The news that Apple's new iPhone 6 will support voice over LTE (VoLTE) is a big deal -- kind of.
For mobile operators, an important threshold in the development of 4G LTE has been crossed. Apple, the most successful company on Earth, famous for its focus on user experience and renowned for its attention to detail, has endorsed VoLTE as a superior calling mechanism for 4G-connected phones. Excellent news. The announcement is important and substantial.
Telco vendors are even more delighted. To sell the most advanced iPhone, mobile operators now need an IMS core and a functioning VoLTE service. Their progressive operator customers (that have been testing prototype VoLTE-capable iPhones for some time) are now in full-bore launch mode, and are ready to capitalize on demand for the hottest phone of the year. And for the 4G operators that still haven't committed proper investment, this will push VoLTE into the mainstream and force the decision to deploy an IMS core.
The utility of VoLTE is obvious, and it's great that Apple is now, very publicly, on board. So, as I say, excellent news.
But what are the implications for operators, in the broader context of IP communications or "rich media services," as they're sometimes called in Telco Land? You know, things like sending video messages, photo sharing, conversing in emoticons, and all that stuff we do on WhatsApp or Snapchat -- or for some of you, iMessage and FaceTime?
On this question, I don't think the VoLTE news brings much succor to the telecom industry. Apple still intends to double down on the iMessage and FaceTime ecosystem -- the new features in iOS 8 make that crystal clear -- and operators know it. A 4G consumer marketing executive I met this week was in no doubt that Apple, and other providers, will continue to innovate and develop their own competing communications services. Yes, VoLTE is a better telephony service on 4G, he said, but VoLTE alone is not a game-changer. Most consumers won't even know what it is.
One interpretation of the news, therefore, is that Apple has said to the market: "Okay, you do the difficult, utilitarian voice service, and we'll do the rich messaging and advanced communications. Thanks for all your help."
In other words, beyond telephony, Apple doesn't appear to have left much on the table for operators to work with. There has been no mention of RCS (probably for the best) and, more significantly, no mention of device APIs that will allow other iOS apps to consume VoLTE services. This can change, of course. Apple and operators could make the APIs available, but history suggests they will be cautious, given the potential for things to go wrong if you give third parties access to call control.
To be truly successful as a foundation service, VoLTE needs to be part of the world where communications services can be atomized and aggregated by third-party developers. It's obvious how a VoLTE voice or video call could be useful as a component of a telemedicine or connected car service, for example. Verizon and AT&T have been vocal about that. The challenge is that VoLTE, and other IMS services, are not easily "consumable" by developers today -- i.e., a third-party application cannot easily incorporate VoLTE services. In principle, integration of VoLTE as a component service should be a lot better than today's, frankly, dire user experience when you integrate 3G voice, but operators and the wider industry -- handset makers, especially -- still have work to do to make it happen.
Of course, there are opportunities for VoLTE. It is an optimized, priority access service on 4G networks -- a legal "fast lane," if you like -- and who wouldn't want that? It is a cross-platform, cross-carrier, and importantly, all-IP service that runs on the same radio layer as data. Operators should be able to build on that capability with new services, and they should be able to monetize it. But success in taking VoLTE beyond the basic voice and video service set will be hard-won, and will take time.
— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading