Services/apps mobile

Rethinking Telecom App Development

A popular misconception whenever the term "developer" is used in the telecom industry is to think of weekend hackathons attended by long-tail mobile application developers.

For the telcos, chasing where it's proven you're not wanted makes no sense. Or, as Albert Einstein may have said, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Mobile application developers care about access to a large, engaged customer base that is prepared to pay in time, cash, and/or privacy. Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Android fulfill their needs to the detriment of BlackBerry and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT). Telcos are irrelevant.

Where should telcos focus instead? The telecom industry needs to innovate in services, or else cede services to others and become ISPs. Service innovation matters across the demand curve, not just the long-tail. The telcos should focus on certain opportunities: internal service innovation; service innovation with existing ecosystem partners; and service innovation with a segment of developers to which telecommunications is relevant.

As one mobile application developer told me about one operator, "There is no clear process or guidelines; decisions are made with no consistent policy; developers’ livelihoods are treated with disdain. We no longer try to sell to, or work with, Telco X."

Or, to quote another, "Telco Y's developer community doesn't appear to have any support; we asked a question on one of their APIs and did not receive a response after multiple requests. Support is critical and a basic requirement for an API; they can't even get that right."

And, yet another: "You don't have to own everything. Running a network distracts you from customer service. Using telecom APIs means we can focus on delivering the best service and best support to our customers."

So what do telcos need to do to address the service innovation gap?

  • Retake control of internal service innovation from their so-called "strategic suppliers" that have stifled it and instead work directly with telecom application developers.
  • Work with their existing partners to deliver service innovation in cooperation with telecom application developers.
  • And, last but not least, focus on a subset of long-tail developers, telecom application developers that can extend telecom into new ecosystems and business propositions. Think of them as a "beach-head" or "lead bowling pin" into the broader long-tail developer community.

Telecom application developers exist and are grossly underserved by the telecom industry. The Telecom Application Developer Summit (TADS) is attempting to address this gap. It's a grassroots initiative from the people building this telecom application industry.

Developers and telcos can together create a sustainable and profitable telecom application ecosystem: We just need to focus on where telecom is relevant and take control of our destiny.

— Alan Quayle, Independent

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[email protected] 9/10/2013 | 2:30:19 PM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? Seven,

I agree telcos are not investing enough in service development.  http://www.pwc.com/communicationsreview did a great article on the lack of investment as a % of revenues, we're agreed there.

On my VoD example the value we created is the VoD middleware and UI.  Manufacturer of DSL cards is not a telcos' business agreed; but the work Gavin Young, Kevin Foster, and the DSL team at BT made the DSL industry and impacted the lives of hundreds of millions of people.  Telcos do much more than systems integration. 

I was at the openCloud developer event last week talking with developers employed by telcos building cool telecom services that are deployed, B.duo from Bouygues is an example.  I agree telcos must also focus on enabling their partners, customers, and supplier communties to use the capabilities they offer.  Its not just internal innovation, which I think is the only point we disagree upon.

While the world obsesses on mobile applications, mobile-first strategies, and all the security, device diversity, responsive design, browser headaches, and app store policy issues that entails.  Telecom application developers have been quietly building applications that simply use voice and SMS across the telecom network, cloud, and many more devices beyond just smartphones to deliver unique, easy to use, and universal experiences.  Humans have been talking for tens of thousands of years, and we're not going to stop anytime soon, voice is the universal interface; and SMS remains the ubiquitous text interface for the time being.

My contention is do not copy Apple and Android, once upon a time telco app stores were dominant, a $70B content market at one point, but that has passed.  The core value of a telco remains communications, and there is so much that can be done in embedding communications everywhere and offering the many communication inovations listed in this discussion to their customers.  The technology is there, the suppliers are there, the communities are there.  Its up to telcos to help foster the telecom application developer ecosystem to achieve its potential.
brookseven 9/10/2013 | 12:51:14 PM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks?  

Okay Alan you are missing the point completely.

Not the Bay Area doesn't matter.  None of the companies that you have named have a significant development staff.  None of them and I have worked with all of them.  And Bell Labs was taken out of AT&T in 1984 during the breakup.  Thus the 30 years.

And you took someone elses product and made a service out of it.  If you had MADE the DSL blade....see the point?  Producing a proof of concept is very nice and there are really smart people at ALL the carriers.  It does not make them product development companies.  The business model is so completely foreign that it is just not going to fly.

Systems Integration is a fine a great thing.  Making a completely new from scratch product and then putting it into production is completely different.

Here is the solution for Telecom companies to get apps...Don't bother.  The BEST you can hope for is to enable others to do it.  Which is what Apple and the rest do.  And if you develop apps for iOS or Android...hey they work no matter WHAT carrier you are on.

It is just wrong to try to turn carriers into something they are not.  They are really, really good at taking things and building them to scale.  That should be the focus.  

The carriers have an awesome business model.  They point at the money that Google and Apple are making.  But let's remember something.  Go back about 15 years ago in the middle of the dotcom bubble.  Think about ALL the money spent on building companies and how much of it became nothing.  The content side of the business is high risk, high reward.  Even today....Zune?  The carriers discuss WHEN they will get their money back from an investment.  The equipment and content companies discuss IF they will get their money back (Hey can I interest you in a movie about the Edgar Rice Burroughs series on Mars?).


[email protected] 9/10/2013 | 11:42:07 AM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? Hi Seven,

Getting a US Visa is not that easy, and most people do not want to live in the Bay Area.  So BT, NTT, Telstra, Deutsche Telekom, Dialog, SingTel, Orange, etc. employ highly educated people, that want to make a difference in their countries. 

While at BT I built one of the first VoD systems using DSL demo boards from Standford University, John Cioffi had not yet left to found Amati!  That was the early 90s, hence my claim of 20 years based on my experience.  Perhaps AT&T gave up 30 years ago, but I think many in AT&T Labs would disagree with you.

Technology is democratizing innovation, free and open source telecom software, WebRTC, Telecom APIs, and telecom application platforms enable telcos and their partners to build services themselves.  And more and more telcos are taking control of innovation, and they are are creating new services, as case studied at TADS, www.tadsummit.com.  Companies like Tropo, OpenCloud, Twilio, and Telestax are harnessing the innovation power of 100ks of telecom application developers for telcos.

As an industry we can either 'throw our hands in the air and give up' or we can focus on creating a sustainable and profitable telecom application ecosystem.  On my weblog, www.alanquayle.com/blog, you can see case studies of telecom application developers I've interviewed that are makign good business through telecoms innovation.  Its happening, we need to do more of it, and we need to support it as an industry.  For a $2T a year industry NOT to have a vibrant telecom application developer industry is a shame on all of us.
DanJones 9/10/2013 | 11:36:07 AM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? Actually, I was impressed by the AT&T Watson translator, did they buy that from somewhere. I thought it was in-house.
[email protected] 9/10/2013 | 11:20:03 AM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? :) That's a good acronym.  I was surprised when a searched on 'brown-nosed middle manager' there were not more links.

APIs just need to be well-written and fit for purpose.  OneAPI is neither of these.  The key is the service that is exposed through the API, as in the limit an API is just a http request.

So its the service's business model, security, public/private, support, ancillary services, availability, features, community knowledge-base, sample code, etc. that all come together in creating a popular public API.

Most businesses and government agencies use private APIs with their vendors and customers.  Layer 7 is a leader in that space, its increadible the volume of transactions going over private APIs.  And similary for telcos with their partners and customers, they will offer private APIs.  The financial services compliance example I gave would like have some features and reporting that would only be available through private APIs.

Openness depends on the busienss application; being well-written and fit-for-purpose are the keys to success.
brookseven 9/10/2013 | 11:17:31 AM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? "The short answer is about 20 years ago telcos built lots of cool stuff, as per the video in the weblog"

You have your timeframe off by about 10 years.  The last time a telco built anything was when the original AT&T existed - before 1984.  Let's compare them to Amazon...

How much from scratch software did Amazon write?  Right now the Amazon R&D budget is $1.5B per quarter right now (according to Ycharts).  Now of course that includes Kindle and some other things.

How much from scratch software did Verizon and AT&T write?  The only thing I am aware of is the OSS development at Verizon...call it $100M a year?

The service provider "R&D" is about systems integration, testing, and creating the ability to scale services with employees that are modestly educated.  These are fine things.  But they have NOTHING to do with writing applications or developing new things.


[email protected] 9/10/2013 | 10:59:40 AM
Re: Einstein Hi Sarah,

Thanks for the question.  All of the above is the answer :) 

Take delivery.com (a Tropo customer) as an example, they built stuff themselves using dialogic cards, then discovered that Telecom APIs could do what they built, so they migrated over.  It was simply a sale person and word of mouth helped delivery.com understand how easy Telecom APIs are to use.  Telcos have thousands of such sales people talking to their business customers every day!

Some can be done in partnership.  For example Dialog (a hSenid Mobile customer) has created IdeaMart, I'm hoping within the next day or so we'll have a CxO level presenter confirmed for TADS, to share their experiences, its a great case study.

At the OpenCloud customer event last week, http://alanquayle.com/2013/09/staring-abyss/, they had some of their 60 telco customers describing the services they have both created themselves and commissioned, e.g. Bouygues B.duo http://alanquayle.com/2013/08/interview-with-jonathan-bell-vp-marketing-at-opencloud/

Telestax are an active member of the Mobicents community, many of their customers come from the community, e.g. HealthSense.com, a service that is saving people's lives using free and open source telecom software.

Some services will be created internally by the telco (own developed or commissioned), some with existing partners, some with customers, some from telecom focused communities like Tropo or Mobicents, and some from local independent telecom application developers. Its about focusing on the basics, communications and payments.  Embedding them across all business ecosystems.  And focusing on changing the anti-innovation culture (the litany of excuses) that can only come about by seeing how others have solved that problem - hence why we focus on case studies at TADS, www.tadsummit.com.
Carol Wilson 9/10/2013 | 10:54:46 AM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? Hmm, I like this - 'paranoid control-freak intent on stamping out any threats to their account dominance' but we need to get it down to an acceptable link for an acronym. How about 'Control-freak obsessed with threats to account domination' or COTAD?

So it seems like the key for the telcos is to be more insistent on open APIs that can be more easiliy exposed to developers?
[email protected] 9/10/2013 | 10:34:05 AM
Re: Strategic suppliers as roadblocks? Hi Carol,

Great question.  I answer it in depth in this article, http://alanquayle.com/2013/09/staring-abyss/, check out the presentation at the end and in particular slide 44 - the brown-nosed middle manager ;)

The short answer is about 20 years ago telcos built lots of cool stuff, as per the video in the weblog.  It then became fashionable to outsource innovation to the strategic vendors so the telco could focus on customer service.  On the network side this made sense.  However, for services this has not proven to be a successful strategy. In the litany of excuses at the end of the presentation you'll see the "It must be delivered through our preferred SI/NEP."  This has killed many innovative services, to the point that some telcos have broken from this fashion and are working with innovative companies directly, and TADS, www.tadsummit.com, is case studying them and their success.

Technology is democratizing innovation, free and open source telecom software, WebRTC, Telecom APIs, and telecom application platforms enable telcos and their partners to build services themselves.  As a specific example, financial services compliance is a significent telecoms opportunity, today calls and SMS remain outside of compliance.  A telco could look to a big vendor to take 18 months and tens of millions of dollars to build a solution.  Or they can do it themsleves using APIs and application platforms in a few weeks, get it in front of their customers, rev to meet the customer's specific needs, and enhance as they go along. 

The above sounds obvious but the big strategic vendors have considerable control over telcos and are an impediment to service innovation in our industry - just look at how few are prepared to sponsor TADS.  I'm supposed to believe they can not spare 0.01% of their marketing budget to help support the creation of a telecom application developer ecosystem.  Rather than gatekeeper, I'd suggestion the term is 'paranoid control-freak intent on stamping out any threats to their account dominance,' also known as 'the brown-nosed middle manager.'
Sarah Thomas 9/10/2013 | 10:15:00 AM
Re: Einstein Thanks for this great list, Alan! I'm beginning to see a theme -- telecom apps that are successful use telecom's core services, like the phone number/call. It seems so obvious! In general, were these apps done in partnership with developers, done by developers and acquired or licensed by operators, or done by operators alone? I agree that operators need to switch focuses, but I'm curious what you think is the best way to do that.
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