The one thing I probably get asked the most about the Fiber Revolution is “what is the killer app for Fiber?”
I dislike the question, I think the frame of mind that leads one to asking the question is potentially dangerous. If Edison had asked himself what the killer app was for electricity, the obvious answer would have been light. I could have led him to invent ‘luminous current’, a form of electrical network designed exclusively to provide light. And where would that leave us today?
On the other hand, it makes sense (at least in theory) for network operators contemplating an investment in a new costly infrastructure to assess whether there is a need for it. I would argue that few of them are as interested in the answer to that question as they are in answering the slightly different question which is “how can I monetize the new usage?”
I have argued repeatedly that network operators in their current incarnation (the one that like to call themselves “service operators”) have done a very poor job of identifying needs and building lucrative products around these needs. Most recently I have shown how that state of affairs is not the result of a lack of vision, but rather of an inability to execute tied to the physicality of their network monopoly.
All that said, I think one killer app is just down the road, expected to be a year away: Google Glass.
Google Glass is conceptually simple but could signify a massive revolution in usage. It allows you to film (and broadcast) what you’re seeing, surf the internet in real time through the same interface (a pair of funky looking glasses) and interact. In an age where there seems to be more people sharing photos of their meals on Instagram and updating their location in Foursquare in real time than people not doing it, Glass has the potential to be massive. Not only for basic usage but through the numerous applications it might enable. Here’s a few I thought of with a minimal amount of brainstorming with myself:
- Interactive customer support: if you’ve ever tried to build an Ikea wardrobe and have had to call the customer service because you just couldn’t figure it out, imagine how simpler and easier the experience will be when the guy on the other end of the line sees what you see!
- Interactive coaching: from sports to gardening to music, teaching and coaching will become a whole new industry through that kind of visual sharing. It won’t work for everything, but it will work for many things!
- Interactive porn: as distasteful as it may sound to some, it’s quite obvious that one of the first uses that will emerge from Glass is going to be real-time interactive porn. And people (well, men, mostly, I guess) will pay for it.
- Chatroulette on steroïds: chatroulette may have been the most absurd and short-lived service concept we’ve seen in a long time, but it clearly addressed a need, or maybe urge would be a better word; imagine what happens when the end points become ubiquitous.
All of these (and many more) could drive massive changes in broadband usage, not to mention societal changes (but I’ll address that in closing). The most important change though will be this: a massive surge in video content uploaded to the network in real time. That’s right, uploaded.
Our already strained mobile networks clearly won’t be able to cope with that, or if they do it will be at a steep cost. Fixed networks will be the main vector either through usage in the home or through various forms of mobile offload for this structurally new form of traffic. And copper networks will be strained because their upload capacity is limited (to say the least).
So the killer app may just be down the road. Unfortunately, it’s not one that network operators will have much role in providing. They may find ways to monetize upload capacity as an option (and some FTTH operators already do) but the usage will most likely relegate them to the role of a conduit. However, if usage of Google Glass (and similar competing products) explodes, it should drive adoption for next generation network platforms, which network providers should be grateful for since access is where most of their revenues come from and high adoption is a key to a successful NGA business model.
Good news all round?
I’m not so sure. Much as I find the concept exciting, I’m very concerned about the societal impact of such real-time video-sharing and interaction. I won’t expand on that here too much, since it’s not really the purpose of this blog, but I will recommend some viewing / reading that might drive thoughts on this:
- Blind Faith, by Ben Elton is a novel that explores a society where our lives are willingly shared in real time and constantly, where privacy has become a suspect aspiration. Sounds far-fetched? Read it and you’ll see we might not be all that far…
- Final Cut, by Omar Naïm is a movie starring Robin Williams that explores the societal implications of recording one’s life. It’s an underrated and confidential film that really deserves being viewed. On a more action-packed vein, the movie Strange Days explored similar territory through the ability to experience other people’s recorded lives (which is still far out from what Google Glass offers…)
Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe science-fiction forgets to examine the positive sides of such technologies because it’s less dramatic. Time will tell, I guess.