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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

IMS 'Reality Check' - Part 2

My good friend Martin Geddes' comments (see post IMS 'Reality Check') have caused quite a stir...

Christophe Gourraud, from Swisscom, who knows more about IMS than anyone I've met so far, sent in this great response:

"I found the last entry written by Martin Geddes (www.telepocalypse.com) very interesting and stimulating. It includes very good points, but for me a lot of the statements Martin is making seem to be based on assumptions about how IMS will be used in the future, rather than what IMS really is or can support.

I am personally of the opinion that the IMS genes (specifications) can lead to several potential futures, and that IMS will eventually be what the industry will make out of it. The issue might therefore be more about culture than technology.

Here follow some elements which may help to redefine the (technical) potential of IMS:

The fact that IMS is a telco specification does not mean that it defines a new telco world apart from the Internet. It is true that there is an IMS network architecture, and that there exist IMS-specific extensions to SIP. However, this architecture and these extensions do not prevent simple interworking between SIP devices and applications in the IMS domain and SIP devices and applications in the Internet space.

An important point about IMS and SIP is that, unlike previous telco standardization efforts (like MMS with regards to SMTP), it did not reuse a snapshot of IETF SIP specifications to define pure telco ones. What it did was to integrate/reference IETF specifications into the telco ones, together with a few extensions (for which there also exist IETF RFCs). This means that most extensions to SIP made in the IETF sphere can directly be used into an IMS network. This is very important for openness and extendibility aspects (see Martin's "Promise 4" below).

It is also a chance to redefine the relationship between those telco and Internet service providers who are willing to establish partnerships.

The fact that IMS is strongly based on the SIP protocol does not mean that IMS applications are limited to the usage of SIP. Other service-oriented protocols like SOAP or HTTP can be used for the delivery of services over or through IMS. Moreover, SIP itself should not be limited to session control. This is a very powerful, multifacet and extensible Internet protocol whose application may largely evolve in the coming years, both in the IMS and the Internet spheres.

The fact that IMS is defined as a "multimedia" network does not mean that it will only support streaming or conversational (multi)media sessions. It will support them, but may also support file transfer and other types of services, based on SIP and its potential combination with other more adapted protocols (e.g. HTTP, FTP, XML). Martin mentions user data and the possibility to share and federate it with 3rd parties. This is actually a very important opportunity for IMS, based on mechanisms supported by the combination of SIP and a protocol like HTTP, for which presence is a good example.

The fact that IMS standardization focused so far on 1) the core network and 2) a few network based services and enablers, does not mean that IMS has to support only network based service logic. IMS is based on Internet protocols like SIP, which were specified in the IETF for edge-based intelligence. It is not the doomed telco destiny of SIP and other Internet protocols to suddently become network-centric once they are referenced into telco specifications. The IMS core network tree should not hide the potential IMS service forest.

The fact that the IMS core network is quite complex does not mean that the IMS application layer and IMS services have to be complex. IMS specifications have the advantage to clearly separate the heavy duty core network entities from the potentially more IT-centric service entities (devices and application servers). I personally think that the complexity of the IMS core network can be totally hidden to IMS services, and even that part of this core network complexity can make the application layer even simpler.

In this context time to market for IMS services may essentially become a matter left to the Suns, IBMs, BEAs, HPs, Microsofts or Oracles of the world. Martin makes a good point about the potential difficulty for next generation developers to deal with operators: this is right on the cultural issue and the need for operators to evolve.

The fact that IMS specifications include a lot of control mechanisms in the network does not mean that eventual IMS networks will end up inspecting every packet running through it (actually IMS itself does not include packet inspection) or generate charging information for every single service usage attempt. I think it is nice to have quite sophisticated control and charging mechanisms in the specifications, but it will be up to the future and specific operator's requirements to define if and how they will be used in practice.

The usage of IMS for fixed mobile convergence assumes that you still need a control network (IMS) in the fixed mobile converged world. Once this is achieved, you can deploy or access services independent from the access technology. IMS defines a SIP control layer on top of IP. Such a layer originates from the Internet (IETF) so it can be said that even in the Internet this layer is perceived as having some potential interest. It is true that the future of IMS is linked to how "interesting" the SIP control layer (or service protocol) really is.

Likening IMS to IN is a big mistake. IN permits to plug application servers on top of a voice-centric network through a dedicated telco protocol which essentially permits to control calls. On the other hand, the IMS service architecture can be seen in a nutshell as a way to enrich IETF-based SIP routing with (user or service) profile-based mechanisms. Once you understand that SIP is not the typical ISUP or INAP/CAP, and that it can support much more that session control, alone or with sister Internet protocols, you can start to think otherwise about IMS.

