA switches the call to GSM/GPRS. In other words, UMA is a good solution inside your house not bigger. Why is this a big deal ? Well, with the advent of metro mesh networks (wifi hotspots mounted on top of lamposts by cool companies such as Tropos and others such as Cisco), it is critical that access point - acess point handover is handled.
- UMA is a tunnel, or a bridge. The phone which connects to the UMA bridge is not an entity in the end-end network. The last entity the network sees is the UMA gateway. Why is this bad ? Well, this mean that important services like presence, which involve end-end availability will not work (at least transparently) with a phone behind a UNC.
- One of the fundamental design principles of scalable architecture is this: eliminate as many inter-protocol gateways as you can. Gateways between multiple protocols are a single point of failure (just as SIP-PSTN gateways are too). They are a necessary evil when two network cannot talk directly to each other. The problem is that if the gateway fails, even if you have two perfectly operating network, they are not going to communicate.
On the other hand, if client OEM vendors directly incorporate SIP into their end points, several things are automatically addressed:
- The phone itself becomes an addressable entity in the network (so services like presence work)
- There are no limitations on access technology - IMS works on GSM/GPRS/UMTS and similar. So as you add/change transport infrastructure, you don't need heavy investments (in UMA you do)
This still leaves one issue: SIP/IMS to GSM/CDMA/GPRS handover. The requirements are still the same in terms of handover duration. There are companies actively working on this technology and from what I understand, good progress is being made. Do note that this does not still affect end -end IMS deployment in a big way. There is a heavy push from mobile operators to introduce high-speed bandwidth technologies such as HSDPA/HSUPA which they hope will make consumers use the mobile carrier network exclusively in favour of unlicensed spectrum (till they figure out how to make money off that network too ;-) )
So the big question we need to ask is:
Is there any motivation for Operators /OEMs to continue with UMA, especially since UMA too has just rolled out when IMS deployments is less than a year away ? Even if they do put both SIP/IMS and UMA, how long will UMA last ?
UMA proponents see this risk, and talk about how 'UMA accelerates IMS deployment' - in a way they are right, till OEM clients support IMS/SIP, UMA does connect the two. But I hope they (KinetoWireless and others) realize that as IMS deplyoment sets in, they had better change their business plan to move away from UMA too !
Monday, November 14, 2005
A couple of weeks ago, ElusiveCheese (the co-poster in this site) pointed me to some interesting reading material which were internal microsoft memos by Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie (one of the 3 CTOs at microsoft) where they talked about 'a disruptive tidal change' in the way MS must do business to remain at the top of the technology curve. I seriously doubt if they were really internal or if it was just a well planned leak to show the world that microsoft is at top of the innovative chain. Anyway, that is besides the point.
I read Ray's memo with a lot of interest and one thing that really stuck with me was a particular para in the 'Key Tenets' section of his lengthy memo that said:
"Limited trial use, ad-monetized or free reduced-function use, subscription-based use, on-line activation, digital license management, automatic update, and other such concepts are now entering the vocabulary of any developer building products that wish to successfully utilize the web as a channel. Products must now embrace a “discover, learn, try, buy, recommend” cycle – sometimes with one of those phases being free, another ad-supported, and yet another being subscription-based. Grassroots adoption requires an end-to-end perspective related to product design. Products must be easily understood by the user upon trial, and useful out-of-the-box with little or no configuration or administrative intervention."
To me, these 5 words summarize to a great extent what the entire memo talks about. I would like to spend some time discussing my own thoughts here:
- Discover - The key to product success is not only that it works well, but that people know about it. Traditionally, discovery is an expensive and time consuming process. It involves large marketing budgets, expensive trade shows and a lot of mind/marketshare activities to let people know about the product. To a large degree, the Internet has revolutionized the way we do marketing. Cutting edge companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft have embraced technologies such as blogging where key visionaries espouse their ideas and thoughts on how to shape the the next generation world. While they do that, they also talk about internal (and approved) company initiatives that people can read about and get excited. And all of this ties into effective search mechanisms that let consumers search for this information easily. (As an example, Google has integrated blogsearch into its main stream search so that readers can tap into the rich information that people provide in their personal blogs). The Internet penetration is of magnitudes more than other marketing mechanisms and organizations should embrace this new marketing tool, while at the same time continuing the more traditional methods for 'in-person' interaction and targetted marketing. One does not replace the other, but ignoring the Internet is like trying to mow your lawn with a pair of scissors while the lawn mover sits in your garage.
