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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

One Global Telco of the World, for the World

During the summer of 2014, we decided to spend our two weeks of family vacation in three countries, as far as, we could drive to our chosen destinations - so no trains or flights! The long stretches of driving can be daunting and (extremely) boring, I understand, however if you have even a tiniest germ of adventure in you, then the same driving can become really exciting as you experience crossing international borders, observe new languages on traffic signs, compete with the difference in driving behaviors, taste morning coffee from one country & afternoon snacks from the other and of course, feel the charm & romance of driving on the beautiful European highways. Believe me, driving can be fun ;-)!

To give you a broader perspective, here is how the driving adventure for our summer vacation somewhat looked like - starting & ending in Düsseldorf, Germany;

vacation map.png

Do you feel it? That my friend is international freedom!

So we made the bookings, bought the tickets, planned our routes and did all the basics that any typical family would do to get most out of our vacation. And then after a few days, the journey to our first destination, Paris, began…

It all started great, fresh & happy in the morning! My wife began taking a lot of family photos with her iPhone and shared them with her family back home in Pakistan immediately, who were in fact, the virtual passengers in our car (Whatsapp magic ;-)!). Her sisters, mom & dad started responding and suddenly it turned into an intensive family chat. The messaging caught up pace and got difficult for my wife to cope up with. Alright, stop thinking why!  Do you really think messaging is a great tool, especially when all the group participants are excited & expressing themselves at the same time in one messaging window? Anyway, that was the time when this social interaction on messaging turned into video conferencing via Skype on iPhone. Now, everyone stopped messaging and started speaking & watching. It was loud in the car and I could feel the happiness in my family. I felt happy, because my family was happy! After about 15-20 minutes, the Internet connectivity on my wife’s iPhone suddenly stopped working. Everything went quiet. My wife started to frown & complained about the problem. I tried to tell her what to check in order to make sure everything is fine on the iPhone side. She desperately wanted to fix this and wanted to bring the Internet back to life. So, I stopped the car at the next possible gas station & investigated the matter. No matter what I did, nothing worked out. The Internet was DEAD. However, ultimately I did find out the cause. Can you guess what could have happened?

Well, we entered Belgium!

That my friend is Telco fragmentation, and that’s NOT freedom!

We crossed the international border within the European “Union” just to experience that there exists no unity whatsoever within the Telco landscape. Alright, some of you may argue that while we prepared for all the basics, we should have ensured that we bought the Internet roaming package for my wife’s phone. If you are thinking that way, then you are right. However, let me tell you why we missed that bit out during our planning.

The Internet availability across international borders (roaming) did NOT come to our minds intuitively as a part of our list of basics! That’s because people still think of the roaming Internet as an on-demand luxury or necessity. Lets face it, it’s expensive! For us today, the basics are food, water, money, fuel, medicines, clothing, and the likes. Yes, the mobile phone is also a part of our basics today, however, that is mainly because mainly want to be able to make voice calls, no matter wherever we are. So, the same not-considering-the-roaming-Internet-as-basics happened to us, while we prepared for our vacation. The first time we realized that we should have bought the roaming Internet package for my wife’s iPhone was when the Internet stopped working. And it was disappointing...

One Global Telco for the World
Now, let’s be honest with ourselves here. Making voice calls is something that we assume is globally possible no matter wherever we are, regardless if we have bought a roaming package or not. That’s where bill-shocks happen! However, what about the mobile Internet (2G, 3G, 4G, not WiFi...)? No, we don’t take it as something that’s globally available for us, unless, we explicitly purchase the roaming package. The fact is that, today, roaming Internet is NOT enabled on the SIM card as naturally as voice calls are. It’s bitter, but its true! So how can we fix this?

Well, we need One Global Telco!

