Local, Wireless, Social Networking

Living in a small flat in London and being a home worker has resulted in spending a fair amount of time at the local coffee shops. This helps give me a change in scenery; something different from sitting in my uncomfortable wooden Ikea chair that has driven me to the brink of irreparable back trouble. One day while sitting in a Starbucks I got to thinking about how the local wireless networks within these venues could enable what I would call a ‘local social network’.

First off, I would go out on a limb and say that many of the people working at coffee shops in the middle of a weekday are likely to fall into one (or more) of the following categories:

  • A professional traveling for business and requiring a place to work
  • Home workers
  • Small business owners or independent consultants

If we assume this is true for the sake of argument, then it is also fair to say that at any one time there is a lot of people with varying skill sets sitting in one of these stores. Unfortunately I don’t have any real statistics on this, but I suspect that these people are also likely to be using the available wireless networks.

Taking this a step further, what are the chances that these people might be interested in seeking out new expertise in a particular field? For instance, it seems possible that some sort of IT consultant might be in need of a graphic designer, or that a small business owner is interested in finding someone with web design experience. Of course anything is possible but this thought process led me to wonder what if, when you logged into the local WIFI hotspot, you could choose to identify your personal area of expertise or small business’ market? Further, anyone already at a particular location, and any new people signing into the network, would be able to see who was there and what field of expertise they had. At Starbucks, at least, where T-Mobile operates the wireless network, they already have the information about your location so the data presented to users would be specific to the shop you were at and could automatically update when you disconnected and left the store. This mechanism would allow the seeker of a service/product to meet face to face with a potential supplier in an informal environment to quickly assess whether the person’s offerings match up with what they are looking for. In many ways this doesn’t seem all that different from the markets and bazaars of historic cities, where anyone with products and services could go to the city market to share their wares with the public, in the hopes that there were people looking for precisely what they were offering. In this case, the idea of the public market has simply been transformed to a different venue, where the trade is more of knowledge based services than physical objects, and where the initial connections are made in a different manner.

Interconnecting people in this way is really just another form of a Social network, much like the ones we all know: LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. In a few ways however, it is fundamentally different. For instance

  • Geographical dispersion of the participants. This idea is focused on a local venue, members of the network are virtually within eyesight as opposed to having a global reach.
  • Knowledge of the people on the network. Here you don’t actually know any of the participants whereas in most other networks you are either connected directly or through others.
  • Type of communications. This is more ‘live’ networking in that you could actually interact with the person immediately compared to other types of social networks where the communication is more asynchronous.

No doubt, this idea could be taken many steps further with various ‘Web 2.0’ish mash-ups such as linking the data into LinkedIn profiles, Google Maps to map out the instantaneous location of certain expertise, or perhaps a link into IM networks to help establish initial communication. So if anyone at Starbucks or T-Mobile is out there listening, perhaps you should be considering a joint venture – who knows maybe you’ll sell more coffee and get more WIFI subscribers!

Open access

Here’s a quick update on what Google is requesting of the FCC to encourage growth of an open access platform. This would definitely make things interesting! Is it possible that it could actually happen? and would Canada be willing to follow suit?

  • Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  • Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  • Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

Google’s entry to wireless?

I never really intended to write so much on spectrum but the topic seems very timely right now. We have the incumbent carriers vying to shore up their monopolies, new companies seeing new mobile opportunities and a prime piece of spectrum real estate up on the auction block in early 2008.

Recently some news broke about Google both disclosing their interest in potentially buying some spectrum rights but also, and more importantly, their intention to lobby the government towards releasing this new 700 MHz band as open access. The specific details of what they see ‘open access’ as meaning is not completely clear but the promise, at the very least, is that any device will be allowed to access and use this bandwidth – perhaps more akin to the way we use the 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum today.

I believe it is important that Google, a large company with such a unique perspective on the world, is getting involved in this dialogue about spectrum utilization. For too long we’ve had to put up with our existing telecommunication carriers whom are more interested in staking claim and protecting their existing investments as opposed to leveraging new investments for future growth and innovation. I don’t mean to be so “pro-Google” but this industry desperately needs someone, anyone with the ideas, drive, and financial capital, to challenge the incumbents who have just simply become lazy and uninterested in building new services. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether it is Google or someone else that comes to the table to prove that innovation in the wireless world is still possible, so long as the status quo is disrupted and we can finally make progress.

A few quotes from Verizon and AT&T representatives provides a painfully obvious view into how truly out of touch these guys are:

“The one-size-fits-all mentality that characterizes open access regimes for the wireless industry would begin the process of stifling innovation and creativity in our industry,”

Verizon Wireless general counsel Steven Zipperstein

“…open-access network would deprive taxpayers of billions of dollars, and inhibit the growth of wireless broadband in the country.”

Robert Quinn, AT&T’s senior vice president for federal regulatory.

