Your phone company is becoming less important, and that's a good thing.
Like many people, we spent a good chunk of time this week playing with an iPhone 4, and specifically with Apple FaceTime -- given that poor AT&T coverage meant we were unable to make calls from the area we were in -- about an hour outside of New York City
. The video calling feature, which currently only operates over Wi-Fi and not AT&T's 3G network, works as advertised -- and may finally herald the arrival of video chat -- something that's been promised since AT&T hyped the concept at the 1964 world's fair
. FaceTime won't change the world, but along with products like Google Voice -- it is signaling a signficant change in the communications ecosystem.
As it stands now the service allows you to initiate a cellular call, then switch to Wi-Fi for FaceTime -- after which AT&T isn't involved in the communications process whatsoever. Of course an iPhone experience that doesn't involve AT&T excites many, like John Gruber
-- who groks that voice and video are just data -- and someday, your phone carrier's only real job will be to build networks that don't stink while leaving the calling mechanism itself to others. Notes Gruber:
But surely, someday, there will be a non-phone-carrier wireless networking technology with far greater range than Wi-Fi. FaceTime, I think, is a first step in the direction of a mobile "phone" with no mobile carrier. If and when FaceTime is supported over 3G in addition to Wi-Fi, it’ll be data, not voice — megabytes, not minutes. And immediately, starting today, it’s a step away from tying your iPhone’s “calls” to your carrier’s network.
People are only just starting to see a future where all communications is just data, the concept of a voice minute is completely irrelevant, and carriers themselves face life as little more than a dumb pipe. It's a future that for some reason is difficult for many people to get their head around (note how many people don't understand how Google Voice changes things
) -- so familiar we are with the idea that your phone company must also be in control of your choice of network connection device, the apps you run, and the voicemail and calling mechanisms you use.
This future should (and does
) terrify mobile carriers, given that under a truly open network model they not only lose revenue from the death of voice minutes and SMS -- but since generations living as pampered, government-protected monopolies have left them incapable of substantive innovation or competition
-- they very likely won't be the ones making money from content and services, either. Carriers therefore believe that the only recourse if they want to please investors and remain even remotely as powerful as they are today -- is to artificially constrict the pipe and begin charging ridiculous premiums for wireless data.
So while bandwidth gets progressively cheaper and technology like LTE drastically expands available capacity -- that's why AT&T and Verizon have decided to start pricing each wireless byte
as if they were bottles of water during the apocalypse. In reality, their only real choice will be to run a top notch network because (despite the dreams of ISP executives of being everything to everyone
) that will be their only real purpose, and half-assing network builds to placate myopic investors will no longer be an option.
Products like FaceTime and Google Voice are only the very beginning of a future where your phone company has to stop trying to be everything to everyone -- and start doing its one and only job.