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Enabling Technologies And
Development

February  2000

 

Jeff Lawrence In Search Of  The Killer App

BY JEFF LAWRENCE


"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 industry’s 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.

WHAT’S NEXT?
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.

IT’S 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. Tomorrow’s 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 today’s 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 don’t 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.

CONCLUSION
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 company’s Web site at www.trillium.com.







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