To conclude, I will say that for me the future of IMS is tightly linked to the future of SIP as a service protocol in the Internet and the IT world, to the ability of the telco industry to change its culture, and to its ability to use the full power of IMS specifications and select which parts are more relevants than other (see my article in the February issue of IMS Insider - [for subscriptions and back copies go to www.ims-insider.com or email editor@ims-insider.com ]."

Thank you, Christophe, for a tremendous piece. More on this debate to follow (subscribe to our Spring bumper edition of IMS Insider for more in-depth analysis).

The Editor, IMS Insider

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

IMS 'Reality Check'

We're at the IMS World Forum in Barcelona this week (www.imsvision.com). We'll be doing a presentation that covers some of our 'Telco 2.0' research.

I asked a colleague, Martin Geddes, who is cynical about how IMS is being hyped at present, to give a quick analysis of how IMS matches up to the promises being made for it. I'm sure this will stimulate some strong debate!

Promise # 1. New Revenue Opportunities: From silo to a horizontal business model

IMS is partly counter-productive, because tying functionality and value to the network platform via SIP proxies (as opposed to the business platform via web services) preserves the network silo. It's still that case of "supermarkets for Toyota owners", where all the users of one mode of connectivity have a choice of a single service intermediary. The idea of “service roaming” is akin to allowing Ford drivers in – but only if their vehicle is carried in on the back of a tow truck at great expense. It fails to respect the fundamental separation of connectivity from service, which is what drives industry change more than any other phenomenon. At best it’s from a vertical silo to an oblique one.

To the extent IMS opens up the platform it does help to burst the silo. In particular, the existing voice/SMS/MMS/voicemail platforms may not have been built using internet/IETF/W3C standards, so are hard to make interoperable with Internet services.

Promise # 2. New services: Multimedia rich services that make operator's offerings "stickier"

Media is increasingly based on file transfer, not streaming, so IMS has little (if any) value to add over existing broadband technologies. Furthermore, value is moving towards aggregators, recommenders and remixers of content. IMS aims to make money from postage and packing by oligopoly control of distribution. This is a model whose peak has passed. Someone else is likely to own the sticky stuff. If that adhesion comes from exclusive content like league football, it’s the star footballers who are likely to be the economic winners here; top talent in competitive sport by definition remains scarce, unlike connectivity which enjoys unbounded exponential improvement.

Stickiness can, however, be achieved by getting telco data and business assets to participate in 3rd party value chains. Partner with Internet service providers and enable shared/federated customer data. This could even use APIs under the IMS umbrella.

Promise 3. Faster time to Market: Standard network elements drastically decrease application development and rollout

A Faustian bargain. By embedding intelligence in the network, you're still not capturing the agility of edge-based innovation.

It's all about having developers innovating on your platform. That’s what creates innovation and rapid exploration of possible applications. IMS isn't exactly going to be the platform of choice for an upcoming generation of developers – too complex, too much effort dealing with carriers and their caprice. Sun, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle – they have the mass-market developer relationship channels, and telcos need to find ways of engaging them to reach beyond specialist telecom environments.

Why has Intelligent Network only delivered a handful of features? If you can't do more than caller ID, 3-way calling and call forwarding in 20 years on IN, what is the hope that you'll do better on IP/IMS?

There are process-based alternatives that would accelerate time-to-market. The technology isn't necessarily the main barrier.

Promise 4. Investment Protection: Future service compatibility is assured through established interfaces

Possibly. If every carrier had a standard API set to interact with their voice and messaging platforms, this would be true. That’s a big ‘if’. And it assumes that there are indeed “future services” with universal appeal that need interoperability, and that only telcos can provide this. More “ifs”.

The danger of being “half-open” is that you take down the garden walls and find all the prettiest flowers are in the open countryside.

Promise 5. Lower OPEX: Through infrastructure reuse for new services

In principle, yes. But... you're possibly running a fully-depreciated network with trained staff, and can cannibalise parts and re-negotiate support and maintenance costs with vendors. So there is some degree of IMS alternative. Hey, why not skip a generation and go straight to peer-to-peer or other edge-based intelligent devices! Same outcome, 1/1000th the cost.

