Sunday, 24 April 2011
A couple of themes were prevalent this past week:
- iPhone/Android location logging,
- cloud computing (and a big cloud collapse at Amazon),
- the tech valuation bubble because of Groupon et al,
- profits at Apple, AT&T vs VZ, Google, most notably,
- and who wins in social media and what is next.
In my opinion they are all related and the Cloud plays the central role, metaphorically and physically. Horowitz recently wrote about the new computing paradigm in defense of the supposed technology valuation bubble. I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment as I got my first taste of this historical computing cycle over 30 years ago when I had to cycle 10 miles to a High School in another district that had a dedicated line to the county mainframe. A year or two later I was simulating virus growth on an Apple PC. So when Windows came in 1987 I was already ahead of the curve with respect to distributed computing. Moreover, as a communications analyst in the early 1990s I also realized what competition in the WAN post-1984 had begat, namely, Web 1.0 (aka the Internet) and the most advanced and cheapest digital paging/messaging services in the world. Both of these trends would have a significant impact on me personally and professionally and I will write about those evolutions and collapses in future Spectral issues.
The problem, the solution, the problem, the solution, etc….
The problem back in the 1970s and early 1980s was the telephone monopoly. Moore’s law bypassed the analog access bottleneck with cheap processing and local transport. Consumers and then enterprises and institutions began to buy and link the PCs together to communicate, share files and resources. Things got exciting when we began to multitask in 1987, and then by 1994 any PC provided access to information pretty much anywhere. During the 1990s and well into the next decade, Web 1.0 was just a 1.2-way store and forward database lookup platform. It was early cloud computing, sort of, but no-one had high-speed access. It was so bad in 1998 when I went independent, that I had 25x more dedicated bandwidth than my former colleagues at bulge-bracket Wall Street firms. That’s why we had the bust. Web 1.0 was narrow-band, not broadband, and certainly not 2-way. Wireless was just beginning to wake up to data, even though Jeff Bezos had everyone believing they would be ordering books through their phones in 2000.
Two things happened in the 2000s. First, high speed bandwidth became ubiquitous. I remember raising capital for The Feedroom, a leading video ASP, in 2004 and we were still watching high-speed access penetration reaching the 40% “tipping point.”. Second the IP stack grew from being a 4 layer model to something more robust. We built CDNs. We built border controllers that enabled Skype VoIP traffic to transit foreign networks “for free.” We built security. HTML, browsers and web frontends grew to support multimedia. By the second half of the decade, Web 2.0 became 1.7-way and true “cloud” services began to develop. Web 2.0 is still not fully developed as there are still a lot of technical and pricing controls and “lubricants” missing for true 2-way synchronous high-definition communications; more about that in future Spectrals.
The New “Hidden Problem”
Unfortunately, over that time the underlying service provider market of 5-6 competitive service providers (wired, wireless, cable) consolidated down to an oligopoly in most markets. Wherever competition dropped to 3 or fewer providers bandwidth pricing stopped falling 40-70% like it should have and only fell 5-15% per annum. Yet technology prices at the edge and core (Moore’s Law) kept on falling 50%+ every 12-18 months. Today, the price differential between “retail” and “underlying economic” cost per bit is the widest it has been since 1984.
That wouldn’t be a problem except for two recent developments: the advent of the smartphone and the attendant application ecosystems. So what does this have to do with cloud computing, especially when that was “an enterprise phenomenon” begun by Salesforce.com with its Force.com and Amazon Web Services. A lot of the new consumer wireless applications run on the cloud. There are entire developer ecosystems building new companies. IDC estimates that the total amount of information accessible is going to grow 44x by 2020 to 35 zetabytes. And the average number of unique files is going to grow 65x. That means that while a lot of the applications and information is going to be high-bandwidth (video and multimedia), there are also going to be many smaller files and transactions (bits of information); ie telemetry or personal information or sensory inputs. And this information will be constantly accessed by 3-5 billion wireless smartphones and devices. The math of networks is (N*(N-1))/2. That’s an awful lot of IP session pathways.
