Developers Don't Know Carrier Networks Are Programmable. Just Don't Tell Them That.

Jeff Lawson of twilio authored a piece entitled The Carriers Are Stuck In The Innovators Dilemma. Just Don't Tell Them That. While I appreciate Jeff's historical insights and suggestion that Carriers are in a bit of a pickle, a few important pieces of information went unmentioned. They deserve recognition.

First, I have second guessed the virtue of the walled garden bash-fest many innovators used to partake in (and that some still do) during the pre-iPhone carrier-controlled-deck years. I did so because I saw several carriers demonstrate launching a highly profitable hit quickly and gaining a significant subscriber following is possible with marketing muscle & solid sales support. VZ Navigator, one such historical example, now generates north of $400M in annual revenue. Here is some color commentary I wrote five years ago about its success: 

...if you're a Developer struggling for preferential Carrier-treatment, vying for deck visibility with Carrier power-marketing behind your app, and you scrap for mindshare over existing competitive strongholds, well then you naturally jump on the wallop-the-walled-garden bandwagon and whine about a lack of openness and open APIs for the long tail ecosystem of which you belong. The truth is though… you aspire to become a blockbuster bread-winner instead of a niche-product traveling salesman with an underground clientele base—it’s why you grumble about ‘openness’. If you’re one of the elite few on Verizon’s deck like Networks In Motion, you don’t complain. Whimpering for more openness supports an ecosystem group who watches and waits for you to stumble and loose the loot you’ve labored to earn.

In today’s world of single-purpose dedicated-use mobile downloads, distributed within limited-choice Carrier walled garden shelf-spaces, there are few that win, many that loose, and nothing in between. Winners play the political brownnose game and do whatever it takes to win mindshare and earn the top-dog promotional spot on the walled-garden deck. The niche application-provider-losers retaliate and champion alternative direct-to-consumer distribution models deliberately designed to bypass and devalue the deck directory. So what’s wrong with this picture? Where’s the happy medium? Can niche application aggregates win along with top-dog deck placements?

The happy medium is now non-carrier discovery, distribution, and billing alternatives ala iTunes and Addroid Market. There's no reason to complain these days. Everyone competes freely in a survival-of-the-fitest mobility merit jungle devoid of bias or sociopolitical advantage.

Second, it's inaccurate to suggest carriers haven't innovated to allow Developers to openly program against telecom enablers. It's also possible to introduce ecosyetem profit from them. Telenor is an early double-sided exemplary success posterchild. JAIN, OSA/Parlay, Parlay X, OMA, and GSMA OneAPI programmable API options have existed for over a decade, and many other Carriers have also exposed services such as Messaging, Presence, Location, Call Control, and more via service delivery platforms installed to abstract away SS7 and telecom coding complexity. The problem is that most Web Developers and publishers don't know these abstractions exist, and US carrier business model issues following SDP deployments still stifled progress outside of B2B engagements. I suggested in 2009 these platforms would fade into irrelevance because no one beyond telecom folk knew they existed. This is clearly still an issue, though nonetheless solvable with the right kind of outreach programs such as weekend hackathons, meetups, and social media execution. If Web Developers know these services exist, I'm convinced they would use them. Most simply don't know carrier networks are programmable.

Last, despite early attempts to open individual networks one-by-one, there's the newer API economy Carriers are investing in - a blended economy of Web and telecom APIs - plus broadband-built-in utility computing infrastructure. Together, these offer developers Amazon-like pay-as-you-go utility computing infrastructure plus APIs for Device Info, Location, Multimodal Messaging, Payments, Authentication, and more. Today, these APIs are for AT&T Mobility devices only. Longer term I think Carriers should collaborate to introduce a global set of non-aggregate multi-network telecom APIs, and this should be the main area where Carriers focus innovation efforts - for programmable-telecom-network business anyway...