Thursday, June 08, 2006

How happy are you with your place in the ecosystem?

Last night I had the distinct pleasure of moderating an event and the London Waldorf Hilton sponsored by TEN (the Telecommunication Executive Network), which is, as the name would suggest, an industry networking body which sees good attendance at its events. Last night's panel was attended by around 250 execs from the UK telco and vendor community, and what brought them there was, to my knowledge at least, an unprecedented head-to-head meeting of Skype, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google all on the same stage, under the banner of "New Kids on the Block."

Sharing the stage with me for 90 minutes were:

James Bilefield, General Manager, Europe, Skype
Eileen Broch, Director, Communications Products, UK and EU, Yahoo!
Jim Holden, Director, Global Wireless Strategic Partnerships, Google
Adrian Whaley, EMEA Business Manager, Communications Solutions, Microsoft

Let's start from the beginning, or better still, before the beginning. As is frequently the case with panels of this type, we all got together beforehand to lay down the structure and a few ground rules, and also so I could sound them out on certain issues. The problem one frequently encounters with these situations, and last night was no different, is that as employees of SEC registered companies, the participants have to be careful not to disclose information not previously made public. Also, though I may occasionally write cheeky or critical things in my blogs, it's not my job to embarrass anyone or put them on the spot at someone else's event. There were a number of things I was dying to discuss, including:

  • How does the Yahoo!/eBay alliance reconcile with the Yahoo!-MSN interop agreement, which should be going live any day?
  • Are interop agreements really necessary, when you might be able achieve the same ends with software?
  • Was the Google Secure Access release an accident, an innocent experiment, or something with a deeper meaning?

It was pretty evident from our pow-wow that I could ask these questions, but that I wouldn't necessarily get answers, so I opted to leave it. In any event, the TEN organizers like maximum audience participation, so my questions should be limited and aimed at directing the flow of discussion. To be fair, this also was probably not the group to ask some of these big picture questions - we would have really needed Meg Whitman, Steve Ballmer, Eric Schmidt (with bodyguards) and Terry Semel on the same stage for that - an image I find surreal to contemplate. I felt I could count on some awkward questions from the audience in any event, as this is clearly an increasingly sensitive issue for telcos.

It was interesting to observe the interaction between the panelists upon first meeting, because they were all mutually unknown to one another, with the exception of James and Eileen, who apparently used to sit next to each other at Skype. I guess the first few minutes of interaction could be described as professional and somewhat reserved - it was fascinating to try to imagine what was running through their minds, having committed to sit together as four very different companies who share some views but must regard one another with a fair amount of mutual suspicion and disdain.

Eventually we made our way to the stage and began. (The folks at TEN are apparently going to produce a transcript, and if I can secure their blessings, I will post it here.) I opened with the observation that a Google search for the term "phone" which I did yesterday yielded 2.4bn results, which is huge. Then again, we're talking about more than 100 years of PSTN history, and "phone" is a very generic term. "VoIP," on the other hand, returns 285m results, despite the fact that VoIP as a viable consumer proposition really only goes back about four years. Perhaps more tellingly, "Skype" returns 242m results. The point I was striving to make is that it might be one good measure of just how fast voice at the edge has proliferated that it already claims around 10% of the "real estate" on the web occupied by the "phone," but with less than 4% of the history.

We then moved through five minute remarks by each of the participants, much of which will be familiar to readers. Rather than to break each one out, I'll just touch on a few points of interest. One message shared by all was a conciliatory tone, something along the lines of "we come in peace." I think a couple of the panelists were somewhat distressed at being referred to as "new kids on the block," because they don't see themselves as being in the same space as telcos. (I have always expected that there would be a complete disconnect at the most basic semantic level in any interaction between the two camps, because voice is one component in a much bigger picture for the Big Four, while the telcos struggle to define what their own bigger picture should contain). Eileen Broch pointed out that Yahoo! was "a resident on the block," but not looking to take it over. Adrian Whaley stressed that Microsoft is focused on partnership with telcos, and could help make them "heroes in new services." Jim Holden stressed that his presence at the event was part of a conscious effort on Google's part to communicate more clearly with the market and the industry generally. All four panelists alluded at some point to viewing their efforts in voice as part of an ecosystem, repeatedly in some cases.

There weren't a lot of datapoints involved, though a few interesting things came out. James Bilefield stated in his opening remarks that 30% of Skype users are business users, with a particular sweet spot in companies of 20 people or less. He also observed that 80% of Skype users surveyed want mobility, and made mention of the Linksys deal, though I'm not sure how many in the audience were aware of this beforehand. Jim Holden later put the Jabber user community at 150m worldwide, which I think goes a long way toward explaining Google's focus.