Imagine with me for a while, a perfect world of connectivity. That would be when every human on the planet is issued a unique SIM card (in whatever form-factor), just like a birth certificate. Just think for a moment that everyone is given a birth right to have access to connectivity & Internet, just like access to water, food, clothing and the likes. Everyone has a SIM card that’s valid for life. With that SIM card, one could travel anywhere globally and would have seamless access to making voice calls & the Internet, without having to worry about the Telco contracts. Thinking out loud here, perhaps (or perhaps not), these SIM cards are made government property and issued to all citizens just like the passports & identity cards etc. People stop worrying about which package should they buy from which Telco. Everyone gets the same level of access to connectivity & the Internet. This becomes an international consensus & is legalized as a global law in every part of the world!

That’s my friend is One Global Telco!

It’s happening, (very) slowly...
Back to the imperfect world. The sketch of the perfect world of connectivity may seem fictional and unrealistic, today. However, this isn’t something that’s impossible, either. It’s a matter of prioritizing the benefit of people, over the benefit of business. It would happen if all the Telco’s today unite together to deliver seamless access to connectivity & Internet to every human on the planet. It’s a HUGE deal, but it’s possible - by killing the Telco fragmentation!

And let me tell you, it has started to happen bit by bit - at least in Europe!
Check this video from the European Commision (EC), which is released as a part of the Connective Continent (#ConnectedContinent) initiative, under the umbrella of Europe 2020.

Alright, it sounds good and promising. However, assuming its not a political game and actually becomes a reality by 2020 (fingers crossed ;-)), we’ll be experiencing somewhat the One European Telco effort. I am thinking bigger here. I am thinking global. However, that’s how it all starts. If Europe is able to prove the effectiveness and need of one Telco experience across its borders, then it may become a significant motivator and driver to spread this initiative at a global scale. This would require Telcos to rethink their business, and “leave their egos behind and start to work collaboratively.

The heat is there
Recently, if you got a chance to listen to the panel discussion on the The Future of Digital Economy, which was held as a part of the World Economic Forum 2015, you appreciate how Vittorio Colao, the Vodafone CEO, addresses the Telco fragmentation issue by saying “do governments license oxygen?”. The meat behind this statement is that today the communication spectrum (air interface) is strictly fragmented between Telcos. The Telcos must bid, and buy the license for spectrum from governments in order to operate their networks effectively, so that, they do not interfere with the networks of other Telcos. However, the very fact that every Telco operates within the boundaries of its own spectrum is one of the biggest reasons for Telco fragmentation, today. As with oxygen, what if this “air” (interface) is not licensed by the governments and becomes public property - as it is suppose to be by the way. What if, all the Telcos could work collaboratively to operate jointly within the same (or even their own unlicensed) spectrum? I know it sounds crazy, but this is very much possible. I am talking about a huge technology revolution here. It may not seem possible today, but think 30 years ahead (or even earlier than you expect!). If you look at the Big Picture of today’s M2M landscape, you will understand that with the pace the connectivity requirement is growing due to the penetration of  Internet of Things (technically, M2M) applications (autonomous cars, connected homes, appliances, wearables, …), we may need Telcos to become as seamless as possible across the globe. These spectrum boundaries may need to be vanished, completely. That will make the Telco fragmentation a history, and Telcos seamless!

Again, If you watch the panel discussion on the The Future of Digital Economy, you will feel heat & the need of getting rid of Telco fragmentation quickly. I am inspired by how simply Eric Schmidt, the Google chairman, states how the future Internet will look like. All he said was that “the internet will disappear”. This explains everything!

Summing up
It is not possible (or at least extremely & painfully difficult) for Internet to disappear, unless the Telco fragmentation disappears. There will be challenges - many many many challenges. These challenges will rise from all industry focus-areas, such as, regulatory, technology, business models, revenue models, privacy & security, roaming, emerging markets, tight border controls, infrastructure, services, devices and so on. However, if we stand united today with a common goal to give our generations a seamlessly connected planet, where everyone has a right to connectivity & Internet, we may be able to die with a peace of mind that our generations will have much more capability and opportunity to avoid those mistakes that we made, in order to make the world a better and safer place for all.

