Sunday, November 02, 2003

Telirati Newsletter #12

Five years aso I pointed out the lack of a "killer app" in the area of computing and telecom convergence. The intervening five years have not brought about that killer app, but they have brought about a transition in my career from mainly CPE wireline telephony to mobile applications - specifically mobile games. And that leads me to two observations: First, important applications need not be related to productivity, and, second, that there still is not "killer app" that makes the increasing amount of intellingence in mobile handsets truly worthwhile.

Newsletter #12: The Personal Communicator Revolution

The personal computer revolution brought control over computing to the people who demanded that control: capable individuals who were fed up with unresponsive central control over computing.

So why did we have a PC revolution, and no “personal communicator” revolution? Telephones never oppressed the masses. You picked up the phone, you got dial tone. You dialed the phone, you got a connected call or voice mail. What’s not to like? No waiting for reports, or new applications to be installed, or more disk space. A phone was, and is, a reliable and useful tool that is ready when needed and undemanding otherwise. The telephone priesthood was never challenged like the minicomputer and mainframe clerical order, and never fell out of favor.

Let us look at the now-decadent revolution in personal computers: PCs proliferated, and the people who feared them, loathed them, and resented the adept, were equipped with PCs. The MIS department began to regulate the use and content of PCs. Approved vendors, control over requisitions. These are the tools of counter-revolution. So instead of armies of drudges sitting in front of terminals, we got armies of drudges sitting at PCs that seldom were on the leading-edge of anything, running dull applications, connected by duller networks.

What is the lesson here for us toiling in the vineyards of computer telephony? Is “computer telephony” anything more than the side effect of the hegemony of PC technology? Would we be thinking of computer telephony if PCs had not swept minicomputers off the table as a leading edge technology? In other words, is there anything to computer telephony beyond the fact that PC-based servers are cheap, and so make good application platforms?

A valid question, since, thus far, there is no personal communicator revolution that parallels the personal computer revolution. The reason for this is not just as simple as the fact that revolutions happen for a reason and there has not been reason enough in telephony. Revolutions are also made by people. Would the PC have reached so far if Andy Grove and Bill Gates did not push their parts of that revolution so far beyond the limits one would have expected in the normal course of events? What if the Macintosh, along with Apple’s management of Macintosh OS development, marked the high water mark of personal computer development so far? Would we be trying to build telephony applications on an OS that supported but one address space and no preemptive scheduling? What if OS/2 were the best 32-bit OS for the x86 architecture? Again not an entirely rhetorical question since there are still telephony applications that have not migrated from OS/2 to NT, having initially chosen OS/2 because it was the only reasonable choice at the time.

This looks bleak. If there is no reason to revolt against the telephone, and no Andy Grove to weave an architectural sow’s ear into global dominance, what hope is there? Is there the opportunity for a personal communicator revolution? Yes. A seminal article on why this is so is called “RISE OF THE STUPID NETWORK.” You can find it there: In fact it has long been a given, in some quarters, that unless personal computers became personal communicators, their market would be stunted. Intel invented and developed TAPI for this reason. Neither thing happened in anything like the way that was foreseen. Personal telephony software for computers does not deliver added value outside a relatively tiny user community. PCs have thrived as never before. And market transitions like the sub-$1000 PC were far more important than any form of telephony or other person-to-person communication enabled by the PC. But the fact of the relative enormous size of the telephony industry compared with the computer industry is still a fact. Computing must become communications in order to grow into its next larger form.

This all is not to deny certain trends: Chat rooms propelled AOL in its infancy, and it is no surprise that Internet chat technologies that bring various combinations of rich content, speed, convenience, ease-of-use, and etc. have each found their niche among Internet users. That is personal communication. But chat may prove to be a product category with an intense but circumscribed audience. Unless chat technology takes on and beats H.323 in developing the business-oriented use of conferencing, chat will become an unimportant technology serving an odd user community that finds chat an interesting diversion. Chat is not the “killer app” of personal communication.

“Killer app” is itself a phrase that gets thrown around without much thought. Before it got diluted to the point of losing all its flavor, “killer app” meant an application that could make an industry. VisiCalc was a killer app. PageMaker was a killer app. As nice as it is, Visual Voice is not a killer app, and Artisoft, which bought the product in hopes of transitioning to higher growth in computer telephony, is finding that something as simple as sharing an Internet connection is, in the short run anyway, more profitable. PIMs have not been the killer app, either. The rise of the dumb network has not yet been balanced by the rise of any “killer app” to make use of the increasing computing power at the terminal ends of the ever-increasing capacity of the dumb network. This is something that should worry everyone.

Without a compelling application for the individual end user, computer telephony adds up to no more than a nice growth of call centers as the developing world catches up to the U.S. in over-the-phone selling. What makes this a particularly thorny problem is that the impediments to a killer telephony application cross several boundaries and disciplines. Computers, still, make lousy phones. Fixes to this problem, still, require adding a specialized audio card, and so the penetration rate of any good solution will be very low (compared with, for example, the QuickCam, or the Zip drive, both of which very much enhanced their market penetration through easy hook-up). Phones, still, make lousy computers. Uniden’s e-mail phone, and the IntelliPhone are likely flops, and while CIDCO may have something closer to the successful formula Web TV found, they will find their success limited by low-speed Internet connectivity and other infrastructure gaps in connecting devices within the home.

Where do we find the killer app? One thing is certain, it’s someplace “out of the box” we’ve been rummaging around in. Finding it will take integration across hardware and software, something rarely achieved in computer technology. Making that integration possible will take innovation in building industry relationships, because one company, even if it can conceive of the right combination of hardware and software, will not be able to execute it all. It may even be the case that the right application may be installed on your system already, but it lacks peripherals or network support to really make it sing.

When this killer app is found, it will change the industry. And such changes are poised to happen: IP telephony, real-time group interaction, unified messaging, are all on the boundary of change. Like a knife-point in superchilled water, it will instantly crystallize the industry, and what had been invisible will become solid. But until all the pieces are in place, how to evaluate investments in telephony innovations? If you can’t put all the pieces into place, can you at least have reasonable success by providing a subset of those pieces. The evidence says you can: video telephony shows no sign of becoming universal, or of driving IP telephony into the mainstream, but Connectix’s success with QuickCam is sure better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

When looking at an opportunity, look at it in terms of the confluence of successful concepts around it. Look in the overlap of communication, thin servers, networks easy enough for any small business or home, common communication needs, familiarity, harnessing RoW (Rest of World) effects like artificially expensive conventional telephony. These are the external effects that a product formulation can harness to reach a really large target market.

Is there a way to get all the way to a complete success? I think there is, but it requires a comprehensive system approach that only a handful of companies can contemplate putting into place. The reward for doing this, however, can be large. If one’s entrepreneurial competitors can see only part of the solution, there is real value in grasping the whole solution.

No matter your position in this competition to find the real telephony killer app, happy hunting in this New Year.

Copyright 1998 Zigurd Mednieks. May be reproduced and redistributed with attribution and this notice intact.