Reactions to “Where are the Developers?”

Issues of marketing and a lack of consumer demand for features have been a common theme among responses to my recent Where are the Voice 2.0 developers? post.

Experts and pundits from around the net have claimed that the lack of visible evidence of innovators in the VoIP space is because there is no demand for features. So here’s something funny about that. Many of these same experts and pundits have never said that before. In fact most of them have been telling us just the opposite, often with zeal, for quite a while. Now all of a sudden they’re singing a different tune, when faced with some hard questions and real world data. At least one person had the guts to say publically that they have reversed their position 180 degrees from “VoIP: It’s The Features” as recently as 2005 to “Voice 2.0 � Fuggetaboutit!” today. Interesting that so many bloggers waited until someone pointed out a little dose of reality to change their tune.

Before I go further into that, let me provide some clarifying remarks regarding my post. The biggest source of frustration driving me to post the original rant that started all this can be summed up in a comment I made to some blog somewhere:

My point was more to the whining by the pundits, experts, analysts, bloggers, and other net know-it-alls about the telcos not opening their platforms, about net neutrality issues holding them back, and such, when the platform for offering these apps exists here and now and requires no more capital than putting up your average WordPress or MT blog. So now what�s their excuse?

For many years now, at VoIP conferences, trade-shows, and elsewhere, we’ve had to listen to service providers and developers belly-ache about the telcos not being innovative, not introducing features. About how telcos are dumb, if not downright evil, how they are closed and difficult to work with, and how wonderful the world would be if there we an open platform for telephony applications. Developers said: “what we want is the ability of anyone to write any application for the telephone” (and the crowd goes wild – Webcon 2004).

Yet, when that call is headed, and such a platform actually becomes available, as Yogi might say, the silence is deafening, suggesting that what these people really wanted, was to have something to complain about. So the market research failure in this case is our reading of the developer and service provider community and assuming they actually wanted what they said they wanted. We did the research. And we listened to the customer. Unfortunately, the customer was only joking. (And, in fairness, we have not done a good job promoting the platform to our customer, the devloper and service provider, obviously).

In terms of the issue of consumer research, Andy makes a lot of good points in his post Why Some Innovate And Die. Jeff Pulver responds:

Q. When will Service Providers offer Innovative Services?

A. Only when they have to. Or in other words, when their customers demand it.

He says “the reason innovative services were not deployed has nothing to do with how difficult they were to deploy, but rather a lack of consumer demand.” To which Andy says: Demand either exists and that need can be satisfied, or demand has to be created.

Jeff uses Ringtones as an example to support his case. It turns out Ringtones are a much better example of what I’m suggesting developers could do with the PhoneGnome platform. Customers were not screaming for Ringtones. The cheap and open-enough platform of SMS permitted a Finnish hacker to innovate a mechanism to let users program musical sequences into their phones which they could forward to their friends. Like many of the Internet’s biggests successes, the reason for the success of Ringtones was a platform that allowed anyone to try an idea at very low cost, not because customers were screaming for that specific new feature. Vesku didn’t need the permission of the telco or a lot of money to introduce his �Harmonium� ringtone applcation – he just did it.

In the normal old-world telco business, since innovations cost literally billions of dollars, we seldom saw any make the light of day. And the case history for the “wait until customers demand it” approach in telco is not very good. Most things the telephone companies diligently researched and then spent huge piles of money to “give customers what they said they wanted” have been colossal failures. It’s partially the problem Ken refers to in the old tire swing cartoon (a classic), but also customers can’t ask for what they have never seen before. There needs to be some level of awareness first. Customers were not asking for the web. Customers didn’t ask for SMS or Ringtones.

Andy says the answer to this is focus groups, but other experts (such as Clancy and. Krieg Counterintuitive Marketing) think focus groups are mostly a waste of time and money, and that you can only learn what consumers really want by observing what they actually do not listening to what they say they will do.

I’m not opposed to market research. In fact, I’m a huge advocate of it. But suggesting that PhoneGnome should “validate the consumer demand” for every application would be like asking Tim Berners-Lee to validate the demand for every web application. The platform we’ve put together makes it cheap, quick, and easy for service innovators to refine their ideas and test them with real consumers. Jeff says to “find a friendly network which is willing to be used in such a way to showcase the innovation.” PhoneGnome turns every wireline (and VoIP or cable line, and millions of mobiles too) into that “friendly network”. It provides a practical means for service providers to market test their innovations with an addressable footprint of hundreds of millions of users, regardless of underlying network (or telephone service) provider, thereby transforming an “unfriendly network” into a “friendly network” with no major up-front build-out costs, and without ANY negotiations with, approvals of, or sanctioning by the underlying telco required.