Promise 6. Fixed Mobile Convergence: Similar systems are used for fixed or mobile and can be bridged to offer ubiquitous service

Yes, to the extent mobile continues as a semi-closed ecosystem. For mobile applications there is some credibility that this will persist, because the CPU and battery power of the device is limited, and the network is expensive, slow and congested. Moving some intelligence into the carrier may be defensible as a means of finessing the technical integration issues. And if you’re going to do it, IMS is as good as anything else. But technological progress is exponential in nature, so a vertically integrated model reliant on papering over technology cracks is fighting the tide of history. Set your depreciation clock to 7-10 years.

Alternatives? If you just treat transport as an undifferentiated service with a standard IP interface, FMC becomes an oxymoron. The app doesn't care whether it's on a "fixed" or "mobile" IP-based connection. Skype works everywhere already! I Skyped a client who was on a 747 with a PocketPC, and it didn’t require any extra telco help. Mobility doesn’t inherently require monolithic coast-to-coast mobile networks; network-based hand-offs are a legacy of the radios of 20 years ago and spectrum regulation approach of 80 years ago. The same AJAX techniques will be used for fixed and mobile Web applications, and no telco needs to lift a finger for it to happen. So FMC has a framing problem: it’s a transitional phase of getting legacy pre-IP mobile voice telephony to interoperate with new access technologies. Don’t mistake a waypoint on the journey for the destination.

Promise 7. Higher control of the network: Operators become service providers instead of fat pipes.

*Instead* of fat pipes! Weep for their investors... Is IMS really just a desperate attempt to create billable events and scarcity-meter network usage?

The customers are taking control. The only way is down in terms of control. Customers want fat, always-on and open pipes to run the applications of their choice. They also want something that works, is simple to buy, can be supported, and doesn’t require them to perform complex set-up – but that’s not predicated on network control, but rather on brand values, product integration and channel control.

Control of wireline networks is almost totally gone in open, competitive markets in free nations. The feudal overlord model is under attack on wireless too: eroded by new technology (e.g. WiFi, Flarion, IPWireless, WiMax, etc.), new entrants (e.g. recent Intel/Pipex WiMax annoucement yesterday), and competition among existing operators (e.g. the 5 cell networks in the UK). The simplest, cheapest way of differentiating yourself is to become more open (e.g. T-Mobile Web’N’Walk) – a ratchet towards ‘open’.

IMS doesn't achieve this goal unless you have significant market power to force customers through the IMS toll gates. A good model for monopoly markets with licensed carriers, maybe – but that’s hardly the wave of the future. Maybe you can ‘back-fill’ markets like WiFi roaming by offering service-specific access to people who aren’t interested in a full day’s WiFi subscription (e.g. like Skype Zones, where you just get Skype access). Even then, it’s slow and complex.

There is an IMS alternative, but aims to a fundamentally different goal. Deliver super-abundance; where capacity limits exist, innovate in terms of application-agnostic QoS mechanisms, and hunt for better ways of pricing and funding networks that don’t rely on opening up the packets to see what’s written inside.

The Editor, IMS Insider



Friday, April 07, 2006

IMS World Forum - book if you haven't already

Apologies to readers who've experienced silence on this blog for the last week or so. We've been working extremely hard to get our 'Telco 2.0' Market Study completed - a major feat of synthesis and analysis! Watch this space for a big launch w/c 1st May.

And those who completed the online survey on Converged Services will be getting a report w/c 17 April.

We were also preparing heavily for the inaugural IMS Insider industry workshop which we ran at London Heathrow yesterday. Some major things were clarified in my mind and we generated a huge volume of idea, questions and...some answers. Thanks to all those who participated and particularly to Christophe Gourraud from Swisscom for his session on 'migration strategies and tactics' - he has to be the most knowledgeable person on the planet about how to effectively apply 3GPP specs.

We've been preparing our keynote presentation for the 3rd IMS World Forum in Barcelona on 25-27 April - http://www.imsvision.com/imswf/. This is THE premium global IMS networking event - I strongly recommend booking a place if you haven't already.

With all this activity, the Editor is taking a week's holiday now in a remote area of rural Portugal (which, by the way, has superb broadband access). This blog will be coming blasting back into action from 17th April.

In the meantime it's been extremely gratifying to get this sort of feedback recently:

IMS Insider Monthly Report: "You guys are doing a great job of stripping away the marketing fluff out there and providing an honest look at the state of the market. "

IMS Insider inaugural Insiders' Workshop: "It was a very intensive day, but really worth it....I got more interesting information and interactions than in a whole week of a traditional IMS conference."

"I really liked the virtual discussion [the 'Mindshare' collaborative technology] and the very open discussion you facilitated during the presentations - normally at conferences it is high level talk with little content."

The Editor, IMS Insider

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