ETel Keynotes: An Interview with Norman Lewisby 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.
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.
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