Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Communications technology predictions for 2011

The end of the year is always a traditional time for looking back on the previous 12 months – and looking forward to try to prepare for what’s to come. Rather than just put down my ideas, I captured some of the thoughts from Aculab’s global team to see what they thought would be the technical trends to look out for. So, without further ado, here are Aculab’s top three predictions for communications technology in 2011:-

Cloud-based communications will continue to gain in importance

Cloud computing will continue to shake up the established way of doing things, both for operators and equipment vendors such as ourselves, throughout 2011.

Cloud communications – the use of someone else’s server hardware to host your platform – sounds ideal as it eliminates CAPEX and reduces OPEX, but brings with it new challenges for time sensitive voice communications.

Call centre servers are perhaps an ideal candidate for being migrated to the cloud. With flexible server capacity on offer, for example Amazon’s EC2 platform, the processing power for a call centre can be adjusted according to demand ‘on the fly’, opening up possibilities for provision of campaign specific call centres without huge OPEX investments. Several call centre vendors are already providing cloud or virtual call centres, an example being
NewVoiceMedia in the UK. Watch for other call centre platform vendors moving into this space – will they survive if they don’t take the leap?

Aculab is focussed on harnessing all the capability of our hardware and software-based media processing platforms to meet the needs of the cloud environment as it moves towards the mainstream.

Video communications will continue to expand predominantly as one-way video applications
I recently bought my son an iPod Touch for his birthday – the new one with FaceTime video calling capability. He has now had it a week or so, but so far has not even tried out FaceTime. Why? – because he doesn’t know anyone else with the same device to make a FaceTime call to! This is just one example of the problem with video calling today – technically possible, but still too niche and lacking standardisation. What a mess we would be in with voice calling if, for example, you could call only the people who had the same brand of phone as you – not too bad if you had a Nokia of course, since they still dominate the overall worldwide handset market with a 32% market share (based on 3Q10 figure analysis), but not so good for anyone else. Thankfully, the world has standardised on the PSTN and a common numbering scheme that all phones – fixed and mobile – have to use. For interconnectivity between VoIP phones, we need co-operation between SIP providers and SIP trunking – but that is another issue…

Another view is that perhaps video calling has been left behind, and the new generation doesn’t need or want it. A common opinion among the younger crowd is ‘why call when I can text, IM chat, post to facebook or send a tweet?’ (I am sure if you have kids you know what I mean). If they don’t see the need to even make a voice call, what chance does a video call service have? That said, perhaps the new breed of tablet devices such as the iPad that offers a good sized screen ideal for video calls will change things – but then again, the iPad is not a mobile – it is a portable computer, more likely to see use at home. The smartphone with its 3.5” or 4” touchscreen is the device most people would carry around all the time – make video calling over WiFi AND 3G reliable and simple to use, then perhaps it will take off. Just don’t hold your breath…

On the other hand, devices such as smartphones are excellent for content consumption, including one-way video. Expect to see a proliferation of services using one-way video in addition to voice capability – much simpler to implement, and actually something end-users would value.

Use of integrated voice and messaging platforms expands
As alluded to above, it seems that what people want is integration of all types of communication – voice, mobile SMS, IM chat, facebook interactions, tweets and video (one-way) – all on one, preferably mobile, platform. This was a common theme mentioned by several Aculab team members in both the UK and the US.

Everything is going mobile, and as smartphones gain traction and consumers migrate from their ‘dumbphones’, then we will see more and more applications migrate from the desktop/laptop computer to a mobile device. With consumers using the single device for all forms of interaction, we will see a growth in mobile advertising. Broadcast of advertisements via text and multimedia messages will be huge in the next few years. I can see the day where you get phone service credits (i.e. you pay less money for service on a phone if anything at all) based on the ads you receive, view or act on. The ability to track this and broadcast the messages in whatever format (SMS, MMS, etcetera) is required offers huge potential to a product such as Aculab’s AMS Server.

