In part 4, I wrote at length about the convergence of telephones and computers into the smartphone and the “post-smartphone device”. I criticized mobile carriers for their preoccupation with smartphones, or rather, their campaigns to create the need for mobile subscribers to buy over priced phones and subscribe to overpriced data plans. Another criticism that I have is the way that mobile carriers and Internet messaging providers erect barriers in order to jealously guard their networks from innovation from the outside.
Mobile carriers and handset makers make it difficult to spread your communications over multiple devices, as if all communication should be confined to a single device. The methods by which we contact each other have been stacked on top of each other (SMS on top of mobile calling, instant messaging on top of mobile broadband, etc.) and then solidified into a kind of strata: layers of communications technologies that do not really intersect. This means that you really have no choice in your preferred methods of communication, when you should be able to text, call, email and surf on the devices of your choosing. The devices you use to keep in contact should work together to deliver the best possible experience even if they come from different vendors, and most of the time they really don’t. The reason these devices don’t play so well together is that they represent different “camps”: different technology markets and in some cases, entirely different industries. Software makers, handset makers, and mobile carriers have different priorities. Those priorities aren’t necessarily to deliver a simple and affordable experience to the consumer.
In the mobile handset camp, hardware companies like Apple, Samsung, Moto and Nokia are constantly adding compute power and screen real estate in order to lure you into your next upgrade. Your choice of hardware directly affects your availability of operating system. The latest handset is a several hundred dollar commitment that directly affects which operating system might be available to you. The gadgets that you already have can greatly influence your decision thanks to vendor lock-in. You ought be free to choose the best device for your needs.
In the software camp, Internet titans like Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are looking to hook users into a software ecosystem of applications and services. Your operating system determines the store where you get your apps from, and your selection of apps determines just what you can do with your phone. If your phone, tablet, and computer represent different ecosystems, you may have to choose your apps carefully to be sure they are present in each of your respective app stores. This isn’t hard if you stick with popular apps, but some apps simply aren’t present in a particular store. I got rid of my iPad because of the lack of wifi diagnostic apps. In this day and age, your devices should all integrate together, even if you aren’t fully vested into a given ecosystem.
In the mobile carrier camp, telcos like Verizon, t-Mo, and AT&T look to charge premiums for mobile data and text messaging plans, and to lock users into 24 month contracts by subsidizing costly mobile handset upgrades (which are obsolete in 13 months). They also offer in-network discounts (unlimited calling or text between other customers of the same carrier) in order to encourage customers to choose a carrier based on their social circles. Again, offering discounts and the like is great for the consumer, but this isn’t about competing, it’s about binding a user to a specific carrier, another type of vendor lock-in.
The different barriers arise when the Internet titans
collude partner with the handset makers to create a need for ever more powerful phones, and then make these infernal bargains partnerships with the Telcos. The result is strata of carrier-locked hardware, carrier-exclusive handsets, planned obsolescence, locked app stores that censor tethering apps, and arbitrary rules about which apps get to do what on which carriers’ mobile broadband. Looking into other markets around the globe, I suppose Americans should just be thankful that using a computer for telephony isn’t totally illegal like it is in some other countries.
We are starting to see progress. There and there are MVNOs that run VOIP-like services on the Sprint mobile data network (Ting, Republic, TextNow, and VMobile to name a few) which is helping to increase competition for mobile services. Unfortunately it’s primarily price based rather than feature based, but once you can do most of your mobile communicating through a sophisticated app, you should be able to use that app on other devices besides your mobile. Mobile infrastructure is also going open source, so some day there might be whole pirate networks available. Verizon is now doing away with 2 year contracts in favor of (expensive) monthly payment plans with options for annual upgrades. Here are some other things that I would like to see handset makers, service providers, and carriers do in the future:
- Mobile Carriers Should Embrace Advanced Calling Features – Most VOIP providers offer some form of ring group, hunt group, and call blocking functionality and mobile providers should as well. The whole reason that I insist on using Google Voice as my primary number is that my smartphone often dies or gets left in the last place I plugged it in, so I use multiple calling and messaging apps on my tablet and computer. It would be great if my carrier could see that my phone has gone off the grid and could execute some sort of contingency plan like forwarding calls to my burner or my desk phone at work. I would settle for the ability to set up routes for calls to and from my mobile via a website. If I realize that I have left my phone at home or at work, I would love the ability to log on to the Verizon or T-Mobile website and view missed calls and read on respond to text messages. I could then forward calls and texts to another number. In the absence of such capability, I use Google Voice to Ring All The Things, and forward calls to other phones and apps. This is super easy to do with either VOIP or Google Voice, but is next to impossible with a non-working phone that may not be in your possession. My wife learned this painful lesson when her iPhone died recently, taking all of her contacts and the ability to receive texts and calls with it. The goal of The Dream Phone is to never be reliant on a single device for all of your communication needs.