I guess they somehow missed, or chose to forget that the internet itself could be considered a platform of “open access” and because of this its usage has grown to over 1 billion people worldwide and spawned an immense global economy building new technology to leverage this platform. Mr. Quinn’s attempt to claim that an open approach will deprive the taxpayers of billions of dollars is ludicrous in the face of the far greater economic benefits gained from the internet in the form of jobs, scientific advancement, global collaboration and an increasingly knowledge based economy. I suppose however, that in the end I am missing the point, as god forbid we open up the wireless world too much and empower more people to become potential competitors to AT&T and Verizon.

Convergence, Google Style

The news of Google buying Grand Central seemed to come and go fairly quietly last week. This is an interesting development as it confirms some of the speculation that has been around for a few years about Google’s intent to get itself deeper into the telecommunications space. Grand Central’s core offering is around single number services that can reach you on any number of devices, whether they be fixed-line, mobile phones, or VoIP offerings like Gizmo Project. This is similar to the trials and tribulations of our intrepid user “Bob”, which I wrote about earlier.

With the acquisition of Grand Central, Google has an opportunity to provide a great integrated solution for consumers and small/micro businesses when Grand Central’s technology is combined with many of the other existing Google Services such as Google Mail and Google Talk. To be able to make complete sense of what the heck Google is thinking with this acquisition, it is helpful to consider Google’s current offerings, what drives Google to develop a particular service, and then finally to look at how Grand Central might fit into this overall picture. From my point of view, I believe that all of Google’s services are built around growing their two core offerings:

  • AdSense advertisements – These are the ads which a user or business can embed into their own web pages in return for payment based on clicks of the ad.
  • AdWords advertisements – These are the ads a business can purchase, and which appear in various Google Services (such as in the margins of Google Search, Google Mail).

And on a related note, I believe that most Google services are aimed at either:

  1. Encouraging the growth of personal websites (e.g. Blogger.com)
    • An increase in the number of personal websites means more sites to embed AdSense ads in, and in turn leads to an increase in the potential views of each ad.
  2. Encouraging the growth of a business’ online presence (e.g. Google Apps for your domain)
    • More businesses online means more businesses to buy AdWords (and also leads to more potential users of other Google Services).
  3. Encouraging increased use of, and time spent on the internet (e.g. Municipal WIFI)
    • More people using the internet and more time spent online increases the number of people potentially viewing (and clicking on) the ads.
  4. Encouraging the increased use of other additional Google Services.
    • New Google features interlink and lead you to use other Google services, which in turn leads to exposure to more advertisements. For instance, you may start as a Google Talk user and because of its integration with Google Email may begin to use that as well.
An Aside – The ‘spider’ effect:

This kind of ‘spider’ effect I mention in #4 is actually remarkably powerful and could be the topic of an entire other article. But just as an example, I started using Google Apps for My Domain with my own personal website (it offered quick, painless, and cheap hosting). When I eventually decided I wanted to convert the site to a simple blog format, Blogger.com (another Google service) seemed like the natural choice. Then when I wanted to post pictures to my blog, I decided to use Picassa (still Google), and now finally I have started to use Google Docs for editing my blog articles. This is both scary and brilliant at the same time.

How does the incorporation of Grand Central technology fit in to this picture?

It seems to me that what the Grand Central technology brings to the table is the opportunity for Google to offer several new services which integrate nicely with the four goals mentioned above, resulting in the opportunity to further grow the revenue generated from Google’s core services – AdWords and AdSense.

Some potential examples of this could include:

  • Integration of Grand Central’s single voicemail service with Google Mail. This could lead to increased use of Google Mail both for personal users and businesses, meaning more time spent in GMail and thus more eyes on the embedded AdWords ads. Obviously this could also be a driver for new users of every other Google Service, per the Spider effect above.
  • Integration of Grand Central’s voice calling within Google Talk. This would allow calls to and from Google Talk to be routed via a choice of mobile, home phone, or computer IM/VoIP client. This feature could lead to increased user penetration of Google Talk and therefore more eyes on the embedded AdWords ads.
  • Provisioning of a Grand Central phone number that leverages users’ existing telephony devices, in combination with applications like “Google Apps for your Domain” and “Google Checkout”. This enables Google to offer a low-cost solution to small/micro business for their basic online needs (e.g., email, website, and even a phone number). The potential here is that it drives new online businesses and thus additional buyers of AdWords, as well as increased usage of existing Google services.

At a minimum, the Grand Central technology will enable Google to make an initial entry into the telecommunications market without tackling the immense barriers and costs of trying to become a full-on service provider (like a Verizon or a Bell Canada). Despite this lower barrier to entry, there are of course some significant limitations that may make people hesitate to adopt the service. Issues such as requiring an entirely new phone number to enable the service, and not being able to originate calls from this new number while on a mobile or fixed line phone, will certainly both act as barriers to adoption.

All this being said, the potential of all the shiny new services made possible with the acquisition of Grand Central, combined with the inevitable integration with Google’s existing services, could be enough of a lure to convince people to head over to Grand Central station despite any current limitations. Time will tell, but for now we can safely assume some new interesting services are going to be enroute very soon.