The battle over voice, the war of UC

This is even bigger than net neutrality, or even Google vs. AT&T. This is about defining the nature of communications services and how they're offered

Last week, I wrote about the possible implications of the new lineup of FCC commissioners. They certainly haven't wasted any time: On Aug. 3, the FCC launched a full-scale investigation into the decision by Apple and AT&T to reject Google's voice application for the iPhone. As Sanford Bernstein telecom analyst Craig Moffatt notes, "The issue of application suppression affords the Administration a back door route to Wireless Net Neutrality, something that has been openly espoused by new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski."

Stay tuned. But note this is even bigger than net neutrality, or even Google vs. AT&T. This is about defining the nature of communications services and how they're offered -- a battle that's bigger than just the question of what applications are available on which phones.

The real question is over the nature and ownership of next-generation unified communications architectures. Converging voice, data and video onto a common network and set of platforms sets up a colossal power struggle over infrastructure real estate. Companies that never previously considered themselves competitors now find themselves at each others' throats.

One example: Wireless devices. As 4G arrives -- there are rumors that Verizon will be delivering long-term evolution (LTE) services as early as next January -- the distinction between "phones" and "computers" pales. A device with a wireless connection and the ability to handle voice calls as well as data messaging and video is as likely to be a netbook as a phone. That means the Motorolas and Nokias are now competing with the Dells. (Apple wins either way.)

Another example: Enterprise unified communications. Microsoft is now heavily competing against Avaya and Cisco to serve as the unified communications platform of choice. In Microsoft's vision, voice is just another application that runs over OCS. For the networking folks, that vision is flawed, because data- messaging infrastructures aren't able to handle the performance requirements of real-time voice. (I've been advising clients for years to steer clear of Microsoft's grandiose claims around voice support).

And that brings us back to AT&T and Apple vs. Google. Here you have a service provider, a device vendor, and an applications provider -- and each one's eyeing the other's infrastructure turf. Interestingly, right after the FCC announced its inquiry, Google CEO Eric Schmidt resigned from Apple's board, saying the two companies were now competitors.

Now, some of this is simply Google's well-known propensity for injecting FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) into any technology area it's interested in. Google's an absolute genius at launching competitive moves designed to throw companies off-guard, and then profiting from the subsequent confusion. (Watching Microsoft -- the former king of FUD -- play defense against Google's tactics is endlessly entertaining).

But bringing in the FCC does more than inject FUD into the fray. It's a nice way to get two birds with one stone: launch a process that will likely culminate in the imposition of net neutrality, and accelerate Google's UC land grab. In other word's, it's a poke in the eye to AT&T, Apple, and Microsoft -- all in one fell swoop.

It's going to be an interesting couple of years.

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Johna Till Johnson

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