"What will be the next killer application?" That's the question that
many people in the telecommunications industry are asking. The answers, however, never
seem particularly satisfying nor do they seem particularly direct. Some people say the
next killer app is "voice," and others say it's "data." Still others
maintain that "convergence" is the killer app. None of these answers are
specific and all are ultimately unconvincing. Furthermore, it is challenging to determine
whether the lack of a concrete answer is because no one has a real answer, or because
people are just uncomfortable committing themselves.
The network sits at a unique point in its development, as it straddles the saddle point
between the past and the future. In the past, network operators and service providers
primarily developed services. They built and controlled the infrastructure and operated in
a business environment that was much less dynamic than that of today.
Currently, network architecture models, business models, and standards development
models are all undergoing a major disruption as this saddle point is crossed. The future
network will be much more open and flexible. The integration of the telephony, Internet,
wireless, and broadband infrastructures offers a great deal of promise for integrating and
presenting to users voice, data, and other forms of information flows in ways that were
hard to imagine even a few years ago.
AS THE DUST SETTLES
In this new environment, network operators and service providers will no longer
have exclusive rights on the development, deployment, and management of services. In fact,
the difficulty of answering the question posed earlier regarding the next killer app
arises precisely from the relative immaturity of the next-generation network as well as
from the industrys lack of experience with the new behavioral, business, and network
models that are emerging from it.
However, as the construction dust settles, application and service developers will be
able to more clearly see what is possible with the new telecommunications infrastructure
and, in time, they will start weaving together the capabilities of the network to create
new and interesting services, many of which will in fact be the killer apps the industry
is looking for.
Many within the industry are operating on the principal that a killer app is out
there somewhere in the future. Yet, when pressed to express their own
predictions, most tend to fall back on convenient and safe answers, such as voice is
the killer app. In fact, there appears to be a certain belief, even a blind faith,
that a few big killer apps will appear sometime in the future. A well-known quote reads,
Life is what happens while you are making plans. Similarly, while most of the
industry is looking to the future for answers, some of the killer apps are already quietly
emerging from the dust with little attention.
Voice is not the next killer app. Data is not the next killer app. And convergence is
not the next killer app. These are all just parts needed to provide killer apps. The
killer apps are really those things that help people live, work, and play. Simply put, the
killer apps of the future are those services that communicate, inform, educate, entertain,
and transact. Ultimately, people want and will demand to communicate with each other and
have access to information from anywhere, at anytime, and from any device.
How these killer apps will be provided will depend on the combination of many disparate
technologies and applications. Most consumers, beyond the first adopters, will
not particularly care about the underlying technologies used to enable the killer apps.
The population of the world is immense, and the vast majority is not technology literate.
The success of a technology will be inversely proportional to the complexity of the
technology as presented to the user. Some of the most successful services and killer apps
of the last 100 years were presented to users in a decidedly low-tech manner. For example:
- The post office (a slot in the door).
- The radio (an on/off switch, volume control, tuner, and speaker).
- The movies (a ticket booth and screen).
- The television (an on/off switch, volume control, tuner, and screen).
- The automobile (an ignition switch, gas pedal, and brake pedal).
Each of these killer apps provides the means to help people communicate,
inform, educate, entertain, and transact. They all followed a development model in which a
massive infrastructure was built out that was, at least initially, controlled by a
relatively limited number of organizations and businesses.
As these infrastructures evolved, new capabilities and services were added. The
fundamental difference between these killer apps and the killer
apps of the next-generation network is that the design of the next-generation
infrastructure provides historically early and unprecedented open access to the
infrastructure. This open access will empower individuals, businesses, and organizations
to experiment and create new services at a much quicker rate than has traditionally
occurred. This presents a good news, bad news situation. Services will evolve and converge
more quickly, but there is likely to be a high failure rate along the way since a greater
level of experimentation will occur compared to the traditional manner, in which services
were developed and deployed.
ITS NOT YOUR PARENTS NETWORK
Development models from other industries should be examined to understand how to
exploit the potential opportunities of the next-generation network. The telecommunications
industry is undergoing a fundamental change that will forever affect the way that the
network is viewed. In fact, the telecommunications industry will undergo an evolution not
unlike that of the automobile industry which started by selling and differentiating its
products based on technical factors (such as performance) and then progressed to human
factors (such as ease of use and comfort), appearance factors (such as style), marketing
factors (such as status), and cultural factors (such as common tastes).
Instead of asking equipment manufacturers, network operators, and service providers to
identify the next killer app, we should be looking to consumers and consumer product
companies for guidance. Consumer product companies have long understood the importance of
listening to and translating consumer needs, wants, and desires into products and services
that they value. Tomorrows network is definitely not your parents network and
a whole new generation of users is emerging with entirely different expectations.
THE PC MODEL
Some of todays most successful killer apps, such as e-mail and Web browsing, diverge
from previous models in that they require substantial technological expertise to install
and use, at least relative to other consumer devices. The PC model is clearly dominant,
but it will be eclipsed in the future by appliances and devices that will offer specific
functions to assist people in specific ways. There will be many devices with relatively
simple user interfaces performing unique functions (like Internet radio) rather than one
device like the PC performing many different functions (like Internet radio, word
processor, games, and more).
Today, the purchase, installation, and maintenance of PCs and their associated software
is difficult at best. Some industry leaders have commented that the traditional software
industry is dying. They are referring to the observation that as devices become more
specialized, general application software will no longer be sold off-the-shelf in retail
stores (people dont buy software for their radio, nor would they purchase software
for a specialized device). Thus, future devices may simply provide capabilities for
presenting information to the user from the network with little additional processing.
Some of the most interesting killer apps emerging from the construction of the
next-generation network are those that allow people to find each other and communicate in
new ways (e-mail, instant messaging, presence management, and geographic information
systems to name a few). Individualized audio (witness MP3) and video channels, games, and
even auction sites are becoming centers of entertainment. Each of these killer apps is
enabled by various integrated applications of voice, data, and convergence.
Many of these applications will make use of the media transformation and binding
capabilities of the network. Other applications will leverage the strength of the network
to provide access, connectivity, and mobility. The service providers and network operators
will not be the only ones developing these killer apps. There will not be just one killer
app but many individualized killer apps addressing the different and specific needs and
desires of consumers. Ultimately consumers will be the ones to answer the killer app
question that we have all been asking for so long.
Jeff Lawrence is president and CEO of Trillium Digital Systems, a leading provider
of communications software solutions for computer and communications equipment
manufacturers. Trillium develops, licenses, and supports standards-based communications
software solutions for SS7, ATM, ISDN, frame relay, V5, IP, and X.25/X.75 technologies.
For more information, visit the companys Web site at www.trillium.com.