Will the carriers body-snatch the Net with HTML5?

Nothing has creeped me out more lately than reading HTML5 – The Catalyst for Network as a Service? by Michael Crossey of Aepona, in Telco 2.0. His topic: NaaS, or Network as a Service. Makes me think, If the network is just a service, is it still the network? And, If the service can only come from phone and cable companies, what benefits does that prevent for everybody else? And, Is the cable modem already a body-snatching pod for the Net?

Background: telcos and cablecos — what we call “carriers,” and the industry calls “operators” — are hounded by what they call “over the top,” or OTT (of their old closed phone and cable TV systems). Everything that makes you, app developers and content producers independent of telcos and cablecos is OTT.  NaaS, as Crossey explains it, is a way for the telcos and cablecos to put the genie of OTT independence back inside the bottle of carrier control.

As I see it, the free and open Internet, a generative horizontal development that likely has produced more positive economic externalities than any other in the history of civilization, is at risk of being upstaged and then quietly strangled by “services” — including the Net itself — that can only come from centralized and silo’d carriers. Vertical integration, bottom to top.

Here is a compressed excerpt:

NaaS is a manifestation of the 2-sided business model described by Telco 2.0, in which the Telco’s network, contextual, informational and commercial assets are exposed as APIs to organizations such as enterprises, ISVs, content providers and application developers. These APIs are then used to create additional functionality within those organizations’ applications and services, which in turn enables them to differentiate their offerings, improve productivity and customer service, open new payment channels, and ultimately expand their addressable market…

Unlike native OS application development, HTML5 (like previous versions of HTML) is fundamentally based on a client-server programming paradigm. In its simplest manifestation, an HTML client (for example, a desktop web browser) acts only as the presentation layer for the application or service: the application/service itself runs on a web server, which services multiple clients…

This client-server paradigm of HTML5 lends itself extremely well to Network as a Service, since NaaS is itself based on the model of applications/services “calling” network API services on-demand, using the same types of HTTP requests and responses that are used between the client-side and server-side of HTML5-based apps…

This contrasts with the native app model: many native applications are designed to run locally on the device…

…another developing feature of HTML5 is its ability to access device capabilities, such as accelerometers, GPS functions, cameras and so on. This will eventually allow HTML5-based applications to be endowed with the same level of functionality as native applications…

However, the commercial potential for HTML5 applications will be maximized by combining device-side capabilities with network-side services provided by the Telco, rather than relying solely on the device side.

Take location-based services as an example. Network-derived location…can locate any device whether GPS-enabled or not, and can operate without user intervention or needing an app to be running. Moreover, the developer can “write once” on the server-side to call the network APIs, versus having to write towards different handset and OS implementations.

Of course there are many other network-side features and capabilities that can be built into HTML5 applications … examples include rich user context (data connection type, roaming status, zonal presence), customer profile information (identity, tariff/data plan, age/gender), advanced communications capabilities (multi-party/multi-media conferencing, instant messaging, network Quality of Service control) and of course Payments (for in-application billing and subscription services)…

Today, Telcos are rightly seeing the emergence of HTML5 as the pre-eminent platform for future mobile application development as an opportunity to regain some of the ground they have lost to the OTT players over the past 5 years… HTML5 can become a significant demand driver for Network as a Service, providing the catalyst for a huge variety of cross-platform business and consumer app developers to embed the Telco’s core network capabilities within their applications, and allowing the operators to finally realize the full potential of the “2-sided business model” vision put forward by Telco 2.0.

I don’t know if the telcos and cablecos are savvy enough to do what Crossey recommends. (Telco 2.0 has been lecturing them for years on the two sided business model, but I don’t know how well it’s taken.) I also don’t know if NaaS has to be as pernicious as I fear it might be. APIs on the whole are Good Things, and have huge potential, as Craig Burton explains here.

It’s at least clear that TV is the elephant in the snake of the Net’s time. It is moving off the air and over the top of cable and telephony. Still, the Internet is sold as a service already by cablecos and telcos that hate the thought of remaining a “dumb pipe.”

If things go the way Crossey expects, the Net’s carriers will likely expand Net service offerings in ways that fracture the Net into pieces, each with hard-wired dependencies on the carrier. The result will be the biggest body-snatch in the history of business. Standing where the Net used to be won’t be Telco 2.o, but TV 2.o, with lots of marketing gravy. (Think of all that jive the “big data” pushers are saying about “delivering personalized experiences.”)

So, rather than having the greatest marketplace ever created, we’ll have a set of entertainment and marketing services, available only from phone and cable companies, working only on devices they sell or sanction: basically the worst scenario imagined by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. We’ll still have some of the Net’s huge open marketplace, but far less of it than would would have been possible if what ran on the pipes were structurally separated from the pipes themselves.

I see little reason for hope here. Big Business and Big Government, enemies in the theater of politics, are in fact completely aligned around the wishes of Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon and Hollywood. People like me have been remarkably ineffective in advocating for the free and open Internet and its importance for the free and open marketplace, as well as a free and open society. On letting the Net slide into the clutches of its enemies there is no daylight between Obama and Romney, because it’s a non-issue for both of them. Just like it’s a non-issue for most of us.

Hope I’m wrong. And I’d be glad to hear arguments to the contrary. I’m a born optimist, and I try to keep an open mind. But I’m not feeling good about this thing right now.

6 comments

  1. Joseph Ratliff’s avatar

    Doc,

    I hope you’re wrong too… but it doesn’t read like it.

    But, I did like the humorous “body snatch” reference. :)

  2. Jscott’s avatar

    Would Google’s Fiber initiative pose an alternative?

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Joseph, the “body snatch” is humorous, but serious too. Here’s another metaphor: the Net we know is the goose, not the golden egg. Telcos and cablecos are two single-purpose industries that see the Net as a golden egg they can sell, and forget the goose it came from.

    Jscott, I haven’t studied Google’s fiber initiative enough to say. So forgive me for holding off on that.

  4. Bill Bushey’s avatar

    I agree, there is cause to be worried. But I’m more optimistic about ISPs trying to get in on the NaaS market, because the market will still require high quality services (something I will contend ISPs have not done regarding OTT).

    Application developers are still going to face the pressures of providing users with applications that work well. This will trickle down to a pressure for high quality on the providers of services that applications rely on. What ‘high quality’ means will, of course, vary from service to service, but I argue there will be many instances in which an ISP is not naturally positioned to offer the highest quality service. For example, high quality in a location service will often mean accurate to the street address level and fast enough to pass the test of user patience. ISP location provided service will fail on the accuracy measure, as network-based location services usually have a maximum resolution of the city or state level (even then, I’ve seen network based location fail miserably by claiming I am in Chicago even though I am actually two states over in Minneapolis.) If street level accuracy is a requirement of an application, then getting that information from the user’s device will be the fastest method. If there is a competitive market for providing location information, I’m not very confident in the ability of ISPs to provide a competitive service.

    It seems to me that the markets of NaaS will be highly competitive at the beginning, as both settled giants (Google, Amazon, Apple) and bright-eyed start ups will rush into the space. I think in many instances, this will be a repeat of ISPs’ attempts to provide webmail and portals. The market isn’t going to pay much attention to lackluster offerings from ISPs when there are much better offerings coming from 3rd parties (and when was the last time you saw an ISP portal or webmail that was as good as those of Google, MSN, or Yahoo?)

    (For the record, I am serious when I say I’m a bit worried. The policy side of this issue is murkier, but I still see reason to hope for a free Internet, and I thought some optimism was called for here.)

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