Personal unified messaging systems (i.e. same phone number receives comms for multiple phones such as home phone, mobile and office) will be standard, not just a hobbiest item like Google Voice.

The Facebook/Skype integration will be one to watch – the biggest social media platform integrated with the biggest free VoIP service. Can they do more with Facebook than they ever did with the eBay integration?

It looks to be an interesting year coming up.

Wishing all our readers a Happy Christmas – after which the Aculab team will be fully refreshed and ready to take on the challenge of continuing to develop world-class hardware and software to support these new services.


About me
Andrew Nicholson is a Product Manager at Aculab responsible for the Prosody X and Prosody S media processing products. You can contact me
here. Alternatively, follow Aculab using our Twitter account, Aculab.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Cloud is the new hosted in the adverse diverse universe

Irn-Bru cans

If there was always one, single, universal answer, we’d not have Pepsi, Coca-Cola and IRN-BRU; there would not be around 20 diverse, major religions or belief systems in the world; Android, iOS 4, Symbian OS and Windows Phone 7 would all be superseded by ‘Universal SmartPhone OS 2’, and we’d all dress the same – like the characters in Logan’s Run.

Thankfully, the world is full of heterogeneity and that applies also to the α-diversity in the communications marketplace. Unified communications (UC) does not mean uniform communications and there is a ‘business case for diversity’ beyond that which talks of the composition of the workforce. It’s called competition.

The hype regarding competition in today’s communications marketplace is all about the ‘cloud’ and if we are to believe that, businesses should be falling over themselves to implement UC or their contact centres or Web-telephony, in public or private cloud networks as if that was the solitary answer. The reality is somewhat different and enough to make any self-respecting evangelist utter a simple unitary philippic in exasperation. You can hear them say, “They just don’t get it, do they?”

Enterprises, particularly SME/SMBs, probably see the ‘cloud’ as suggested by these lines from the Pretenders’ song ‘Don’t get me wrong’:

“If I come and go like fashion, I might be great tomorrow, but hopeless yesterday’. On the other hand, ‘it might just be fantastic’. It is going to be fantastic, but if current trends in the UK telecommunications services industry are anything by which to go, it’s going to have to wait for tomorrow – which, never fear, will come.

In the UK, there doesn’t yet seem to have been a landslide in favour of hosted telephony or other applications, such as SaaS or cloud-based applications delivery. Back in 2006, a Dell’Oro Group forecast suggested the total PBX market would be US$7.1 billion annually by 2010. They were right, but recent financial meltdowns are reflected in a current forecast, which points to the global market exceeding US$6 billion in 2014. Its 2008 report looked forward to growth fuelled in large part on increased sales to SME/SMBs and from 2006, apart from ‘extenuating circumstances’, the year after year predictions were for a reasonably steady market. The question is, “Why, at a time when OPEX is favoured more than CAPEX, has there been no avalanche of hosted or cloud-based solutions enveloping the prime target; those very SME/SMBs?”

It’s an interesting question when you consider that other intelligence from ABI Research indicates that enterprises are ramping up their investments in VoIP technologies on both customer premise equipment (CPE) and hosted VoIP. It goes on to say that overall revenue growth is due to brisk competition between CPE vendors and hosted service providers, but it does add that hosted VoIP is a ‘safe investment’, precisely because it offers flexibility at this time of uncertain economic recovery. Its research suggests that hosted IP PBX services should exit 2010 with a 15.3 per cent increase in revenue to US$3.4 billion worldwide, which means that it does have traction. One third of the market is more than a tremor and it brings us closer to a shakedown.  

The market inertia is because of the spenders’ disinclination to change and for there to be more than a slim chance of a mudslide, the tipping point needs to be reached. ‘Cloud’ is the new hosted and if we talk of ‘true cloud’, in addition to simply ‘hosted’, and of solutions being ‘engineered for the cloud’, it will help folks over the edge. Numerically, SME/SMBs constitute the largest proportion of the diverse communications marketplace and, in theory, should benefit most from getting on board the ‘cloud’ bandwagon as it rolls over the rim. But thinking about it, wouldn’t that make them all lemmings?

