Putting innovation in the too hard basket

Mobile Industry Review’s Ewan MacLeod posted a good early-morning thought today. Following a 4:00AM pick-up call from a taxi driver he wondered why it was not possible for his mobile network to provide him with contextual information about an incoming call rather than a caller’s number, or worse, the Withheld announcement:

“..surely there’s a way of easily plugging this stuff all together? The fact that I approved the call? The fact that the taxi firm HAVE my mobile details — couldn’t they be ‘approved’ to be able to display status and context to my phone, rather than the default number?

Is a call even necessary? Couldn’t the phone just turn green? Or flash red? Especially if the device knows I’m awake and operational, I certainly don’t need an interruption beyond ‘your taxi is here’. Like a growl update.

And if you do need to interrupt, do it with some kind of contextual information rather than a phone number.

Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this from the mobile operator — despite the operator playing the role as the ultimate trusted party in the value chain.”

This is a great thought though not a new one. Ewan is not the first person to highlight the lack of mobile operator support for useful calling features, one wonders why such value-adds have not been delivered in IMS-RCS deployments, context aware caller info seems to be a perfect use case for the Rich Communication Suite.

I suspect this has a lot to do with being ‘too hard’ from a legal perspective. First comment on Ewan’s post (from someone in the banking industry) immediately flags up compliance issues and I can imagine that this mindset has a very loud and influential voice in the offices of many mobile operators. Shame.

Of course it’s also hard to build such a feature into off-net calls where a third party is used for terminations – not an insurmountable problem, but certainly a crunchy one.

However, an all IP comms network with some sensible opt-in rules might find that adding contextual information to calls becomes a useful and popular feature, maybe this is something that Skype should have implemented an age ago.

If this feature is not part of your Unified Communications strategy, think again.

Image: GreenSmith Consulting

Death of the Phone Call is a First World problem


In first world telecoms Voice is being commoditised to feature status. If further proof were needed this week the folks behind Bluebox released their latest offering, the 2600hz Project, a cloud-based telephony service that promises easy access to: “Anything you can do with VoIP, for now – with SMS and video coming shortly.”

Describing the practical applications of the 2600hz platform, GigaOm explained:

The software is designed to handle up to a billion calls per month on about six virtualized (or not) servers and can connect seamlessly to run on or with Rackspace clouds, Amazon’s clouds or on a private cluster of machines. Instead of paying a penny or so per minute to a VoIP company, businesses that want to add voice calling over the web to their social network, their app or their role-playing game just deploy this software and take care of it themselves.

Though a number of companies offer similar ‘cloud telephony’ 2600hz is unique in providing voice support entirely free of charge, their revenue model will be to add chargeable services as they grow. I think this is an excellent piece and I’m sure that 2600hz will do well; yet another way in which the nature of voice communication at distance is rapidly evolving in proportion to the availability and affordability of increasingly powerful technology.

For a comprehensive account of the changing nature of the humble phone call I urge you to go and read the great essay Dean Bubley has written on The Future of Voice for Vision Mobile, it really cannot be bettered. Here’s a taste:

We already have in-game voice chat between players, remote baby monitors, always-on voice telepresence, audio surveillance and all sorts of other voice applications which really are not calls, as such. Numerous other voice communication modes are evolving, especially those linked to social and messaging applications.

In a nutshell, we no longer need to shoehorn all of our “distant voice” communications needs into the unnatural format of a “phone call”. We are able to visualise, contextualise, obfuscate, interrupt, lie, drop in and out, waffle, multi-task, spy, listen, store, mumble, overhear, translate, declaim, announce and recall speech over a network in many, many different ways.

All rather spot on by my own reckoning, little to add to that except to reinforce the point that this is a first world phenomenon. For as long as they can get away with it governments and operators in developing countries will be ring-fencing that minute-metered phone call as it represents a significant source of revenue, especially foreign exchange.

This is not just the North South divide coming into play on roaming arbitrage but all international terminations, it’s quite possible that within a year or two we’ll be able to measure some kind of Human Development Index for voice and messaging.

Wonder whether any start-up can deal with that problem?

Image: Josh Dilworth

Erratum: In this post I gave the impression that the founders of 2600.hz were one and the same as the folks behind Bluebox and FreePBX. This is not the case. Apologies to all concerned for the error.

The telco on your laptop

Back in 1994, when I first started working at the happy pipes my erstwhile employer, Telecom New Zealand, was phasing out the last of its rural crossbar exchanges and party lines.

This is a video of a similar exchange in Melbourne, Australia filmed as it was being shut down in 1999. Never mind the size of thing, just listen to the noise it makes as it racks through calls and tolls – incredible:

Fast forward sixteen years and anyone can set-up their own Interactive Voice Response in ten minutes or less. The barrier to entry is now low enough for one person, a laptop and some hosted server space to offer a pretty decent smart PBX service, perhaps throw in some SMS too.

The call control and switching capabilities of a crossbar exchange are now available to all for free (Asterisk) or at a modest price from a vendor (Twilio, Voxeo etc.). Old school telecoms resellers have been reinvented as API telephony providers.

What a great time to be alive. Here endeth the not-so-ancient history lesson.