Islands of communication or isolation?

One of the fundamental tenets of the communication industry is that you need 100% compatibility between devices and services if you want to communicate. This was clearly understood when the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) was dominated by local monopolies in the form of incumbent telcos. Together with the ITU, they put considerable effort into standardising all the commercial and technical aspects of running a national voice telco.

For example, the commercial settlement standards enabled telcos to share the revenue from each and every call that made use of their fixed or wireless infrastructure no matter whether the call originated, terminated or transited their geography. Technical standards included everything from compression through to transmission standards such as Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) and the basis of European mobile telephony, GSM. The IETF’s standardisation of the Internet has brought a vast portion of the world’s population on line and transformed our personal and business lives.

However, standardisation in this new century is now often driven as much by commercial businesses and business consortiums which often leads to competing solutions and standards slugging it out in the market place (e.g. PBB-TE and T-MPLS). I guess this is as it should be if you believe in free trade and enterprise. But, as mere individuals in this world of giants, these issues can cause us users real pain.

In particular, the current plethora of what I term islands of isolation means that we often unable to communicate in ways that we wish to. In the ideal world, as exemplified by the PSTN, you are able to talk to every person in the world that owns a phone as long as you know their number. Whereas, many, if not most, new media communications services we choose to use to interact with friends and colleagues are in effect closed communities that are unable to interconnect.

What are the causes these so-called islands of isolation? Here are a few examples.

Communities: There are many Internet communities including free PC-to-PC VoIP services, instant messaging services, social or business networking services or even virtual worlds. Most of these focus on building up their own 100% isolated communities. Of course, if one achieves global domination, then that becomes the de facto standard by default. But, of course, that is the objective of every Internet social network start-up!

Enterprise software: Most purveyors of proprietary enterprise software thrive on developing products that are incompatible. Lotus Notes and Outlook email systems was but one example. This is often still the case today when vendors bolt advanced features onto the basic product that are not available to anyone not using that software – presence springs to mind. This creates vendor communities of users.

Private networks: Most enterprises are rightly concerned about security and build strong protective firewalls around their employees to protect themselves from malicious activities. This means that employees of that company have full access to their own services but these are not available to anyone outside of the firewall for use on an inter-company basis. Combine this with the deployment of vendor specific enterprise software described about and you create lots of isolated enterprise communities!

Fixed network operators: It’s a very competitive world out there and telcos just love offering value-added features and services that are only offered to their customer base. Free proprietary PC-PC calls come to mind and more recently, video telephones.

Mobile operators: A classic example with wireless operators was the unwillingness to provide open Internet access and only provide what was euphemistically called ‘walled garden’ services – which are effectively closed communities.

Service incompatibilities: A perfect example of this was MMS, the supposed upgrade to SMS. Although there was a multitude of issues behind the failure of MMS, the inability to send an MMS to a friend who used another mobile network was one of the principle ones. Although this was belatedly corrected, it came too late to help.

Closed garden mentality: This idea is alive and well amongst mobile operators striving to survive. They believe that only offering approved services to their users is in their best interests. Well, no it isn’t!

Equipment vendors: Whenever a standards body defines a basic standard, equipment vendors nearly always enhance the standard feature set with ‘rich’ extensions. Of course, anyone using an extension could not work with someone who was not! The word ‘rich’ covers a multiplicity of sins.

Competitive standards: Users groups who adopt different standards become isolated from each other – the consumer and music worlds are riven by such issues.

Privacy: This is seen as such an important issue these days that many companies will not provide phone numbers or even email addresses to a caller. If you don’t know who you want, they won’t tell you! A perfect definition of a closed community!

Proprietary development:  In the absence of standards companies will develop pre-standard technologies and slug it out in the market. Other companies couldn’t care less about standards and follow a proprietary path just because they can and have the monopolistic muscle to do so. Bet – you can name one or two of those!

One take away from all this is that in the real world you can’t avoid islands of isolation and all of us have to use multiple services and technologies to interact with colleagues that are effectively islands of isolation and will probably remain so for the indefinite future in the competitive world we live in.

Your friends, family and work colleagues, by their own choice, geography and lifestyle, probably use a completely different set of services to yourself. You may use MSN, while colleagues use AOL or Yahoo Messenger. You may choose Skype but another colleague may use BT Softphone.

There are partial attempts at solving these issues with a subset of islands, but overall this remains a major conundrum that limits our ability to communicate at any time, any place and any where. The cynic in me says that if you hear about any product or initiative that relies on these islands of isolation disappearing to succeed I would run a mile – no ten miles! On the other hand, it could be seen as the land of opportunity?

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2 Responses to Islands of communication or isolation?

  1. […] communications: In a recent post, Islands of communication or isolation? I wrote about the challenges of communication between islands of standards or users. The adoption […]

  2. […] this year I wrote about the challenges of what I called islands of isolation in a posting entitled Islands of communication or isolation?. I consider this to be one of the main challenges any new communications technology or service […]

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