- Learn - This one word has many connotations. To me, it says 'what ever you do must be easy to learn'. It should be intuitive in operation and in front end interfaces. I strongly recommend companies read human interace design guidelines from folks like apple and GNOME . Google and Microsoft's applications are key examples of good software interface design - how many of us actually have read the manual for Microsoft Powerpoint or word to get started ? Likely less than 1% - sure we refer to help when we need to do something advanced, but the key is that for any good software, the initial learning to get it up and running to perform a simple task should be intuitive. All my life, I have worked with 'telecom bellheads' who believe that complexity is key to what they do in their business. I find this thought ridiculous - simplicity and intuitiveness is a key tenet in whatever you do. It's a mindset. This one point encompasses good design and engineering principles both in the product front end and the back end. An easy to learn product should be self configuring, self correcting and most importantly, should a) never make a change permanent without asking confirmation, or , b) Let the users undo what they just did or, in the worst case, c) Offer a reset function to return to a self-configured stable state. The other dimension to Learn is to keep learning from competition. Never reach a state where you think you are safe and at the top - that is exactly when you will slip a few feet down and if you don't pick your self up in time, you will continue sliding down the greasy ladder to your own destruction. Ozzie refers continously to 'grassroot' (new) companies that are 'laser-focussed' on what they do. A key learning here (even though its common sense) - keep your ear to the ground, never lose focus. You need to constantly innovate and better your products to keep ahead.
- Try, Buy - The world is a-changing. Consumers demand try before you buy. Don't shy away from it. Again, I have worked for companies that shun this model in the past - 'free internet trials' to them means that their sales organization will not have a job. Again, stunted vision as far as I am concerned. Hosting a software on the internet for controlled, time limited trials is key as far as I am concerned when it comes to effective internet marketing. A Lot of people believe that this model only works for B2C sales and not for B2B sales. I beg to differ. This is a model of convenience and elimiates a lot of effort from both sides for the initial trial. When the trial expires in 30 days, if the consumer wants to buy, he will contact you. If you are concerned about IPR leak and license hacking, trust me, it is no different for a person to sign an NDA manually with you, sign an eval license and then hack it anyway (all of this can be done in the online version of try and Buy too, if you so like)
- Recommend - This one word to me is key as an indication of the post sales process. In my experience, business comes from repeat sales. Trying to find new customers all the time simply based on 1st hand marketing (that is the company that sells directly markets) get increasingly tougher as time passes. Referrals are key to increasing business. Referalls can happen within the organization (one division reccomends to the other) or outside. Either way, when something is strongly recommended by a close associate, the chances are that you would buy it even if it is at a small premium. Your custo
mer will recommend your product only if he is comfortable with its functioning and the post-sales process he has experienced after investing in your product. Too many companies focus on pre-sales and ignore post-sales. Remember, a satisfied customer is a customer who will sell your product for free to others. And his conversion rate will be much higher than yours. Remember it, accept it, embrace it.
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Being a good manager is not only about getting your job done, but more importantly, earning the respect of your team. Some thoughts, based on personal experience:
- Stop thinking of youself as a 'Boss' - whether you are the manager or not, you are first and foremost a part of the team. Don't alienate yourself by sitting in a high chair. Nobody likes a windbag.
- Lead by example - I always think that to be a good manager, you need to understand what your team is doing. Even if you are not 'hands-on', you need to earn the respect of the team and make them believe that you have an overall guiding vision of what the team is working on. If not, you will end up, at best, being a resource manager.
- Learn to Delegate - one of the hardest things for new managers is to delegate to and trust other team members. Typically, when a good engineer steps into the shoes of a manager, he still wants to do everything on his own - don't fall into this trap. If you do not delegate responsibility to your team, your team members will feel stifled and will not be able to grow. And guess what, delegation is one of the hardest things a good manager needs to learn to do well. It involves trust and the ability to succeed without micro managing
- As a corollary to the above, never micromanage. No one likes being micro-managed. One of the things you will learn, as a new manager, is that when people are given a responsibility, most of them rise to the challenge. Give them a chance. Step back, keep a track of the overall goal but don't walk up to your team members every half hour asking what is going on
- Be careful of overprotection - As a manager, it is critical for you to 'take care' of your team, which includes shielding them from harsh criticisms from others in the organization. However, be very careful of over protection. A good manager will always balance protection with positive criticism to ensure that while his team is motivated and happy, they also know their shortcomings so that they can improve. It is your responsibility to make sure that your team is on the path to constant personal improvement. The worst thing you can do is keep them under the impression that they are the 'best' and have them ignore areas of improvement.
