Last week my rusty German was really put to the test as I attended the Communication World in Munich. Little did I know that the world barely extended beyond Bavaria and that without mastering Goethe’s language, there was little a guest could take away from this event. Luckily after a short period of adaptation I was able to understand the conference and the people I talked to were kind enough to switch to English in our conversations.
To give credit to the event organizers, close to one thousand registered attendees showed up representing various fields and branches of the ICT industry. So what was this event all about and how was it different? Well, this is what really struck me: it was not different. A dozen or so exhibitor booths with sporadic activity, the usual press and gold sponsor lounges and even the now customary developer corner, a testimony of this industry trying too hard to demonstrate it is agile and appealing to young talent.
The conference themes and the breakouts were also known territory, with plenty of space occupied by machine-to-machine. People continuing to wonder at the staggering yet meaningless figure of 50+ billion devices or things connected to a global network in the coming decade. Professionals continuing to paint “a day in the life of <insert name of your choice>.” as if people’s lives could somehow be scripted to conveniently demonstrate a need for these technologies and services.
As you may have figured by now, I am not a fan of this approach nor am I a great fan of the machine-to-machine techno-trend. Yes, as connectivity becomes a commodity it is a natural evolution to apply it to about any item one can think of. Yes, this will create new requirements on the network. And yes, this industry will identify them, solve them and standardize new technologies. We are good at that.
But I am still left hungering for a broader purpose. I still feel like I am back in the days when we deployed high capacity networks with absolutely no idea what would drive traffic and leave powerful installations un- or underused. I haven’t heard a credible tale of what a world in which the M2M capabilities would be fully leveraged would look like. What is it that is going to shape our lives and our societies in the same way mobile telephony and internet did?
I was there thirty years ago when we did not have mobile phones or internet. Remember those pagers? Apple was just entering the personal computer market and the founders of Facebook were not even with us yet. Can you imagine your life today without internet or a mobile phone? I bet that it will be equally hard, fifteen years from now, to imagine life without ubiquitous connectivity of all things. But what will be tomorrow’s Google, Apple or Facebook? Who will be these visionary companies, equally skilled in execution, that will imagine and implement the next “universe experience”?
The point I am trying to make here is that it seems that the biggest innovations in the telecom world have been brought about by individual companies taking the spotlight and the lion’s share, even if and when they relied on third parties or ecosystems to fuel their innovations. One of the highlights of my day at Communication World was a conversation with a representative of the Fraunhofer Institute. What started as a brief discussion on ng Connect and other innovation ecosystems turned into a philosophical debate on the actual possibility of collaborative innovation. The recent history depicted above seems to indicate otherwise.Man is by nature aggressive: if left with our basic instincts we are more inclined to fight than to cooperate with our neighbor. Yet over time we have acquired reason, learned to live in communities and designed laws for a collective governance. We managed to build cathedrals and grand monuments everywhere on the globe and to send some of our kind to the moon. Mankind achieved great things through cooperation.
Now if we look on smaller scales – states or companies or departments within companies – what do we observe? Rampant competition, not for survival but for furtherance of individual interests. Even though they are close neighbors and inseparable partners in a Europe in the making, individual countries cannot agree on joint initiatives to fight such a formidable crisis as the sovereign debt crisis. Even though ng Connect is as open a program as there is, I found it hard to come to agreement on its terms and conditions with companies that would only stand to gain from it, Even though their competitors are not represented and as their product and technology are clearly adjacent and relevant to the work being done within the program. And within the same companies, departments sometimes fight a fierce battle vying for the same budget envelope and co-workers within the same team fight and compete openly or worse, covertly, to get the next promotion. Even in such clear-cut contexts, collaboration is not a given. It requires a conscious effort and a common goal to drive for the greater good.
Within ng Connect, and based on our view of the global technology landscape, we often claim that no one company can invent the next generation user experience alone. This does not automatically imply however that said generation will be the result of the collaborative approach of an ecosystem of peer companies. And doing something is much preferred to doing nothing and as noted above, collaboration can result in profound achievements. There is still a lot of work and effort required to get to that point. But we are engaged on that path. Our grand design is to setup, organize and improve an ecosystem governance and innovation program where all companies can work towards this greater objective while driving benefits for themselves.
No one company can do it alone. Yes. But can multiple companies do it together, as a global team? This is what the coming decade will tell us and the question I brought back from my trip to Munich.