Digital Identity and Telecoms

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A ‘Directory of Always on Digital Identities’, and the ability to follow their behaviour, is the holy grail of the internet. Facebook, Google, Skype, eBay, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are all in one way or another seeking to create this asset. It has massive power, as it lies at the heart of advertising and (ultimately) payments (the lesser of the two prizes).

It should not go unnoticed that mobile telcos already have a directory of always on identities, which they are able to observe the behaviour of (they’re your ISP when you’re not on WiFi). They have not however managed to leverage this great asset from the world of voice and SMS into the internet value chain. There have been passed attempts, most notably Phorm, which failed to respect consumers and the existing internet ecosystem players. More recent forays in the space seem to lack ambition, whilst the OTT players are gaining in speed and scope (see X.Commerce (https://www.x.com/) from eBay and Facebook Credits rolling out across 3rd party sites).

If Telcos do not act, by necessity over the top players will be forced to re-create or work-around their assets – at the requests of both merchants and consumers. Complicating things further for Telcos, device association to network connectivity (for data) is now as low as 20-30%, forcing telcos to innovate their own Over-The-Top solution to let them span these ‘off-net’ experiences. All this can be done, the question is to they have the ambition to do it? Signs are we may see a resurgence of ‘operator portals’ (dressed up as App Stores or Deal Sites) but little engagement with the wider world. This would be a tragedy for the industry, as we all watch more and more of the ecosystem drift State-side.

Startup request – Shared Folders

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I’d like the following service, if you can make it, please let me know when it launches …

I want a series of folders, each shareable with a difference group of people. The folders should be accessible via my naive drag-and-drop GUI in Windows and OS-X. They should also be accessible via my mobile and tablet. The folders should be automatically sync’ed over the internet (being hosted either locally or in the cloud).

The service would be a bit like drop-box, except it would allow multiple different ‘drop boxes’ per machine (with different sharing profiles). It also would have full integration with the host OS (for drag and drop in standard GUI). The fact that it could leverage local storage instead of cloud resources would help to keep the service costs (and therefore fees) nice and low.

I’d use the service to share photos with relatives (the kind who don’t use Facebook etc…) and documents amongst co-workers and across machines. It’s not much of an ask, but nothing seems to offer this setup in an easy to use way straight out of the (drop) box.

If operators invented voice services today …

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This article is tongue in cheek! But there may be some truth in it.

If today’s operators had to invent voice services, what approach would they take?

They could go for a horizontal infrastructure play, focusing on connecting individuals via a generic mechanism. Businesses and consumers would use the network for any and all types of conversation. It would start out as simple telegram displacement service and would find its way to becoming the everyday chit-chat mechanism we know today.

Or, they could decide to launch a vertically integrated approach. They’d sign deals with leading voice artists and have conversational themes people could sign-up for in bundles. They’d launch with something like weather chat and expand over time. The service could be merged with radio partners and lead to a 2 way interactive audio play in the fullness of time.

The point of the above example is to highlight what has become a widespread fear amongst telcos – that if they expose ‘infrastructure’ functionality to the wider world, without wrapping it up in a ‘higher value’ service, they will fail to capture enough value. This is of course the exact opposite to how internet players work today – they seek first to control the infrastructure layer, and then monetize from their position of strength (see Google, Facebook, even Twitter [but not yet]).

A location aware calendar alarm (patent spoiler)

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Just in case the wrong phone manufacturer patents this idea, here it is as prior art!

I’d like my calendar alarms to not only be a fixed time in advance, but rather vary the warning time given based on my distance from the meeting location. I’d set a standard 10 minute warning, but if he Calendar detected I was more than 30 minutes from my destination then the warning would be brought forward. Exactly when the alarm would go off would be a mix of calculated distance and guessed mode of transport (details , details …)!

Dear BT, I’d like a …

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My DECT phone recently died, and I’ve explored buying another. At 50-100 pounds to buy a device I’d rather not have in my house, I’ve become somewhat stuck. I need to receive calls on my landline, and I appreciate landline voice quality. However I don’t want another device in the house (and a fixed corded phone just doesn’t suit me). So …

I’d like a soft-phone, which would work over my home wi-fi, loaded onto my iPhone. It would only go over WiFi as far as the router, and then would convert back to regular fixed telephony. I don’t want a Pico-Cell, I don’t want a VoIP phone. I want a sort of DECT via WiFi phone. I’d get landline voice quality, would save the cost of a physical DECT phone, and BT would get more call revenue. Ideally they could build the software into their existing HomeHub rather than needing a new adapter. If BT are listening … I can wait for 6 months for a solution!

Voice controls – the new choke point

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I’m in awe of Apple. They are just so viciously clever. The introduction of voice as a new and compelling interface option (which is a noteworthy achievement in itself) gives them control over partners in a way not seen before. Imagine introducing a new keyboard, but one that only works with Bing (I’m stretching for emphasis!). This is what voice enables, they can pick and choose who the interface works with. Full respect to GigaOM who pointed this out (I did think of it before reading their post), and the threat it poses to Google.

