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ETel Keynotes: An Interview with Norman Lewis

by Bruce Stewart

Norman Lewis is currently the director of Technology Research for the Home Division of France Telecom. Prior to this he was the director of Technology Research at Wanadoo UK (formerly Freeserve.com). He's also an Executive Board member of the Communications Futures Programme at MIT--a global research partnership between industry and six laboratories at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lewis has acted as a consultant to the World Intellectual Property Organisation on issues related to the Digital Divide. He remains a member of the International Telecommunications Union's TELECOM Forum Programme Committee and has helped to design and organize forum programs for two World TELECOM events and half a dozen regional events held in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

He'll also be delivering a keynote address, "Telco Is Dead--Long Live the Communications Company," at O'Reilly's upcoming Emerging Telephony conference. Lewis was nice enough to answer some questions for us recently about the state of telecommunications and the future role of Telcos.

Stewart: How do you see voice applications changing the business landscape?

Lewis: The key point is not how voice applications have changed the business landscape, but how Voice over IP (VoIP) has changed traditional telecommunications and how this is impacting the business landscape. VoIP is critical because it has ensured internet-enabled control of traditional telecommunication operations, and secondly, it has commoditized internet transport, enabling the transport of virtually anything digital at very low cost. This makes it possible to invent new businesses through software and services on the internet. And what makes this revolutionary idea even more powerful is that these new businesses are inexpensive to implement.

We can see that happening already. For example, eBay's acquisition of Skype indicates that voice is increasingly being viewed as a dimension or feature of other services, rather than a standalone user experience. Hence, voice applications are becoming an augmentation to existing services; reach becomes not just about monetization, but levering growth into new areas. I don't think we've seen anything yet, but more is on the way.

Norman Lewis
Telco Is Dead-- Long Live the Communications Company

O'Reilly Emerging Telephony Conference 2006

O'Reilly Emerging Telephony Conference
January 24-26 2006
San Francisco Airport Marriott

Stewart: What's the most exciting development you've seen in internet telephony in the last year?

Lewis: Undoubtedly the beginnings of the democratization of innovation around telephony. Digium's Asterisk and Skype's developer programs point the way to a vibrant ecosphere of telephony innovation where developers and prosumers can begin to use open platforms to address various niches in what will become new communication value chains.

Stewart: What feature or application you do wish you had for your phone?

Lewis: Decent voice quality and consistent coverage for my mobile would be a good start!

However, looking more to the data-rich future, it is clear that even relatively unsophisticated phone users tend to accumulate a lot of data in their mobile handsets--photos, addresses, messages. But a lot of this data and information remains trapped in inaccessible and badly designed applications and user interfaces. A simple, intuitive, and consistent way of not just viewing, but manipulating and remixing this information would be immensely valuable; perhaps some form of telephony RSS that could allow lightweight use of that data in other applications and content. Equally, our landline phones act as conduits to valuable data on the Telco network, such as voicemails and ring-back tones. Again, this data suffers the same user interface issues and an additional problem--the Telco barrier.

But to get back to basics, the audio quality of our mobile and landline phones remains lo-fi, whereas VoIP telephony seems to offer crisp sound over broadband. Though we've made great strides in availability and reliability, quality is stagnant. Finally and ironically, voice as an interface for telephony is under-utilized. We speak to people all over the world with our phones, but why can't we talk to our services also, fundamentally altering the UI experience?

Stewart: Are consumers happy with the quality of VoIP, or are we still in the early dial-up days of VoIP and waiting till it gets much better?

Lewis: Wanadoo has rapidly moved into pole position in the U.K. VoIP market--however, reach doesn't equal usage. As such, it's difficult to ascertain levels of satisfaction with Telco-VoIP initiatives. The user experience of Skype, however, does indicate that millions of users are ready for IP telephony and indeed will begin to demand increased quality and call-management features of such services.

However, you need to distinguish between the questions of quality (of voice) from the experience of voice. While the quality of voice needs to improve further, it is the quality of the voice experience that excites me the most. When we begin to explore the notions of presence, availability, social software, and social networking applied to telephony, a totally new notion of telephony becomes possible. Your phone will be able to make inferences about your social context (device, activity, intent, attention, state, trust relationships) and route calls accordingly. Ironically, this is when hi-fi voice quality will become even more important, where high-quality voice will become a value-added service. This is what I call the voice experience, something experientially different from what has gone before. This will drive VoIP uptake in the future, even more than price or tariff tweaks and bundles.

Stewart: Which obstacles to innovation in internet telephony do you think will be removed in 2006, and which will take a longer time to remove?

Lewis: Emerging voice players such as Google and Yahoo are embracing open platform models in other parts of their businesses. It's likely that their voice services will be opened in a similar manner, potentially enabling a period of real innovation around voice. This could parallel the rise of mash-ups we've seen this year that could further displace traditionally closed Telco VoIP efforts. Also, there are weak signals of grassroots, open source efforts to create mobile handsets--it's early, but this could potentially remove many barriers to device innovation in telephony. However, it may be some time before regulatory issues catch up with any telephony innovation--everything from emergency support to number portability.

Stewart: Tell us a little bit about the work you've been doing with the UN and the ITU to shrink the digital divide. Are there reasons for optimism? What do you think will make the most difference in improving the status quo?

Lewis: I would make no claim to having helped shrink the Digital Divide, apart from having critically engaged in the debate that has helped to shape policy and thinking in this sphere through my participation in the ITU World and Regional TELECOM Forums.