- Messaging Providers Should Embrace Open Communications Protocols – Products like Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Facebook messenger could all inter-operate if one or two open protocols for chat were adopted, such as XMPP or SIP. The value of a network is determined by the number of its nodes, therefore messaging providers want to maximize the number of people acting as nodes. However, having to run 4 or more messaging apps simultaneously on your device in order to stay connected to all of your friends means that most messaging networks are overvalued by a factor of at least 4. This is known as the walled garden problem, and it’s only getting worse as messaging providers build more walls in order to differentiate their ecosystems. Skype will be doing away with it’s desktop API, thereby rendering all third party accessories and applications useless (bad news for podcasters) and Google will be dumping XMPP access to its Google Voice service, rendering devices like the OBI and apps like Groove IP useless for outbound calling via GV. A simpler way would be to let firstname.lastname@example.org send voice and text messages to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org via XMPP and SIP. This would immediately add value to Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facebook while making life infinitely easier for The Rest Of Us(tm). Then we would only need to run the app that we use most (FB, Skype, Gchat etc.) and we would not need to run 4 separate apps or keep 4 separate tabs open in a browser in order to avoid missing out. With a SIP URI, we could map a PSTN number to our preferred communications app, so that we could also answer telephone calls using our app of choice. As I write this, I have 6 chat windows open on my PC: 3 in Facebook Messenger and 3 in Google Hangouts. For some reason I am using both FB Messenger and Hangouts to chat with the same person. The issue compounds exponentially when you add in emerging messaging apps like Snapchat.
- Mobile Handset Makers Should Also Think “Fixed” – Years ago the concept of “fixed-mobile convergence” was floated to the business world as a means of extending the corporate VOIP PBX onto the corporate mobile phone. This idea has merit, but most of it can be accomplished by dynamically forwarding calls via the PBX. I wish that fixed-mobile-convergence meant the opposite: using mobile technologies in a fixed application, such as the hybrid mobile+VOIP handsets I mentioned in part 2. It turns out that mobile things don’t have to be actively moving in order to be useful. Here are a few ways that technologies from the mobile world could benefit from being in a fixed location:
- Mobile carriers should also provide SIP credentials – If you are a mobile carrier like T-Mobile or Verizon, you should let your subscribers opt for SIP credentials that work with their mobile number, for a fee of course. SIP credentials let users use their mobile minutes to make and receive calls using non-mobile devices like Analog Telephone Adapters, VOIP handsets, and soft phones. The benefit to offering SIP credentials are:
- Mobile phones would become more reliable by virtually eliminating the “no signal in my house” or “no signal in my office” problem that keeps many mobile subscribers from completely cutting the cord. I have friends who recommend using Facebook Messenger instead of SMS to reach them because of this problem. You mobile carriers are really missing the boat on this opportunity.
- It eliminates the need to use expensive femtocells or signal boosters in situations where mobile service is mission critical. Mobile carriers don’t sell a lot of that equipment, and when they do it doesn’t sell well. A $40 ATA will fix the problem for 80% of your users for significantly less.
- It could relieve some of the strain on mobile voice networks by offloading a portion of voice and data traffic to another broadband network such as that of the cable company. One of the reasons that people use VOIP services like Vonage is that mobile phones can sometimes be unreliable or they get misplaced easily.
- It could relieve a lof of the complexity, fear and mistrust that surrounds international mobile roaming. My wife went to Canada recently and we communicated via Skype exclusively for both text and voice messaging because Verizon just doesn’t understand that American non-millionaires also travel to other countries.
- SIP credentials from your mobile carrier could be a great value add for your business customers who only want one number for both mobile and office use.
- SIP credentials offer an opportunity to get into the business VOIP and handset market. Think about it: you could be selling your small business customers smartphones *and* VOIP speakerphones – and believe me them shits ain’t cheap.
- A pre-programmed VOIP handset that just plugs into a network and automatically provisions itself would be an awesome product. Here in Cincinnati, our local carrier offers a kludge of business services because there aren’t many competitors, but it’s not really an integrated package. A packaged offering tailored to small businesses would be a real disruptive innovation in my humble opinion.
- You could sell your medium and large business customers some form of hosted/managed PBX solution. The big carriers (AT&T and Verizon) already have landline, VOIP and broadband businesses, so it wouldn’t be a huge leap to get into the mobile+VOIP hybrid business as well. It would make your mobile minutes (you know, those things that your customers don’t really use anymore) worth a lot more all of a sudden
- Broadband Carriers Should Do Apples to Apples Comparisons Of Their Service Offerings – Wireless broadband from mobile carriers like Verizon and wired broadband from local phone and cable companies should be compared head to head as if they were competitive products, BECAUSE THEY ARE. Cable companies offer home phone services, and mobile broadband providers are starting to offer residential broadband via 4G/LTE/WiMax, but it’s not yet an apples to apples comparison because:
- Everyone still lies about the word “Unlimited” – your cable company does (and they will *ALL* be instituting transfer caps at some point), your mobile carrier does, anyone who sells broadband is lying about what “unlimited” means.