Why is That A Problem?
The problem is that the current wireless networks can’t handle this onslaught. Carriers have already been announcing datacaps over the past 2 years. While they are falling over themselves to announce 4G networks, the reality is that they are only designed to be a 2-3x faster, and far from being ubiquitous, either geographically (wide-area) or inbuilding. That’s a problem if the new applications and information sets require networks that are 20-50x faster and many factors more reliable and ubiquitous. The smartphones and their wireless tether are becoming single points of access. Add to that the fact that carriers derive increasingly less direct benefit from these application ecosystems, so they’ll have less and less incentive to upgrade and reprice their network services along true technology-driven marginal cost. Neustar is already warning carriers they are being bypassed in the process.
Does The Bubble Have to Burst?
Just as in the late 1990s, the upper and middle layer guys really don’t know what is going on at the lower layers. And if they don’t then surely the current bubble will burst as expectations will get ahead of reality. That may take another 2-3 years, but it will likely happen. In the meantime, alternative access players are beginning to rise up. Even the carriers themselves are talking about offloading traffic onto femto and wifi cells. Wifi alliances are springing up again and middle layer software/application controls are developing to make it easier for end-users to offload traffic themselves. Having lived through and analyzed the advent of competitive wired and wireless networks in the 1990s, my sense is that nothing, even LightSquared or Clearwire in their current forms, will be significant enough to precipitate the dramatic restructuring that is necessary to service this coming tidal wave of demand.
What we need is something that I call centralized hierarchical networking (CHN)™. Essentially we will see three major layers with the bottom access/transport layer being controlled by 3-4 hybrid networks. The growth and dynamic from edge to core and vice versa will wax and wane in rather rapid fashion. Until then, while I totally get and support the cloud and believe most applications are going that route, let the Cloud Players be forewarned of coming turbulence unless something is done to (re)solve the bandwidth bottleneck!
Tuesday, 19 April 2011
5 Areas of Focus
1) How does information flow through our economic, social and political fabric? I believe all of history can be modeled on the pathways and velocity of information. To my knowledge there is no economic science regarding the velocity of information, but many write about it. Davidow (OVERconnected) speaks to networks of people (information) being in 3 states of connectivity. Tom Wheeler, someone whom I admire a great deal, often relates what is happening today to historical events and vice versa. His book on Lincoln’s use of the telegraph makes for a fascinating read. Because of its current business emphasis and potential to change many aspects of our economy and lives social media will be worth modeling along the lines of information velocity.
2) Mapping the rapidly evolving infomedia landscape to explain both the chaos of convergence and the divergence of demand has interested me for 20 years. This represents a taxonomy of things in the communications, technology and internet worlds. The latest iteration, called the InfoStack, puts everything into a 3 dimensional framework with a geographic, technological/operational, and network/application dispersion. I’ve taken that a step further and from 3 dimensional macro/micro models developed 3 dimensional organizational matrices for companies. 3 coordinates capture 99% of everything that is relevant about a technology, product, company, industry or topic.
3) Mobile payments and ecommerce have been an area of focus over the past 3 years. I will comment quite a bit on this topic. There are hundreds of players, with everyone jockeying for dominance or their piece of the pie. The area is also at the nexus of 3 very large groupings of companies: financial services, communications services and transaction/information processors. The latter includes Google and FaceBook, which is why they are constantly being talked about. That said, players in all 3 camps are constrained by vestigial business and pricing models. Whoever ties/relates the communications event/transaction to the underlying economic transaction will win. New pricing will reflect digitization and true marginal cost. Successful models/blueprints are 800, VPN, and advertising. We believe 70-80% of all revenue in the future will derive from corporate users and less than 30% will be subscription based.