I have always been highly skeptical of this debate. On the one hand, the debate has been shaped by a staggering technological determinism. On the other, it has been dominated by a Western pessimism that has sought to lower the expectations of poor and developing countries to accept "appropriate technology" for their future, like a $100 laptop. The loudest voices in this debate have come from countries where technological development has always followed a predictable adoption curve--where the rich and well-educated adopt technologies first, to be followed by the rest when these technologies became mass-market propositions. I find it remarkable that the loudest voices in the debate have come from Western commentators who have fundamentally lost faith in the market system they uphold being able to deliver the goods. Yet, the pessimists have been proven wrong. The Digital Divide has lessened and in some instances, it has been reversed: just look at developments in India, China, and South Korea, to name a few. And in the area of broadband for example, it can be argued that today the U.S. and Europe lags behind South Korea--what about that Digital Divide?

The really positive side to recent developments is that the internet, and particularly IP, has changed the game with respect to development. Disruptive technologies, particularly wireless technologies, have ensured that developing countries can take advantage of the lowered economic thresholds for infrastructure deployment, for example. Advanced and next-generation networks are being deployed effectively and have allowed many of these countries to leapfrog yesterday's development paradigms. The innovation, drive, and creativity we are witnessing are staggering.

This provides grounds for much optimism. A new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators is beginning to emerge in these countries; ambitious individuals who are in a better position to understand and solve the problems their societies face with regard to the digital future. This has already transformed yesterday's debate about the Digital Divide into tomorrow's Digital Opportunity, which will certainly not include a $100 laptop!

My real concern, however, is that the developing world will be influenced by the lowered expectations and doom-laden agendas of so many Western protagonists of this debate.

Stewart: How can VoIP and related technologies help the marginalized people of the world?

Lewis: When these networks are established, VoIP, because of its economic implementations, will be a huge driver in the developing world. I would expect many new initiatives around VoIP to emerge in these markets, particularly because service deployment will not be threatened by legacy systems and yesterday's business models.

There's also interesting work going on in organizations like the Fonly Institute. In seeking to establish some principles for "Fair Trade Technologies," the institute has sought to provide rural communities with the means to access information, and hence participate in global market economics. For example, if a farmer can access market information, he is better equipped to resist prevailing prices by contributing local knowledge to the marketplace and yielding fairer prices. This requires a communications infrastructure, and not only enhances rural incomes, but can reduce cultural isolation in rural communities and provide new opportunities for the young--whom often migrate from such communities out of necessity rather than opportunity.

Telecommunications isn't a silver bullet for the marginalized, but in particular contexts it can help to alleviate and reverse structural problems in disadvantaged communities.

Stewart: Who thinks they own this space: the Telcos, the ISPs, or the Google/Yahoo/EBay trinity?

Lewis: Actually no one but the customer "owns this space." If there's anything we should learn from history its that user behavior and social forces will determine the shape of this space in the future. Just remember the first predictions on telephony itself!

But there is a sea change taking place. Telcos have begun to understand that voice is simply another data service over wireless or wired networks and that this migration of voice into the application layer opens voice to competition from other application-level players, such as portals. Though it appears GTalk, Y! Messenger, AIM, MSN Messenger and eBay's Skype could commoditize Telcos as simple pipe-providers, it should be remembered that Telco expertise in identity and authentication, quality of service, convergence, billing, and customer care places them in a strong and potentially dominant position. This space will become hotly contested: Telcos believe they can maintain their positions, while ISPs, MNOs, portals and others believe they too can occupy this space and thus overturn old hegemonies.

"Telcos" in the traditional sense of the term will not occupy this space. VoIP is destroying existing business models and they will be disintermediated. But in the words of Lawrence of Arabia, "nothing is written"--yesterday's Telcos can transform themselves if they recognize this threat and become twenty-first century converged communication platforms.

Stewart: Developers have been key to the growth and dissemination of recent technology, yet for 150 years phone companies kept the barbarians at the gate. Now that said barbarians have leapfrogged the Telcos and their gatekeeper status, what happens to the Telcos? Is it all doom and gloom?

Lewis: It's certainly doom and gloom if you are trying to hold onto traditional Telco practices of the past. Revenues are under threat while business models are being destroyed. Most Telcos can see the writing on the wall and are beginning to act. With respect to your "barbarians" (a term I would not use to describe developers, although some I know certainly warrant that identity), a major cultural shift is needed to open Telcos to the new innovation modalities. Unfortunately, entrenched views about traditional business models go hand in hand with a Not-Invented-Here mentality. While we certainly have world-class expertise, this remains inadequate in the face of the rapidly changing innovation and implementation processes that we can no longer control. As with the development of the internet itself, dogma will have to give way to pragmatism. And that means lots of new opportunities for both parties.

But to reiterate the point above, while we're seeing interesting innovation at the application layer for voice, there are technological and business competencies that Telcos do execute well--customer care, billing, identity, scale, QoS--that are essential to platform businesses. Perhaps, those Telcos that can re-imagine themselves as platform providers, rather than service providers, stand the best chance. Telcos may not be driving innovation in telephony, but we can certainly play a role in enabling and empowering others to do so. Democratizing and diffusing the innovation process beyond the borders of our businesses will benefit everyone. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship!.

Stewart: If you had to pick one thing for people to come away from the Emerging Telephony conference knowing, what would it be?

Lewis: Some Telcos get it! We are not all evil. We may be perceived as the problem, but in reality, we will be part of the solution. We wish to sincerely engage with the developer community and provide the environment, tools, and platforms they seek. We have key assets in our networks, expertise, call centers, etc., and we can provide a stable environment for innovators to operate in. We understand that the monopoly we had in the past gives us no claim or right to dictate the future. But nor does it confer rights on anyone else. Open collaboration will unlock a truly innovative future in an area of communications that is long overdue for a shake-up.

Bruce Stewart is a freelance technology writer and editor.

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