Given what I expected to be a broadly distrustful view of the panelists' developments by the audience assembled, I opened up the Q&A with a starter question about usage patterns, citing the recent Japan survey, which seemed to point to Skype usage as being incremental rather than substitutional, on the whole. All remarked that this was consistent with their experiences. Adrian Whaley used the example of a group IM chat session which reaches a point at which it becomes more beneficial to actually move to speech. In the PSTN world this would involve arranging a conference bridge, and the moment may pass before that can be organized. In the IM world it becomes a natural and easy next step to conference on the fly, part of a "flow" as James Bilefield termed it. In other words this might be a voice interaction which simply wouldn't occur otherwise, therefore it is incremental. Eileen Broch chimed in that the overall voice pie was increasing in her view.

Questions from the audience predictably revealed that the telcos don't entirely buy this line by any means. One questioner asked, "How much of the block do you want to occupy? For example will consumers one day carry a Google-branded phone?" Jim Holden alluded to deals with mobile players as well as handset partners, but stated, "We have no interest in sitting in our partners' chairs," adding that Google makes nice margins in its core business and cannot envisage attaining the same as a network operator or vendor of devices, stressing once again the ecosystem message. This was echoed by all.

Another questioner challenged how real the ecosystem concept was in practice, citing shifting alliances and a lack of interoperability between platforms as disincentives to third party developers to invest. Eileen Broch responded by citing the MSN-Yahoo! agreement, Jim Holden stressed Google's commitment to standards (my take is that given its core business, it's in Google's interest to ensure that the "ecosystem" is as open and wide as possible). I then pressed James Bilefield on Skype's views of interoperability, and he responded that users hadn't shown any significant demand for it, otherwise Skype would have offered it before now. I was dying to ask about the risks of third-party workarounds removing control of the process, but held my tongue.

One line of questioning began by pointing out that there has been a visible effect from VoIP substitution in incoming revenues of emerging market operators and that the four collectively have had a significant impact on consumers' expectations of international call pricing. Clearly some areas of traditional business would be less attractive in years to come as a result. If the four could offer any advice to the telcos about what businesses to get into, and conversely, out of, what would it be? Again the tone was a fairly conciliatory one, and no one stepped up to the challenge of recommending a business to get out of. The general message was of opportunities for partnership and of third-party voice applications as an accelerator for sales of broadband connections and 3G datacards. Adrian Whaley gave a few specific examples, including hosted solutions for SMEs and integration of voice into other activities/services (namely IP TV), though he did remark that the returns in these new services might not match what the telcos have enjoyed in voice - a frank and realistic observation, but probably not one which the audience was ecstatic about hearing.

Question of the night, by far, came towards the end. It was stated so eloquently and amusingly that I'm not sure I can do it justice here, but it went something like this. "You have spoken a lot about the ecosystem, which is a wonderful concept, but let's recall that ecosystems involve a food chain. You seem to be suggesting that the vegetation should be happy to be consumed by the herbivores because the by-product of this consumption will fertilize the vegetation. However, in a real ecosystem, the vegetation evolves. Some becomes poisonous, some becomes more attractive to certain types of animals. How do you see this playing out?"

There was a moment of stunned silence. No one was willing to predict a specific outcome. The general consensus was that outcomes might vary considerably depending on which parts of the world we're talking about, but that generally speaking any impediment to consumers' access to content and applications would be detrimental to the health of the internet - particularly as the cost of access is already being borne by the consumer. (It occurred to me that the philosophical argument behind Whitacre Economics might be interpreted as implying that incumbents are selling broadband at below cost, but I'm sure that would never happen.)

However, all agreed rather somberly that the real risk was to the next generation of innovators. While this was a fairly predictable response, I was also intrigued by this line, and wondered if this betrayed an unspoken expectation by the panelists that some sort of compromise would eventually be hammered out. I also recalled a claim by Dick Notebaert at VON San Jose that Qwest had been in talks with someone in the room, though none of the four companies on my panel were there at that time, to my knowledge. I wonder what effect a 269 - 152 defeat of the Markey "Net Neutrality" amendment to the Barton bill last night will do to alter the balance of power.

There was a lot more which occurred than I can do justice to here, but I think I've done a fair job of representing the highlights. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I'm left with far more questions than answers, and I suspect a few telcos may also feel that way today.