- Plan milestones for your team members well in advance (typically a year at least) - so that you can track their progress concretely through the year. Your team deserves to know how they performed objectively
- Take performance reviews seriously - In a typical corporation, the rise of your team largely depends on the reviews that you propagate to the upper management. A review should be timely and as objective as possible. If you have a problem with a teammember, step back and think if its a problem with the team member or with you. If it is the former, before you put it in the review, consider if it is one-off, due to special circumstances or a repeatable problem that needs to be corrected.
- Give an opportunity for your team to give you input on what they think of you. Most importantly, act on their feedback. Being a manage does not always make your right. Don't let your ego get into the way - learning is a 2 way process, from you to the team and from the team to you. Self improvement is key for you to improve as a manager and into a leader.
- All work and no play... - Don't get too tied in with 'deliverables' and 'schedule'. Make some time to take your team out for a lunch or a party.
- Challenge your team - once in a while push your team to achieve more than they think they are comfortable doing. Sometimes, team members need an extra nudge to innovative beyond their perceived limitations.
- Recognize individuals and teamwork - I personally believe both are critical. Team recognition bolsters the team morale and person recognition provides a lot of individual motivation as well as urges others to rise to the challenge
- Be ready to objectively explain individual recognition (or the lack of it) - As I mentioned above, I am of the personal opinion that individual recognition is key in addition to collective recognition. However, remember that it is the right of other team members to challenge/question you on why they were not recognized. As a good manager, you should be able to give concrete responses on lacking milestones due to which they were not recognized while others were. If your responses are objective and non-confrontational, it would usually be accepted and taken as an input for self-improvement.
- 'Before declaring a bad apple, consider if its another fruit' - Remember that not everyone excels at every job. If you have assigned a person to be responsible in a particular area and for some reason, that person is failing in his work, don't just declare he is not "worthy" to be in your team. Often, a simple re-assignment to a different responsibility can change things drastically
- Be there in times of need. There will be a time for everyone when they face personal/family problems. Those who genuinely help during these times of need are those who form long lasting friendships. Do as much as possible to help your team get over hard times, should they seek your assistance. Remember this - jobs come and go, teams form and break but friendships last for ever. When you genuinely help a person in time of need, this is never forgotten and this is how loyalty builds.
IMS is collection of carrier network functions that promises a future where their networks will be able to offer an dizzying array of services and applications. IMS, at the same time offers these carriers the same level of access control that they are used to today.
While the architecture is evolving, there are already solutions from various vendors (who also happen to sell a lot of gear to carriers) that offers a taste of the IMS vision: POTS.
IMS vendors make a big deal that they chose SIP as the signaling protocol, but all their focus is on POTS.
I poked around a few IMS call flows. They basically take a 600 odd bytes signaling message that travels between a SIP user agent and a proxy (offering a service) and turn it into 4000 odd bytes of Record-Route headers, P-Charging-Vectors, and mystical GUIDs added to it. No new functions except that there are two more boxes inspecting and serving the "user". Kiss 3261's Bob and Alice flows goodbye!
Thankfully, all this is very complex and unrealistic and will take a long time to bake. I am fairly certain IMS will be a distraction since it will fail to create any new applications that will appeal to consumers.
The carriers and their vendors will burn away billions of shareholder equity while the real innovation will continue outside such standards bodies.
In the meantime, if you get the IMS itch, scratch a bit, but always remember Little Red Riding Hood.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
UPDATE (Nov/17/05): It seems Sony is in a bigger mess than I thought - I recently read that they actually ripped code for their DRM software from Jon 'DVD' Johansen's Fair Play code which I understand is under LGPL. Obviously, this is a copyright violation. Oh well, they seem to be getting into a deeper mess with each day.
It is human nature - controversies are what we thrive on. As much as we like to hear about heroes, it is villians who make our day. This time, Sony-BMG faces the wrath of the righteous.
The story so far:
1. Sony has been shipping DRM protected CDs for a while now
2. Mark Russovich discovers, almost by accident, that Sony installs a program in your computer that actually installs some hidden files and also ensures that those files are cloaked (in other words, a normal user will never be able to see these files, unless he knows exactly how). In short, Sony installs a driver that hides any files that begin with the special letters '$sys$'
3. To Make it worse, Sony does not provide a clean uninstaller - to uninstall, one has to go through cumbersome filling up of forms and periods of non-response.