That’s why we need One Global Telco. That’s why I want One Global Telco. Do you?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Big Picture of today's M2M landscape

Mastering the Musts

Let’s briefly (promise!) go back to the basics. Please!

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the hottest buzzwords in todays technology industry. The term IoT sells very well these days, mainly because of all the predictions for IoT to become a multi-trillion dollar industry. These predictions are made by many acclaimed organizations, for example, IDC, Forbes, Oracle, Cisco, just to name a few.  Most claim that to happen until 2020 and go far beyond that.

It’s just 5 years from now!

Machine-to-Machine (M2M) is another one of the hottest buzzwords existing in the tech arena today. It is essentially a more technical way of saying IoT. Let’s put it this way that “M2M is a way how IoT is implemented or achieved”. It’s about machines talking (actually, communicating) to machines, regardless of whatever they are. Think in terms of your daily life objects. For example, your watch talking to your smartphone, your car talking to your garage, your coffee machine talking to your door lock as it unlocks, and so on. The possibilities are unlimited. If such things talk to other things, isn’t that the Network of Things? When this network operates over the Internet, it becomes the Internet of Things!

We all know that already, so, whats the point here? The point is that we need to understand the M2M drives IoT- and that’s how they differ! They are not same, let’s be clear on this. I do not want to dive into the discussion of what IoT and M2M are and what they are not beyond this point. There is no one standard definition, opinion or perspective and these terms are very relative. However, what I do want to discuss here is how the M2M landscape could evolve in the next coming years and what essentially would be required from the technology standpoint from various industry segments. This may tell us how IoT use cases may look like in the years to come. But, before we can dive into this discussion, we really need to understand what is M2M landscape today from a more strategic perspective.

Keep reading.

M2M as we know it, TODAY!

Generally speaking, M2M today is not really things talking to things. It’s more like things talking to a powerful centralized platform. Lets call this powerful centralized platform as backend. What this means is that a large majority (but not all) of the M2M devices used today only talk to a designated backend. This is because, these devices are configured to (1) collect raw (sensor) data, (2) perform limited set of processing on or around the data internally and then (3) dispatch this data to some backend. This backend usually resides in a (public or private) cloud (oh snap! :-/ another buzzword!). Once the data arrives at the backend, then the backend can perform all sorts of complex, smart, creative, data brokering & analytics (Big Data Computing :-/) functions - the so called “business functions” to deliver value. This backend is where - usually - the real business logic, key value proposition & differentiation from the competition lives, for anyone who claims to provide end-to-end (E2E) M2M solutions today. This means that selling the E2E M2M solutions is most of the times telling a customer that “look how much value our service (actually, backend business functions) can bring to your business”. Today, the M2M devices that send the data to the backend usually do not create key differentiation for a typical E2E M2M solution provider (“solution provider” from now on). Likewise, the applications that get the data from the backend to provide an easy-to-understand-the-service view through apps & web, are really not too much of a differentiator. This is because, the solutions providers prefer to remain device & User Experience (UX) agnostic. This brings complexity to their backends, but they get a lot of flexibility and freedom in return. As a result, most of the real power of M2M solutions sits in the backend - the platform.

Today, you can feel that the M2M (or generally speaking, the IoT) industry is in a state of war on platforms!

Who empowers M2M today

The fact that M2M today is mainly the war on platforms does not mean that they are the only driving force behind enabling the M2M ecosystem. Platforms exist because they are supported by a lot of other players in the industry. Platforms are not all-inclusive standalone systems. They are about bringing just the right set of expertise & enablers in one place and make them available for others. So, what are these expertise & enablers that are making platforms, and ultimately M2M, so powerful?

The M2M today is empowered by several other players providing variable set of expertise and enablers across the industry. To help us look at the big picture of the M2M industry landscape, lets have a look at the industry segmentation below.

