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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



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