Mark discovers that when he tries to uninstall the software manually, it 'trashes' his CD player. Basically, what Sony does is that it attaches itself as a filter to the CD device driver - if you forcibly remove Sony's secret drivers, the device driver filter chain gets corrupted and boom - your CD player is no longer visible.
4. Mark gets mad, hacks his way through the DRM process and finally manages to
return his computer to stability (Mark is an established and highly respected Windows hacker)
5. Mark checks the EULA for the DRM software and rightfully finds it to be purposely vague about the intent of the 'installed software'
6. In the mean time, mainstream media picks up on this and overnight, Sony becomes the new Satan everyone is talking about. Consumer rights have been violated, and so on.....
Class action lawsuits are filed (what would the world be without class action lawsuits... *sigh* )
In the meatime, consumers go haywire in forums around the world, promising never to use anything Sony, including digital cameras. (Don't worry, the moment Sony releases their next Camera to the market all these promises will be dutifully pushed under the carpet - but till then, it makes great media news)
7. To make things worse, some virus writers exploit the new discover that Sony DRM software cloaks files that begin with "$sys$" and write a virus that begins with those letters. Guess what, Sony happily hides those files too from checkers.
8. In the meantime, Sony does a lame press notice and releases an uninstaller which is partially tested.
Fine. My 2 cents:
a) Sony did mention in the EULA about the 'proprietary software'. They also mention that it does not transmit private information of clients - this is actually true.
b) Sony's EULA is worded, as usually, heavily in favour of Sony. The liability is severely limited and the grounds of winning any law suit against them is low to none.
c) The fact that Sony's cloaking resulted in exploits like the virus writer did is true. However, this is not an something that can be held in court against them. It is similar, to, say, installing sendmail in your computer and someone designing an exploit of sendmail. Sure that exploit never would have existed if sendmail was not vulnerable. Same holds true for Windows vulnerabilities. Software bugs happen. Sony's DRM code did many wrongs, but this part is bogus. This is why the EULA protects software with the 'AS IS' para. Most software vendors do this to protect themselves.
d) Sony did a horrible job as a followup. Instead of trying to please their customer base with a good patch , their uninstaller release was directed only to the press, and to top it off, badly tested. This seems to me, to be an act of defiance by Sony which seems to say 'Yes, we did. So what. Simmer down, have a cookie'.
e) However, the software does not directly violate anything expressed in the EULA. For example, Sony does not say it will provide an uninstaller. It words it as 'until removed or deleted' - whether manual or automatic, is not explictly stated. Yes, this is wordsmithing a contract, but that is what lawyers do.
Does this mean I will stop using Sony ? Hell No ! Not me. But that is just me. Welcome to the world of DRM. If you choose to buy DRM software or hardware, accept the fact the vendors will do everything possible to enforce DRM. If you have problems, fight DRM as a concept (and best of luck with it).
In other words, please don't change the focus to 'Sony is Evil' - fight the larger concept of DRM if you must.
VoIP is one kid who just does not give up. For those of us in the VoIP industry, you would have experience the 'irrational exuberance' between 1999-2001 and the huge bubble burst right after.
Well, with the market up again, VoIP is back with vengeance. I read the other day that Microsoft acquired media-streams to strengthen its foray into VoIP. Google started late with google talk and Yahoo with its yahoo! messenger with VoIP support. And ofcourse there is Skype and many others.
VoIP to customers imply 2 main things:
- Better Services
- Cheaper than traditional telephones
When it comes to end consumer scale, whether you like it or not, 'cheaper' is a great motivation, unless your 'Better Service' brings in something so revolutionary that people are willing to spend more (for example, mobility - cell phones did that). Incidentally, even if you did bring in a 'Better Service', by the time your consumer market really picks up on it, the cost for the 'Better Service' will need to drive down to within 10%-15% of the cost consumers are already paying before the service kicked in (cell phones charges today are comparable to PSTN line charges and is a reason why many consumers are disconnecting PSTN lines for Wireless, since it adds mobility at a nominal markup price)
So let's focus on Cheap for a while. Skype came out with a great VoIP client and boasts of several million customers. Their soft-phone and PC-PC based calling is free but if you need to call outside (PSTN, wireless) or receive calls from outside the Skype network, there are services called 'SkypeIn' and 'SkypeOut' that cost you money.