- Everyone lies about their upload and download speeds – your wired providers lie about how fast their services are, and your wireless providers lie about the consistency of their speeds. Time Warner will deliver you 20mbit down, but only from their gear downtown. Past that you will be lucky to get a third of that speed to a major backbone. 4G/LTE is fast, but only in a lab, in a major population center with no mountains or bodies of water, on a clear day, when you aren’t moving.
- Everyone lies about how much you are actually paying for their services – I am a filthy scumm pirate living in a house full of gamers, so I completely saturate my network connection 24×7 (~25gb per month, ~$100 for 10mbit down/ 1mbit up, approx $4 per GB). I also pay to host a virtual server and I pay for all transfer in and out ($20/month for the VM with 200gb of transfer, approx $.10 per GB, assuming that my monthly cost is purely for bandwidth provided at cost by the host, which it isn’t). I pay about 40 times as much for transfer at home compared to my hosted box. I get that the last mile is an expensive network to maintain, but is it really 4000% more expensive? My selfish consumption is also offset by a lot of people who pay the same as me and probably use way less bandwidth than I do. My business mobile data plan ran around $40 per month a couple of years ago when I controlled the bill, and I’m sure it costs a lot more now. At my most active I’ve used 2GB in a month (streaming Netflix one night while tethered, sshh don’t tell) so that came out to be something like $20 per GB, or 5 times as much as my home broadband (and 200 times more expensive than transfer to my hosted box). Again, a mobile broadband network is probably way more expensive than a wired residential one, but is it really 500% more expensive?
- Everyone Has A Legacy Business They Are Trying To Protect – Land lines, cable TV subscriptions, and mobile messaging and minute plans are these incredible shrinking cash cows. They represent The Old Income that made these monopolies possible. As the world shifts to Everything Over IP, houses won’t really need separate subscriptions for TV, telephone, and security monitoring; they’ll only need power, water, and broadband. They may also not need both wireless and wired varieties of broadband either. Man, competition sucks for people who only know how to run monopolies.
- Handset and tablet makers need to quit being dicks about handheld storage – The premiums charged for internal storage on smartphones are out of control. Clouds and streams are great until you are stuck on a long flight, or insomnia strikes at the in-laws and you forgot to ask for the WPA key for the wifi. Do the world a favor and add more internal storage, then add micro SD slots. Large tablets should probably have two micro SD slots, just in case. You could also offer some sort of wifi/NFC sync thing where devices act as backups for each other. I get that Android does USB OTG but it’s not the same.
- Moar Androidz plz – I have spoken at length about crazy phones and tablets that I’d like to see on the market, but the idea of the Android Mobile OS spreading to other gadgets is gaining traction. As far as I am concerned, the more crazy Android devices in the market, the better.
- Everyone Should Embrace Competition – I get that monopolies hate and fear competition, but I wish that telcos, cable cos, mobile carriers, and Internet companies would offer more services that let them directly compete. Instead of being angry at pure play providers like Skype or Netflix for allegedly running businesses on top of your networks for free connectivity providers should embrace pure play prividers. Pure play apps are why your customers sign up for your service in the first place. If pure play is hurting your bottom line, why don’t telcos offer similar services with convenient billing options? t-Mo could totally offer home telephone service, residential broadband, and even security monitoring services all via their mobile 4G network. They could probably even deliver them cheaper than AT&T or Verizon can over their fiber networks. Sure it won’t be as fast as fiber, but that’s not the point. Even if T-Mo can’t deliver better or cheaper residential services, they could totally deliver them in a self-serve-web-app fashion that would totally appeal to people under the age of 30. Time Warner and Comcast could totally get into the mobile phone business as well, especially if they got creative with wifi the way that Republic Wireless or Ting has. Amazon could do something similar and offer an unlocked smartphone version of its Kindle devices along with convenient ordering and online activation of prepaid SIMs, which is kind of a challenge in the market today. There are lots of reasons why these ventures wouldn’t work, but that’s not competition’s fault.
As I see it, the failings of software makers, handset makers, and mobile carriers are systemic. They all come from an anti-competitive desire to lock users into an entire ecosystem replete with unimaginative devices. What’s even worse is that they are keeping me from having my Dream Phone(tm) that lets me choose which devices I use based on my personal needs. In part 4, I talked about phones mutating to have computer-like powers, computers mutating to have phone-like powers, and how the tablet isn’t so much a third mutation as it is a kind of telecommunications singularity where humans stop having control over their devices. I also extolled the tablet’s virtue as a possible low-cost alternative to the mobile phone and the computer not only in terms of hardware, but also in terms of connectivity, if only small tablets came with 4G connectivity. The trend is fairly clear: general purpose computers are in decline, If we cannot break the strata of the communications stack, we could end up with a market saturated by giant, over priced, one-size-fits-all superphones and little else to choose from in terms of devices. The post-convergence future of devices could be a phablet that is expected to replace all other devices and do all of your computing and communicating via the cloud. Such a device is basically the opposite of the Dream Phone(tm). I call it The Nightmare Phone(tm).