Alex Duncan looks at the new opportunities for enriching both person-to-person and application-to-person services in an IMS world
Irrespective of whether you work in business development, engineering or operations, you’re almost certainly well aware that the design of much of today’s messaging infrastructure is starting to show its age – and cause big problems. You might be tasked with simultaneously cutting operational costs - but still have to cope with continually increasing message volumes. You could be seeing your competitors forming mutually profitable alliances with TV and radio programmes and consumer brands – only to find your own team’s marketing creativity stifled by a technology straightjacket. Whatever your particular perspective, it’s fast becoming clear that we can’t go on delivering messaging services - in all their different forms - in the same ways that might have served us well in the past.
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Now, on top of this, not only do service providers have to find ways to cope with all the different messaging technologies out there – SMS, MMS, e-mail and IM – but they also have to start understanding how these can be deployed using the emerging platform technologies of the near future such as IMS and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).
Compounding this still further are equally complex - if slightly less technology-focused – issues around the messaging environment. For a start, service providers have to be able to support new relationships with both users and content, application and enterprise partners and this is going to require radical shifts in how customer communities are both identified and served. There are also a host of new regulatory demands on areas like customer privacy or advertising to children and, finally, costs still have to be contained while still growing market share and fighting off new competitors.
Unfortunately, much of the historic baggage from the early days of messaging is still largely with us and new approaches have had to be found to resolve these challenges in original and cost effective ways. As a result, it is now possible for mobile service providers to extend the life of their existing messaging infrastructures, dramatically increase its throughput and efficiency, readily add new revenue generating functions and begin to take advantage of both new technologies and new business strategies.
It has to be said right from the start that the hundreds of legacy messaging platforms out there - still generating vital revenues for their owners - were never designed for the kind of world that we live in now and reflect instead the engineering realities of their time. For a start, limits to battery life and cell coverage meant that it was essential for the systems to first store and then forward messages, with users often keeping their phones off to save power or remaining out of network range for long periods. Similar technological restrictions on the cost and performance of both processing and memory chips limited performance and flexibility both on the handset and in the messaging systems themselves.
In terms of its acceptance by customers, SMS turned out to an ideal example of a relatively simple technology that found its perfect niche. Utterly basic in concept, it's turned into a truly global tool for human communication, fulfilling a number of demands not met by other communications technologies. On one hand, its asynchronous nature saves users from having to speak directly to one another – often useful in a variety of relationships. On the other, it also answers that particular human itch to communicate in settings where voice communications are inappropriate.
While SMS continues to thrive, that 'store and forward' inheritance implies that as message traffic grows, the core messaging platform has to grow as well – along with parallel increases in the costs of software licences, hardware platforms and ongoing engineering support and maintenance. Messaging teams are increasingly finding themselves effectively chained to the spot by their legacy platforms – while having to run ever faster to just keep up with both market demand and pressure from their executive boards and shareholders.
The logical solution to this dilemma is to 'ring fence' the existing messaging platforms in an open, flexible and elegant way. By applying the much more powerful data processing technologies that are now available with intelligence that can recognise when a message needs to go through the core – or when it can be safely routed directly – it becomes possible to add features and filters to greatly enrich messaging services. By creating what is, in effect, an intelligent and permeable boundary between the legacy SMS platform and the increasingly open, content-rich and complex world of what's now being fashionably called 'Mobile 2.0', service providers can continue to extract the maximum value from their existing investments – but without remaining locked in to rapidly fossilising past technologies.
As such, the role of this intelligent boundary extends far further than just taking a load off the legacy platform and extending its working life. On one hand, a service provider may want to introduce anti-spam features to their network, while another may be looking at strengthening their least-cost routing policies. Only by intelligently disentangling the old messaging platform from the fast changing world of today – while still keeping it running at maximum efficiency – can service providers keep moving forward.
While such an approach brings instantly tangible benefits in the shape of cost savings and an extended life for the legacy core, it also has the potential to transform a mobile service provider's whole messaging strategy over the longer term.
Mobile operators around the world are rapidly waking up to the fact that a network and a license are, in the future, not going to be the automatically golden route to riches that they once were. While the end-customers themselves are becoming ever more fickle, newer subversive technologies such as WiMax and VoIP - along with emerging threats from fixed and new operators – are rapidly changing the traditional rules.
The only rational solution is for service providers to aggressively embrace that change and out-manoeuvre their historically more nimble competitors. And the only way they can do that is to open up their networks and platforms to co-operate with these new business and service models, becoming 'stickier' than their competitors in terms of their ability to offer creative routes to market
Consider this: The mobile service provider has a brand, customers, billing systems, CRM teams as well as a deep and essential understanding of the complexities behind even the simplest telecoms service. What they haven't had – at least until very recently – are ways of securely and reliably exposing those assets to specialist third party application and service partners or even large corporate customers.
Consider also the major changes underway across the whole of the telecoms sector that are being driven by IMS and SOA. Both initiatives accept that openness will be a the key defining characteristic of the next generation service environment and that the old closed world of semi-proprietary telecoms is doomed to slow but inevitable oblivion.
But how can current legacy messaging platforms be easily adapted to interact with such an open world? The solution we would argue lies once again in keeping the existing messaging platform doing what it's good at – but using open APIs and standardised technologies such JAIN/SLEE to interact across the smart boundary to provide the kinds of rich inter-working functionalities demanded by tomorrow's applications. Openmind Networks, for example, is already working closely with SOA and SDP vendors such as IBM to open up legacy messaging platforms to the possibilities of a truly interconnected IMS world.
And these applications of the future? In truth, it's highly unlikely that there'll ever be a 'killer application' like SMS again. Increasingly however, composite applications will be designed, launched and then dismantled – on faster and faster time scales – as new ideas are generated, as marketing fashions change and as brand or entertainment partners schedule their own promotional timetables.
This creativity can only be unleashed by separating the current message platform from the increasing complexity that is now surrounding it. Recent examples of effective and easily deployed new messaging functions include auto-reply text or picture messaging for both individuals and businesses, or the introduction of sponsored messaging, where text or multimedia messages with a sponsor's message are carried at a rate reduced rate. Each new available function and each new API ultimately acts as an important building block in each operator's own marketing and revenue generation armoury. They're not going to win a war by themselves, but without them, the whole campaign is lost.