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Video: the next big telephony user interface

At last week’s ITEXPO a question was raised on one of Andy Abramson’s panels about the future of the PSTN.  Specifically, the question was whether VoIP will finally triumph over the PSTN, and it was asked in the context of both mobile and landline services.

My response was “that’s kind of a loopy question, as the core networks are already VoIP and have been for a long time.  The ‘PSTN’ is really the user interface by which the customer accesses the network.” Perhaps that’s an over-simplification of the problem, but despite the fact that last mile networks are not yet VoIP, it doesn’t really matter at this point as there are all kinds of ways to be “pure” VoIP if that matters to you – over the top services like Vonage or Skype running on broadband, WiFi, or even (on handsets that support these services) over 3G as Truphone allows on Nokia handsets.

There was a time when many of us, myself included, lamented the fact that the last mile network didn’t seem as if it would ever change out.  As always, however, technologists have delivered clever workarounds, and customer demand for ever higher “speeds and feeds” have led to the roll out of fiber and other digital to the home technologies. Moreover, the initial advantage of VoIP – price – seems to have been largely negated by incumbent carrier price cutting.

We have IP audio on the incumbents network today if we want it.  So the PSTN really is not much more than a legacy user interface for voice communications.  It’s the old command line of Unix, DOS, and VMS prior to the advent of the GUIs that eventually superseded those relics of computing’s ancient history.

What will be the “GUI” – the new user interface – for communications? Is it video?  A mixed mode audio/text/video user interface like Skype? Web based as Calliflower is for conferencing?  The consumer equivalent of telepresence?

A week ago I sat on a panel at ITEXPO and argued that video was over-rated.  Someone had to do it and, in my opinion, today’s video is over-rated.  Blurry and/or small video really doesn’t add a lot to a conversation. However, that may not always be the case.  Consider these two examples:

  • Last fall I saw demo of Magor’s new Tele-Collaboration platform – a couple of 42” high definition monitors that double as desktop monitors and a telepresence system at much more affordable price points than the competing vision from Cisco. Watch the video at their site.  The Magor system is still much more than a standard desktop PC, but within a few years it will be affordable enough that any company will be able to deploy these on desktops throughout the organization.
  • Along similar lines, at CES Skype and Panasonic announced a collaboration to bring 720P voice and video calls to television.  At ITEXPO last week, Skype CSO Christopher Dean enlarged upon this theme outlining Skype’s three screen strategy – Skype on computer, mobile, and television.  And, similar to Magor networks, Skype already uses video as a means to share applications on the desktop.

Both Magor and Skype are transmitting high quality voice, video and text across the internet, a feat that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.  Mobile remains an issue as most mobile networks today would be overwhelmed if they were required to become point to point video transmission services as well. That is changing, albeit slowly.

I wouldn’t care to predict the winner in this battle, save to say that with half a billion clients downloaded, Skype will be a player.  More to the point, as services that aren’t dependent on receivers held to the ear and e.164 telephone numbers for addressing become prevalent, the old telecom user interface will finally die a long overdue death – the final nail in the coffin to the PSTN.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Chris Schmitt January 26, 2010, 4:53 am

    As always, predictions never quite turn out the way we expect. Back in the 90's we thought high-speed to the home would be DS1s and DS3s, and in the '00s everyone thought Internet over the TV would be the cat's meow, instead we're watching "TV" over a computer (e.g. Youtube) and playing computer games on TV.

    The problem is if you confine creativity to existing user interfaces you'll always get it wrong.

    The PSTN, and more accurately, e.164 telephone numbers are slowly being replaced by the web, SMS, Twitter, Skype, Communicator and a dozen other different – but not necessarily better – ways to communicate. But for now, I still have to reach my doctor, dentist, pizza joint and my Internet, telephony and Cable provider by dialing a 10 digit number. It's still the easiest and most commonly used way to contact another party.

    What will change that? Something completely unexpected:
    – we run out of telephone numbers (not for a long time)?
    – all the PSTN-based telephony companies go out of business (and get replaced by what?)?
    – everyone switches to videophones (almost nobody cares if they can see your face while your talking)?
    – everyone's brain get's hooked up to the net (ok, I read a lot of Sci-fi)?

    What ever it's going to be, it ain't here yet. The good old PSTN interface will be with us for a long, long time.

  • Karl Fife January 26, 2010, 3:15 pm

    Maybe not such a silly question: You're right about the PSTN being 'an interface' but ultimately it comes down to whether the voice service is "best effort" or not. Yes the PSTN has VoIP components, but the quality is managed so nobody cares what's on the transport layer. The PSTN (whether true TDM or Voice over MANAGED IP) has different quality & availability connotations than 'VoIP'. So perhaps the real question for Andy's panel was "Will voice over best-effort, public IP finally triumph over Voice over more expensive, less flexible managed IP?"

    Not a bad question. Managing that last mile, interconnecting with quality managed backhaul providers, and 'owning' compatibility of the digital termination hardware has appropriately turned up a more expensive, less flexible, more tightly controlled product. So perhaps there is a fundamental question to explore about the market’s willingness to make trade-offs between quality vs. cost & flexibility.

  • Alec January 27, 2010, 5:20 am

    Karl, I agree with you. I would point to the worlds largest "best efforts" network — the cellular network — as evidence that we are willing to sacrifice quality.

  • Mum January 27, 2010, 8:46 am

    HIPPO BIRDIE TO YOU FROM MA & PA

  • Karl Fife January 27, 2010, 11:16 am

    Your example is excellent. Mobile networks not only exemplify the quality/flexibility trade-off, but underscore the willingness of the market to pay a premium (even for lower quality) if it affords flexibility (mobility).

    The success of SIP trunking serves as another example of that trade-off. SIP trunking affords true "PRI-like" functionality without the $500/month, 2-year commitment for 23 'channels' of call capacity! What if your small company only needs 4 'channels'? Imagine a coffee shop that only sold the coffee in 40-gallon drums! Ridiculous right?

    There's great irony in the inability of the LEC's to make a business of that niche market, but let's leave THAT for another day. The POINT is that something like "PRI-Lite" is available NOW, it's called SIP trunking, and it comes with some risk of quality issues. The quality/flexibility trade-off is a no-brainer in SO many situations!

    I will say this though: When AT&T, Comcast, Verizon et al. begin offering a flexible SIP trunking product over their managed last mile, many will pay a premium to move away from best-effort VoIP to… um… the PSTN–whatever that means anymore. :-)

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