So the question to ask, is, out of the several million Skype customers, who are actually paying for SkypeIn and SkypeOut ? And how much revenue is Skype really earning out of this charging ? (I guess it doesn't matter now, since Skype sold to E-Bay for a whopping $4b). The people who would pay for this service would likely be those who:
- are on the move travel professional who like the concept of 'carrying their skype phone' whereever they are and the rates are attractive, compared to say, calling from a hotel
- Home users who never used calling cards in the first place and compare Skype's rates to their phone provider rates
But I understand that they need to make money. That is the basic tenet of good business. At the end of the day, you need to make money to survive.
Then the other day, I read a new article that Microsoft plans to go one step forward and make PC-Phone calling free ! Not a single cent. That got me thinking:
- Before VoIP, we had the monopoly of RBOCs and their phone rates
- After VoIP came in, we had services like Vonage and CallVantage that offer you a flat rate for inbound/outbound calling (no per minute rates, but flat rates)
To Microsoft, VoIP is just a tool that helps them be the 'one-stop-shop' for us. Google wants that too. The difference is that Google is working from 'outside-in' (best search engine in the world, great web based apps, trying to convince you that your desktop is less important - embrace the web), while Microsoft is working from 'inside-out' (stranglehold on desktop applications, sees the threat of google, migrating some apps to what they call 'Microsoft Live' - an ASP hosted application model and convincing you that since almost everyone uses MS for desktop, it makes sense to hold their hand as they expand 'out' into harnessing the power of the Internet for you)
But back to making money. If Microsoft manages to make PC-phone calling free they will effectively manage to run several pure VoIP business out of money, who solely depend on some charging mechanism to remain in the market. To google and microsoft, making money out of VoIP is less important. They make money from different channels.
As an example, microsoft can incorprate a free voip client into their office software. People are paying to buy microsoft office and hey, guess what they get free calling as a 'productivity enhancement'. If VoIP helps them sell more licenses, great !
But back to the pure VoIP providers. What will become of Vonage and similar services (assuming they too do not get acquired). How do they make money ?
There are a few ways:
- Target corporations and provide value added services that they will be willing to pay for. As an example, we just installed a VoIP Mitel CX-200 PBX here - all IP - they have a solution called 'TeleWorks' - I can plug off my phone from office, take it home, and plug it in to my home DSL- and it automatically connects to my office - so I can work from home if need be and my customers would not know the difference.
- If they are targetting end-consumers, bring down rates to match and/or beat the good calling card services in the market. Work with OEMs to bundle your software in cheap $20 phones people can buy off Wal-Mart. If your solution needs a PC or consumers need to buy $70 phones, you will not make enough revenue in this market segment.
- Advertising - more on this below
A friend of mine recently said 'It is not that Google is the first with great innovation. They are the first in doing innovative things the right way'. How true.
Google first came out with a program called 'AdWords'. The logic was simple
and well tried before. Advertisers would buy 'words' and have their ads displayed when 'potential customers' did a google search with words similar to those bought.
However, they soon hit a roadblock that many others faced before
'Was it worth the Advertiser's money to pay for the words ? Did they get enough of people clicking on their ads ?'
It was a question of visibility. To beat, this Google came up with an innovative idea of 'AdSense'
This complementary program was targetted towards normal users, like you and me, who host internet sites. The message to them was simple, should you choose to display google ads in your own site, and people clicked the advertiser's site via your site, you get money !
What did this do ?
- Increased the visibility of the advertisers manifold - millons of websites now hosted advertisements for them
- Gave the impetus to millions not involved in advertising buying/selling to make money from their website with ZERO marketing. (Remember, google takes care of the internet marking in a way that the more people read your site, the more indexed it becomes, and the more people discover it with searches)
An efficient eco-system. I've tried google adsense, and it works well. I get a nice paycheck each month. But is it enough to be enough for mainstream revenue for a company ? I don't know. Time will tell.
So Anyway, how does advertising tie into VoIP and free Calling for the consumer market ?
- VoIP providers can considering replacing standard dial-tones with advertisements, carefully balancing irritation factor for users (don't have someone screaming an ad, maybe some soft music, with some key words such as 'visit amazon.com' for the greatest book selections)
- Provide value added services at a nominal cost or free with advertising. For example, even if basic calling were made free, provide a hosted voicemail solution with the caveat that there is 5 seconds of advertisement before you can access your VM, or , pay $3 a month to take it off for ever. Or for example, free conferencing with a '5 second jingle each time you conference or pay to remove it'
- Tie up with popular Content providers to list your service (harness the power of the Internet - it is the cheapest and most powerful marketing tool). Offer special deals (for value added services) to both the content-provider and the consumer