As you see, from the technology standpoint the entire M2M industry is driven by devices, communication, cloud, platform and clients. Here is how its happening today:

The hardware vendors from all areas of technology including, but not limited to, sensors manufacturers, chips makers, modules manufacturers, device manufacturers & assembly line providers etc. really form the foundation of the entire M2M industry today. It’s obvious that without devices, no data can be collected resulting in nothing talking to nothing. Many, but not all of these folks also deliver their own device management solutions that can be integrated into third party platforms. However, advancements in the hardware segment happens relativity slower compared to the software side of things.

Think the likes of Telit.

These are Telcos. They are by far one of the most significant players in the M2M landscape. They influence devices, provide all aspects of communication infrastructure (with the help of infrastructure vendors), operate data centers and cloud environments, and to some extend, develop their own platforms. However, talking of platforms, they still aren’t leading the market in that space, so they tend to either acquire, or (exclusively) partner with the platform providers. These folks also influence the clients and drive to a limited extend the UX. Telcos are the only players in the M2M race that touches every part of the value chain. They stand a real chance to define the future of IoT, generally speaking, if they begin to rethink their business today.

Think the likes of Vodafone.

These folks are independent data center operators and infrastructure providers. They typically are IT companies penetrating into the data center business. They indeed are a real threat to Telcos, when it comes to cloud infrastructure, however, they are far from operating their own communication infrastructure. Usually, they are the first choice of platform providers for their platform deployment. Many of the cloud vendors also provide some sort of platform capabilities, such as, providing APIs to perform data analytics, management & messaging to name a few. However, they normally just enable others to deliver value through their M2M solution platforms, rather than developing one themselves.

Think the likes of Amazon Web Services.

This is where the real value of M2M solutions live today. These folks implement and deliver differentiated business functions and new value propositions which are device vendor & communication provider agnostic. These value propositions sell! This is the place where M2M solutions start to become more visible and the data collected from the devices start to transform itself into valuable information. The capabilities like, data analytics, batch, stream & real-time computing, remote monitoring & control, tracking, and so many others are implemented here. Many platform providers even influence the UX on the clients. They either deliver their own clients, or enable others to use their platform to self-develop the clients. Today, platform is the place where innovation is happening at much faster pace than any other of these industry segments. This is where the war for M2M leadership is more prominent - TODAY!

Some platform players do influence the device segment through their certification or partner programs.

Think the likes of Axeda.

Clients are the visual and UX drivers in the entire M2M solution development chain. This is where software developers sit. It includes every aspect of defining M2M solution experience from the user perspective, such as, UX, visual design, icons, apps, web dashboard etc. These folks make use of the data exposed by the platforms to deliver the clients. These clients heavily rely upon the communication business, however, usually do not influence it (unless they are Whatsapp ;-)!).

Think the likes of iOS, Android & web developers.

Summing up

That’s the M2M of today - as we know it!

Now that we have established the context of where we are today and how the industry is fragmented, let me stop the discussion here. Subsequently, in the next episode I will continue the discussion based on what we have read today and I hope with your help, we may be able to make this discussion as productive and widespread as possible for the greater good of the tech industry.

Stay tuned, keep following, keep sharing further & thank you for reading!
Another thing before I forget, of course,  do not be shy in expressing your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

Stay safe!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Rethinking the Telco Business

