April 10, 2013

Is Facebook Home the birth of Software-Defined Smartphones (SDS)?

With so much buzz and hype, I suspect most IT professionals have heard about Software-Defined Networks (SDN). In simple terms, SDN is an evolutionary change to network architectures that makes them more programmable – by vendors, operators, enterprises, independent software vendors, and users via common programming environments. The idea is to decouple the management/control plan from the data plane so that:

  • New and innovative 3rd party applications can be easily integrated with other network applications/functions in order enable new capabilities of the network assets.
  • Users can achieve the highest quality of experience – since they will be able to customize their network to their needs, it means functionality, performance, scalability and operational simplicity will be greatly increased

As someone who has lived in both the telecommunications and IT industries, I find it very interesting to note how both industries are learning from and influencing one another and converging. For example, texting came from the Telecom world, while Instant Message or IM came from IT. Mobile phones came from the Telecom, while IP phones came from IT (although some may argue about this). Even the TCP/IP protocol is similar to the once famous Telecom protocol called SS7 – an IP address is analogous to a point code in SS7, while DHCP is analogous to Global Title Translation (I know SS7 geeks will get this).  One could even argue that SDN in the IT world is conceptually similar and influenced by the IMS or Softswitch (virtual switch in commodity hardware) in the Telecom world.

To me the most interesting convergence has been the smartphone. The smartphone has converged mobile phones with IP phones and also the Telecom service provider with the IT service provider. Think about it: why do you need a separate IP phone today when you can download a variety of VoIP clients (Skype, Google, Viber, Vonage, magicJack, etc) to create the virtual IP phone you want? Also, if you want desktop phone capability there are a variety of products out there like iFusion smartstation. With a smartphone I could make a traditional phone call using my standard phone function, which will use my service provider’s voice network.  Or I may use one of my many other phone apps that might use the 3G / 4G Network, or Wi-Fi (if available). These apps tend to be much richer than the standard built-in phone functionality. For example, with the Google voice app I can use the app on multiple devices with the same calling number. Or when someone calls me I can listen to their message in real-time so that I can decide if I want to speak to them or not. None of these features are available (yet) on the standard built-in phone app.

With last week’s announcement of Facebook Home, I think the convergence of the Telecom and IT worlds has reached a new phase – it has created the Software-Defined Smartphone (SDS). Facebook Home is a new way to interact with Facebook, but that is not what interests me. To me, the most interesting thing is that Facebook Home will essentially make your Android phone a Facebook phone – creating a vastly different Android-based experience. For the first time an IT service provider (Facebook) will be offering a new smartphone based on software, not hardware. The device will be known as a Facebook phone, not a Samsung, HTC or an iPhone. Facebook will be able to customize the phone to the needs of its users, meaning functionality, performance, and operational simplicity will be increased immensely . It also means new and innovative 3rd party Facebook applications can be easily integrated with other applications/functions. This is the creation of the Software-Defined Smartphone (SDS) – using software to create/define new smartphones!

I also believe this move might inject a shot of adrenaline to mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) industry which started in early 2000. An MVNO is a wireless communications services provider (like Virgin Mobile) that typically does not own the radio spectrum or wireless network infrastructure over which it provides services to its customers – as of October 2012 there are 634 active MVNO operations worldwide. An MVNO uses the network of a Mobile Virtual Network Enabler (MVNE) such as Sprint. For example, in the US, there are many MVNOs that include Wal-Mart and Radio Shack, mostly using the networks of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile. Today most of these MVNOs offer limited value, like prepaid mobile services. A few years ago there was so much hope for MVNOs who believed they could offer new services that the Telcos were not offering. The problem is that many of these companies were very dependent on the Telcos to enable the devices and Network to work together, therefore many failed. Even big names like ESPN and Disney were not able to sustain their MVNO business because they couldn’t offer enough differentiation at a competitive value. Now with Software-Defined Smartphones (SDS), Cloud and the hundreds of thousands of apps currently available, things might start to change. So we might see the revitalization of the MVNO industry or just the rise of IT service providers (like Facebook), which in turn could build the momentum of Software-Defined Smartphones (SDS). Businesses will now we able to build their smartphones – they are no longer dependent on what “devices” the Telcos approve. This will enable them to offer their “devices” and apps ecosystem that will interact directly with their cloud-based services using the Telcos only as broadband pipe providers or bypassing them all together over WiFi

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also, if you would like to share and collaborate on topics like this and others that include BYOD, Wi-Fi, SDN and Enterprise Mobility, please follow @akafel and I will follow you back.

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Extreme Marketing Team

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