4) Exchange models and products/solutions that facilitate the flow of information across upper and lower layers and from end to end represent exciting and rewarding opportunities. In a competitive world of infinite revenue clouds of demand mechanisms must exist that drive cost down between participants as traffic volumes explode. This holds for one-way and two-way traffic, and narrow and broadband applications. The opposing sides of bill and keep (called party pays) and network neutrality, are missing the point. New services can only develop if there is a bilateral, balanced payment system. It is easy to see why incumbent service and application models embrace bill and keep, as it stifles new entrants. But long term it also stifles innovation and retards growth.
5) What will the new network and access topologies look like? Clearly the current industry structure cannot withstand the dual onslaught of rapid technological change and obsolescence and enormously growing and diverging demand. It’s great if everyone embraces the cloud, but what if we don’t have access to it? Something I call “centralized hierarchical networking” will develop. A significant amount of hybridization will exist. No “one solution” will result. Scale and ubiquity will be critical elements to commercial success. As will anticipation and incorporation of developments in the middle and upper layers. Policy must ensure that providers are not allowed to hide behind a mantra of “natural bottlenecks” and universal service requirements. In fact, the open and competitive models ensure the latter as we saw from our pro-competitive and wireless policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
In conclusion, these are the 5 areas I focus on:
1) Information Velocity
2) Mapping the InfoStack
3) Applications and in particular, payment systems
4) Exchange models
The analysis will tend to focus on pricing (driven by marginal, not average costs) and arbitrages, the “directory value” of something, which some refer to as the network effect, and key supply and demand drivers.
Monday, 18 April 2011
Today, April 18, 2011 marks my first official blog. It is about making money and having fun. Actually I started blogging about telecommunications 20 years ago on Wall Street with my TelNotes daily and SpectralShifts weekly. Looking back, I am happy to report that a lot of what I said about the space actually took place; consolidation, wireless usurpation of wireline access, IP growing into something more robust than a 4 layer stack, etc… Over the past decade I’ve watched the advent of social media, and application ecosystems, and the collapse of the competitive communications sector; the good, the bad, and the ugly, respectively.
Along the way I’ve participated in or been impacted by these trends as I helped startups and small companies raise money and improve their strategy, tactics and operations. Overall, an entirely different perspective from my ivory tower Wall Street research perch of the 1980s-90s. Hopefully what I have to say is of use to a broad audience and helps people cut through contradictory themes of chaotic convergence and diverging demand to take advantage of the rapidly shifting landscape.
I like examples of reality imitating art. One of my favorites was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which preceded the destruction of the Berlin Wall by a decade. Another, the devastating satire and 1976 classic Network, predating by 30 years what media has become in the age of reality TV, twitter and the internet moment. I feel like a lot has changed and it’s time for me to start talking again. So in the words of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Most of the time you’ll see me take an opposite stance from consensus, or approach a topic or problem from a 90 degree angle. That’s my intrinsic value; don’t look for consensus opinion here. The ability to do this lies in my analytical framework, called the InfoStack. It is a three dimensional framework that maps information, topics and problems along geographic, network and application dispersions. By geographic I mean WAN, MAN, LAN, PAN. By network, I mean a 7 layer OSI stack. And by applications, I mean clouds of intersecting demand. You will see that I talk about horizontal layering and scale, vertically complete solutions, and unlimited “cloud-like” revenue opportunity. Anything I analyze is in the context of what is going on in adjacent spaces of the matrix. And I look for cause and effect amongst the layers.
I see us at the beginning of something very big; bigger than in 1987 at the dawn of the Wintel revolution. The best way to enjoy the great literary authors is to start with their earliest works and read sequentially; growing and developing with them. Grow with me as we sit at the dawn of the Infomedia revolution that is and will remake the world around us. In the process, let’s make some money and build things that are substantial.
Information Velocity Partners, LLC
Strategic Telecom, Internet, Media Advisory
88 East Main Street, Suite 209
Mendham, NJ 07930