Friday, 3 December 2010

We're doomed!

Dads Army Frazier - doomed.png
“We’re doomed!” said Pte. Fraser in the cult BBC comedy, Dad's Army.

Well, that might be true if you’re concerned about global warming, the exhaustion of finite, carbon resources, the disappearance of tinority* languages like Busuu, the fact that the sun will burn out in around five billion years, or the B’ak’tun Cycle of the Mayans. For the rest of us, life goes on…

Ever since the last notional disaster of Y2K, which might just be a coincidence, we’ve been told that the days of the highly exclusive club of conventional telecommunications operators are numbered. The dismantling of the oligopoly and the resultant consumer freedom from practices that were based on over subscription and bundling were to herald a new dawn and sound the death knell for network providers.

However, the ‘unbundling’ of telecommunications services, despite its impact on the traditional, incumbent operators, hasn’t resulted in too many death throes. Do you know of any major player that has ‘gone to the wall’ in the ten years since VoIP has been lauded as the answer to life, the universe and everything? The major casualty has been, rather than the carriers, the telecommunications equipment manufacturers (TEMs). Look at the changing landscape of the big names and ask yourself what’s happened to the likes of Alcatel, Ericsson, GEC, Lucent, Marconi, Nortel, Philips, Siemens and any others of which you can think. The point is how they have changed.

Words like monolothic and proprietary have often been used to denigrate the traditional industry players, but it was always more so the case that it was the TEMs to which that applied. More particularly, it was the products they offered to which those terms applied and in the illusion that was created, the telcos and network providers suffered by association. After all, they were the ones that bought those products.

The beneficial change that has taken place over the last decade – yes, we’re now in the ‘teenies’ as opposed to the ‘naughties’ – has been the emergence of disruptive technologies such as open source, server virtualisation and cloud network architectures. All of these have benefitted from the bandwagon of IP, upon which you may stack VoIP and IP telephony. However, it does seem a myth that open telecommunications software platforms have more expansive feature sets than their predecessors. How many open source PBXs can offer the equivalent of all forty-nine DPNSS features?

What is true is that subscribers (now, there’s an outdated word if ever there was one) or consumers and business users now have far more than a handful of options. In the UK, there are at least 135 telecommunications operators and resellers, including those offering direct and indirect access, carrier pre-selection, call through (two stage dialling) schemes and VoIP. Interestingly, the total operator reported revenue over the last five years in the UK has remained fairly steady either side of the £40bn per year mark. Instead of showing a marked decline, it has shown a slight increase of five per cent over the period.

Those who attempt to persuade that open platforms have more expansive feature sets are disingenuous. The real issues are applications and services for which features are merely an enabler. The problem we faced five years ago was how to break out beyond simply recreating what was possible in the PSTN and offering hosted IP PBX services. Now, in the age of social media and with a wide array of ‘anything-as-a-service’ sized exactly to your needs available from within cloud networks, the landscape has been altered.

We can see the Tier 1 operators adapting to offer on-demand, pay-per-use, fully customisable, virtualised infrastructure that is designed for application hosting and storage, based on their existing physical network assets. Perhaps the TEMs, an endangered species if ever there was one, need to reinvent themselves as providers of ‘communications applications as a service’. Think unified communications and cloud computing; a marriage made in the heavens (or the void above the exosphere).

Are we doomed? On the contrary, we’re in the midst of the transition to a brave new tomorrow. As Capt. Mainwaring said, “Shut up! Fraser”.

*Note: a ‘tinority’ is smaller than a minority; by an order of magnitude.

About me
Andrew Nicholson is a Product Manager at Aculab responsible for the Prosody X and Prosody S media processing products. Aculab's latest product, AMS Server, sets out to speed and simplify the deployment of voice platforms for on-premise, hosted and cloud services.