As a general theme, new mobile technologies and service that reduce the need to input, or simplify the input process, have got to be a good bet.

It is somewhat ironic that the new voice services require (I believe) more meaty processing power on the device. Given the devices are/were built in the first place to communicate voice back to a giant cloud/exchange, it is strange that voice recognition is not a prime candidate for centralised processing power (please correct me if Siri is using this approach).

[Update] I believe Siri has to have an internet connection to work – not sure how it shares the load between local and cloud however

Unmanaged WiFi offloading – Operator Friend or Foe?

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Mobile operators are currently very keen to encourage you not to consumer their services. SMSs and emails are being sent to inform you how to roam onto WiFi, not just at home, but wherever you find it. This unmanaged* ‘offloading’ is helping operators delay investments in their own network (and delaying the hopes of Femto cell salesmen everywhere). As a result, the mobile device is now becoming an occasional visitor to the mobile broadband network, reducing Operators’ potential visibility of user behaviour and all the value that could be derived from it. OTT service providers will have greater consistency of engagement should this trend continue, undermining the long-term value potential of Operators.

On a different note, the use of open WiFi (as the easiest way to let users ‘roam’ onto WiFi) may accelerate the use of end-to-end encryption, further damaging the value potential of Operators. Innovations like Firesheep will quickly either reduce the use of open WiFi networks or encourage greater HTTPS usage by major websites.

* The offloading is unmanaged in the sense that operators are not involved in the authentication process, nor are they able to see the traffic being delivered over the access network.

OTT Mobile – click here to buy more connectivity

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Imagine a smartphone with a software configurable SIM (both the GSMA and Apple are working on this). The device has life-long 3G connectivity bundled with the device, but only to (say) Apple’s portal (a bit like the Kindle offers now). When you boot up the device you’re asked to buy credit for X days connectivity to the wider internet. You pay by Visa/MasterCard and (say) Apple then provisions your SIM over-the-air to utilize wholesale data ‘minutes’ they procured.
As and when they need to, your SIM is reconfigured to point to new networks to avail of the best wholesale rates. The end user never needs to know which operator they are with. A scary outlook for operators, but not so hard to imagine happening. Unified billing would finally occur but not as expected.

If voice related number portability was an issue, you could easily imagine a situation where an ‘overlay’ network would be used to disconnect the user’s perceived phone number from that of the operator ‘owned’ number(s).

Laying cables inside fibre

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BT (the incumbent telecoms service provider in the UK) offers Video On Demand via its set-top-box TV service. The videos are delivered via my ADSL line, but they don’t come off my internet download allowance and their quality also isn’t affected by my web browsing activity (as they have [I believe] a QoS enabled partition of the DSL line). Does this service breach net neutrality? Would the answer be different if the set-top-box displayed the videos in a frame-less browser and accessed the service via a ‘WWW’ web address*? Are cable companies who provide internet access and have moved to IP based video delivery for TV services in breach of net neutrality?

Following on from the above, if you’re ok with the incumbent telco (like BT) and cable company TV services in the above example, do you want these to be the only people able to offer such services, or should 3rd parties be allowed access to the same differentiated delivery infrastructure? Pushing still further, if 3rd parties are to be allowed access, should you have to pay an explicit fee for the network service they use, or would you be happy for them to pay this fee (either out of your TV subscription or via ad funding)?

I’m naturally (as I guess are most) in favour of net neutrality, but I’m also disappointed to see internet pipes flooded by TV content crowding out other services. The recent non-decision by the EU regarding net neutrality seems more reasonable the more you push the argument towards what innovations should and shouldn’t be allowed. IMHO, what matters is clear service descriptions and the maintenance of competition. I look forward to seeing what happens.

* this is in fact more or less happening now, with the BBC iPlayer available via the set-top-box, offering the same internet experience but via a QoS enabled line outside my internet download allowance.

Romancing the Web

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There are many things that can’t be started and completed within a single web session. In fact, nearly every transaction I do online spans multiple sessions and probably multiple days. However nearly all sessions start from a blank slate and end in an abandoned checkout rather than a partially completed ‘something’. Now I know there are cookies which explicitly remember elements about me, and there are tracking services to help progressive target ads against my behaviour. However, none of these come close to me being able to hop in and out of a process without having to tidy up all my toys and start again each time – it’s like a strict hot-desk policy has been imposed on the whole web. There is no way I’m going to spend time and effort logging in each time, and even if I did most websites do little or nothing with this that truly helps me maintain my flow (of thought and process). Whether I’m searching for a car, a house or a holiday, by app or website, most sites greet me like a complete stranger (even if they know my location and name). Web browsers may now be addressing this issue somewhat, launching into a what you’ve been dong recently or often quick-launch grid. I’d like to see elements of this reflected into individual site designs. I’d also like to see this taken much further by sites, and potentially extended even further to enable a persistent cross site experience that builds over time (elements of shopping robots). At its simplest, I’d like my favourite airlines to at least list my (or the machine’s) recent trip searches!