The way to communicate via clouds.

March 17, 2010 at 8:43 pm Leave a comment

When Tom Howe asked me if I’d like to write something on “Cloud Communications” was both flattered and confused.

I’m confused by the term “cloud communications”. At first I did a little research on Tropospheric Scatter, which involves bouncing radio waves off the lower atmosphere.

US army diagram of radio waves bouncing over a mountain range

Wikipedia on Tropospheric Scatter

Then I realised that we were probably supposed to talk about ‘The Cloud’  as applied to telecommunications, but there again I have a problem. The phone system has been a distributed, network centric system of cooperating standards based elements transmitting user generated content for years! Wikipedia says the term “Cloud” was borrowed from Telephony, which makes for a rather circular definition.

A diagram of 'cloud' computing

Cloud Computing - again from Wikipedia

So in the end I decided that I’d take Humpty Dumpty’s line and:

“it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”.

Here’s my working definition: Cloud communications are the application of web-based cloud computing technologies to the communications businesses formerly dominated by the incumbent telcos. Principally voice telephony and short messages (no one has yet made significant money out of realtime video). In short, the next phase of the Telco (r)evolution.

There are some aspects of cloud computing (e.g Salesforce.com or Googledocs) that aren’t borrowed from the telco world, and the most interesting are :

  1. Mobility and flexibility of service provision.
  2. The ability of small organizations to assemble a user focused service utilising services from several large providers
  3. Secure storage of data
  4. Services that upload software to the user’s “terminal” to provide a customised user experience
  5. Connection, location and device agnostic – the interface is the same irrespective of which computer and where I  login to a cloud service

The GSM mobile SIM ‘nearly’ provides the last of these, but when I swap my SIM into a new phone the rest of the context (contacts, recent call list etc) does not move with it. This leads me to wonder what the user ‘identifier’ will be for cloud communications. It won’t be a number- see my blog on the death of numbers , there are a few other possible candidates :

  • SIM
  • skype id (there are 400+ Million accounts !)
  • facebook id
  • google id
  • twitter id
  • role – in -company style ids – e.g. sales@phonefromhere.com
  • SIP uri
  • RFID tag (in a passport or bank card)

My guess is that two will survive, one will be ‘certified’ and used for commercial, legal and business calls, probably based on RFID, but possibly merged with SIM cards. (See here for my musings on this aspect).

The other surviver will be our ‘casual’ identifier, and I’d bet on Skype to win that one.

So why might telephony users move to new cloud based services? Social and business changes provide powerful drivers for people to migrate to services that meet their new needs better than the existing PSTN (or its VoIP clone).

  • Decline in ratio of actual vs virtual travel
  • Decline in physical vs virtual jobs
  • Demise in Job-for-life
  • Globalisation of trade and businesses

Some 40 years ago, my father (a diplomat) had a once a week phone call from West coast of the US to a small village in the UK. His call was exceptional. These days I often have two Skype calls a day from the USA and I’m no diplomat.

These drivers mean that people communicate with distant friends, colleagues and peers more frequently, but across more timezones over multiple media and with a greater need for clarity of understanding.

We (at PhoneFromHere.com) have been working with Family Systems on ‘VoiceChat’ which is a pilot cloud-based  voice system that addresses some of these needs.It is accessible (currently) via GoogleWave, skype, SIP, PSTN . The visual UI looks like this (at the moment)

Visual interface to Family Systems's VoiceChat

Visual interface to Family Systems's VoiceChat

The important aspects of it are that it allows people to communicate synchronously in a ‘normal’ phonecall (via any of the above endpoints), each utterance is saved against the speaker’s name and timestamped. The participants to the call can later go back and listen to segments to refresh their memories and to annotate (and add audio comments to)  them. The conversation can then continue asynchronously  with folks contributing their comments over time, and including new voices that were not part of the original conversation. This adds wiki-like behaviour to a voice communications which works especially well across timezones, or even if you have a developer who works ‘different’ hours from the management team.

So what can we expect from the future of Cloud Communications ? As William Gibson (@GreatDismal) puts it:

“The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.”

Hints of what the future of Cloud Communications are to be found in -:

  • Skype – I am where I log-in, on which ever device kinda find-me-follow-me without the fuss
  • Blabbelon – push-to-talk online conversations in a stereo field
  • Last.fm +  iTunes etc – internet audio on – the – go
  • ZipDX  + HD audio + transcription (some people won’t participate in a podcast unless it is HD)
  • Audio trails (around museums)
  • AR – all focussed around images at the moment, audio is a much more natural interface
  • Mechanical interface of iPhone + wii
  • prevalence of iPods
  • Second Life’s audio subsystem
Putting all these together one can imagine an Augmented Reality type setup where your ipodHear offers your ears a choice of
  • music (both streamed and stored)
  • time shifted tele-conference style conversations of friends ( nearer/dearer ones louder ?)
  • conventional telephony
  • nearby audio picked up by the device’s microphone.
  • speech (today’s FM /XM  talk radio)
  • local info
All mixed into a 3d audio soundscape and navigated with wii style movements of the ipodHear. The interface would be customisable by both the user and the service providers, most of the audio would be streamed to the device over the internet in various formats, the device would download as needed appropriate codecs and other components to render the sounds and their visual accompaniment .
The user may wear headphones throughout the day (just like some teenagers I know). In essence I’m proposing the equivalent of  tabbed-browsing for your ears.

This radical change is inevitable. People who just see cloud communications as a way to do PSTN style calls cheaper are going to miss out. Likewise folks who think voice is dead are wrong.  Companies like Skype, Apple  and Cisco are already thinking along these lines, aiming to use cloud and internet technologies to provide a new and rewarding user experience for our neglected ears. (Apple’s ipod profits confirm that aural experience is valued).

So my message to would be ‘cloud communications’ companies  is – Be bold! Don’t just recreate a 100year old user experience, instead offer something new that leverages our favourite communication channel – the human voice. In short, give the web a voice!

(Tip oʼthe Hat to John Todd for crystallising this with me over a long Skype call while I was in a pub in Cheshire UK and he was at home in Portland Oregon – again proving the value of voice)

This essay forms part of “The Cloud Communications Book” which contains many excellent essays by my betters, I encourage you to read them all.

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Entry filed under: media, startup, VoIP. Tags: , .

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