Monday, August 20, 2007

Mashup Competitions (or Telephony Finds it's Tail)

Well, the ten thousand dollar VoxBone competition is now over, and Oigaa from VozTelecom took first prize. Oigaa is a web based telephony service targeted towards small and medium businesses, much like Flat Planet Phone Company. My congratulations go out to them; it is an example of a service that simply could not have existed five years ago. I was considering entering the VoxBone contest, but I know I have the greatest success in my projects when they come from the heart. Personally, I like VoxBone's API for allocating PSTN numbers I can forward anywhere, but every unique and commercially useful idea I had was a bit purient. My Mom might read my blog one day, and I don't think I ought to get myself in that situation. Damn - maybe I just did.

As I'll reveal soon, the mashup contest fad is coming to our neck of the woods too. Have you ever stopped to ask why there are mashup competitions, but not VoIP design competitions? Sure, on the trade show floor they have some "best of shows", but we all know how that game is played. You don't see designs done just for competition in telecom, but you do in the Web / Mashup world. As an example, the 2006 Mashup camp mashup I liked was the blinking Google pin. Some geek took a blinker pin from the Google booth at a trade show, attached it to the serial port of his laptop, used the Google Mail API to check for mail, then it blinks the "G" when new mail arrives. So geeky. But why compete with mashups?

The knee jerk answer is: because you can. Mashups are pretty simple to put together, but more so, you can do pretty creative and impressive things with them. Mashups are more about imagination than shear technological prowess. Designing even the simplest of VoIP devices (say a phone) requires an impressive amount of time and money, much more than the typical engineer can afford. (Never mind skill set.) More so, designing even the simplest of VoIP devices for a competition is more than most companies wish to spend in time and money. Therefore, the marketing kick or product risk doesn't make sense for traditional services, but not so for mashups.

The business answer is: because every Internet technology has a long tail. Amazon proves that products have a long tail. iTunes proves that music has a long tail. EBay proves that junk has a long tail. Mashups prove that Web services have long tails. Telco Mashups prove that telephony services have long tails. And that's stunning, because it means that we finally have an environment in which we can create new services. After all our efforts since the divestiture, it comes down to the simple fact that single greatest reason that new services often fail is not because people don't want them, but they were too expensive to develop and deploy for the masses. When they are inexpensive enough so that you can make one just for yourself, then people develop them just for themselves, or rather, just for mashup competitions. Just like iPTV, if you can make a video in your house that ten thousand people want to see, it makes complete sense to make it. NBC needs what, a million viewers to break even? If you have ten thousand people who will pay ten bucks a month for your find-me-based-on-my-facebook-whatever service, you and your two technicians will make a living. In the grand scheme, a good one too. Mashup competitions are, for me, prima facie evidence that Telephony has finally found its tail.

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