There is a major difference between the business mentality of Telco & IT industries today. This difference is normally not spoken out loud. However, who ever understands the business priorities of the two industries should be able to feel this difference. For everyone’s sake, let me give you a flavor of what this difference in mentality of Telco & IT industries sound like from a very high level:
Telco industry believes
We provide the fundamental communication infrastructure that is driving today’s Internet & mobile services. Every connected product, either hardware or software & services, require our connectivity infrastructure to function & generate revenue. If we do not deliver connectivity, then no one could deliver connected products. Therefore, we are THE driving force behind the growth of digital economies & keeping the IT industry alive. Period.
IT industry believes
We are the ones who develop software & services for every industry & directly influence our customers’ business. Our customers do not care how our products work, as far as they deliver what they expect from them. We are the real innovators because we keep on introducing new software & services very rapidly independent of the underlying communication infrastructure. We see connectivity as a commodity and expect it to be everywhere every time, whenever we need. If we don’t deliver our software & services, then no one would require connectivity. Therefore, we are THE driving force behind the growth of digital economies & keeping the Telco industry alive. Period.
Okay! I do understand that this is a controversial discussion to have and many of you may disagree in one way or the other with what is expressed above. However, for a few moments lets be very honest on the priorities of Telcos & IT industry:
  • The Telcos want to sell as much connectivity as possible regardless of who is the service provider (think Vodafone! works behind services of Amazon Kindle, BMW, Daimler, Audi, VW, TomTom, etc.).
  • The IT companies want to sell as much software & services as possible regardless of who is the connectivity provider (think Whatsapp! works with any type of internet connectivity (2G, 3G, 4G, DSL, VDSL, WiFi, etc.), regardless of the provider).
This is a fact & major difference in how these two industries operate, today!
Let’s stick to the Telcos’ perspective in this discussion.

Telco transformation into IT

In spite of the staggering rate of growth of IT services today, the Telcos’ main business driver remains providing connectivity by selling more and more SIM cards. This does not mean that Telcos do not realize that their connectivity is becoming a commodity. They really do! However, the Telco industry today is very very brand conscious. Every Telco provider believes they are a brand that everyone loves. Also, there is an oblivious belief among Telcos that they are a consumer brand that their subscribers adore. This perspective of Telcos is not completely wrong, but it is not completely right either. Unfortunately, what most Telcos do not seem to realize is that they are not a brand that consumers love, like they love Apples, Samsungs and Googles of today. Once, I asked a senior Telco executive that “how many times have you seen people queued up in front of your stores since 4 a.m. in the morning just because they want to be the first ones to buy your product?” What I got in response was utter frustration & anger that made me the center of attention, as if I have done a crime.
I’m not saying that Telcos are not consumer-loved brands. They are, indeed! However, not to the level what many IT companies (including startups) have achieved. This is because what Telcos provide (connectivity) is hidden behind the scenes and not noticed by the consumers, until it malfunctions. All consumers see is that their Whatsapp, Google Maps, Mail, Games etc. work great and have exciting user experience. They tend to give all the good credit to the services running on top of the Telco connectivity. As soon as the connectivity fails, all the blame goes to the Telcos (Oh my God, what a crap Internet connectivity!). How many times do we hear consumers appreciating the connectivity, while they are enjoying the service experience? For exactly this reason, the Telcos need to understand that if they want to compete with brands like Apple, Samsung & Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc., then they must deliver software & services that are NOT restricted to their networks only. The Telcos need to leave their egos behind and start to work collaboratively. Think about it! What if consumers could buy a service from one Telco and use it over the network of the other Telco - seamlessly? This is a complete opposite of how Telco industry thinks today. However, it is not too far when the connectivity business of the Telcos will become a low cost commodity to afford, just like water, electricity and gas, leaving them to be used as dumb data transmission pipes. Every one will (or perhaps already!) expect connectivity to just BE THERE. That’s when the services that Telcos provide will differentiate them from the competition & help them introduce new revenue streams. The Telcos must become software hubs and develop their own services in-house, instead of merely taking third party services and reselling them as a white labeled solution. White labeling services won’t generate any IPR for Telcos, but becoming software hubs will. Telcos must invest!
Once the Telcos become software & service providers, then they will naturally get a competitive edge on existing IT industry because of having their own connectivity infrastructure. Their capability of planning, deploying, operating networks, roaming, charging & billing, when coupled with the knowledge of developing, designing, UX, deploying & operating software & services will establish them as extremely strong players in the industry who can really revolutionize the technology landscape from every perspective. It is much easier for Telcos to become IT players than for IT players to become Telcos. With 2015 beginning to unroll, I hope the decision makers in the Telco strategy sphere engage to redefine their businesses for the greater good. The race has started, but there is a long way to go.
Telcos urgently need to transform themselves into IT player - now!
Please share your opinion in the comments to help me verify mine.