Leveraging Industry Standards for Success – A Case Study

Telecom is an example of an industry that has created national and international standards for communications in ways that benefit companies large and small. As a consultant, I’ve frequently advised companies about specific standards and how they can be aligned with business strategies. Let’s consider an example.

During the last 15 years, facsimile communications has been dramatically affected by technological forces.  The circuit-switched network is being replaced by IP networks throughout the world, as I noted in a previous post.  As a result, all fax communications company have had to develop a strategy for the transition to IP. The vendor community anticipated this in the late Nineties and key new standards for sending fax messages over IP were developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The IETF focused on integrating fax with Internet email and the ITU split its efforts between supporting the IETF Internet Fax standards by reference (T.37) and devising a new standard for real-time fax communications (T.38).

Standards adoption often takes time and such was the case for IP fax. There were some early adopters of the email based approach (for example, Panafax and Cisco), but despite backing by both the ITU and IETF, the market didn’t take off. One big reason was the emergence of voice communications over IP (VoIP), primarily based upon the IETF’s Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which gained increasing momentum during the first decade of the 21st century.

Several of us in the ITU and IETF took a small but critical step which allowed T.38 IP fax to ride this wave. In the year 2000, we completed an annex to T.38 which specified how it could be used with SIP.  As a result, when implementors wanted to add fax support to their SIP-based Voice over IP solutions, the steps required to enable a Voice over IP session to spawn a T.38 fax session had already been specified in a T.38 annex. During this same period, Voice over IP gateways were emerging as the preferred approach to connect the existing circuit-based network to the emerging IP network based on SIP. Cisco and other gateway manufacturers such as Audiocodes and Cantata (later renamed Dialogic) cut over to T.38 as their favored solution to support fax over IP.  The fax board manufacturers such as Brooktrout (later Dialogic) followed suit and T.38 became the most widely adopted solution for Fax over IP.  The use of T.38 for IP fax was also supported by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) for 4th generation mobile networks and by the SIP Connect initiative for SIP Trunking driven by the SIP Forum.

When I was advising my fax industry clients in the late Nineties, I suggested they keep a close eye on the trends in both fax over IP and Voice over IP in deciding upon their product directions. At this time, the IETF standards for Internet Fax via email got early momentum, but in the standards community, we kept working on both the email and real-time IP fax solutions. As noted above, the step of ensuring that T.38 could eventually be used with SIP in a standards-based solution became very important as Voice over IP became a much bigger industry trend than Fax over IP.  As a result, fax solutions that would work over the emerging voice over IP networks became successful and are still being sold by many communications vendors today. The story didn’t stop there. There are other important trends that have emerged in recent years such as the needs for enhanced security and the transition from physical products to software-based solutions in the Cloud that communications vendors need to bake into their strategies going forward.

If you have been in business scenario where leveraging industry standards helped your company’s products gain success, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your company’s solutions and leverage current or potential industry standards, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

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What can the Internet of Things Market Learn from Telecom?

The Internet of Things is widely perceived as a hot market and has the usual hockey stick projections of massive growth laid out by market researchers such as Gartner and IHS Markit.  In this post, I’d like to consider one broad slice of the IoT market, the Industrial Internet of Things (aka IIoT), which applies IoT technology to address business problems. Let’s also consider if the IIoT industry could benefit from lessons learned by an adjacent market, Telecom.

Last year, Dialogic, the company I where I worked in Product Management, started looking at the Internet of Things (IoT) as a potential market where some of our telecom expertise could come into play.  I wrote about my experience in exploring a product concept for an IoT gateway in a post earlier this year.

The IIoT market has had good success so far by tackling individual problems within vertical markets and spinning up solutions.  There have also been attempts to create a de facto standard architecture for IoT, such as the platform architecture specification developed by Intel.  One of the challenges for IIoT is the proliferation of different vertical markets. In my last role at Dialogic, I talked with several companies that support  monitoring applications in areas as diverse as home health care, security and vehicular emergency services. These companies are prime candidates to use IIoT technologies, but their current implementations often run over the circuit-switched network, make extensive use of proprietary technologies and sometimes use dial-up modem connections. So a common challenge for many of these companies is the need to move forward and evolve solutions that will be well suited to the emerging technological environment of IP-based networks and take advantage of newer software approaches such as virtualization.

So what could these IIoT companies learn from the experience of telecom solution providers?  Part of the solution may be to look at the standards-based toolkit that has emerged as Telecom has swapped out it’s own network. Both mobile and fixed telecom networks have moved over to IP and solutions are usually built using the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).  Mobile networks are currently a hybrid of IP and circuit-switched technologies, but the data portion of the network that would apply for many IoT solutions has been all IP since 3G networks were implemented and has been greatly enhanced with the fourth generation Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. SIP has been widely used for voice and other applications, but other technologies such as WebRTC have emerged which provide standards-based approaches to build applications which support both multimedia (such as voice or video) and data.  The common element of the next gen IP networks, SIP and WebRTC mentioned above is that they were built using standards approved by international bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Third Generation Partnership Program (3GPP).

One of the key challenges for companies building IIoT applications and infrastructure will be to have solutions that can scale from very small to very large implementations and to use approaches which don’t need to be revamped to address markets in different countries. The leaders of IIoT have been able to solve customer problems from the bottom up, but the challenges of scale and addressing multiple geographic markets will benefit greatly from the use of standards.  These may consist of existing standards, such as those which support mobile connectivity, and building out new standards which are well targeted to solving IoT problems and enable the development of eco-systems that will promote best of breed solutions.  In summary, the use of existing and new standards is a way that Industrial Internet of Things providers can leverage lessons learned in the telecom to massively expand the available market for their solutions.

If you or your company are participants in driving change in the Industrial Internet of Things market, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other IoT products and services to leverage standards and better address the rapidly changing industrial environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

 

A Tale of Business Disruption in Document Communications

In the middle of the 1990s, the Internet and its associated IP protocols were like a huge wave that was off the shore of the business world, but poised to come in and cause massive disruption. At that time, I ran a consulting business for telecom clients (Human Communications) and was active on several fronts to be proactive on the topic.  In the TR-29 fax standards committee, we started work on how fax communications could take place over the Internet. A small group began work on an initiative called Group 5 Messaging, whose goal was to take the best ideas of fax, email and telex and spin up the next generation of business communications. In late 1996, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held an informal Birds of a Feather (BOF) on Internet Fax.  In meetings of Study Group 8 of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), discussions began on how to extend fax protocols to work over the Internet or on private IP networks.

On the business side, fax was very hot and even very small businesses such as pizza parlors had purchased fax machines. Corporations had been adopting fax over Local Area Networks, and companies like Rightfax, Omtool, Optus and Biscom had  very healthy businesses selling into this space. Brooktrout Technology had introduced multi-channel fax boards and drivers for Windows NT, and had built up market momentum that enabled the company to go public. But all of this fax technology was based on sending faxes over circuit-switched networks. What would be the impact of the Internet and its technology on fax and business communications?

By 1999, the business communications landscape had changed dramatically. On the standards front, the IETF had created several standards for providing a fax services via email and the ITU had referenced these standards in the T.37 standard. The ITU had also independently created a new T.38 standard which essentially extended the T.30 Group 3 fax protocol into the IP packet world. The Group 5 initiative had lost momentum, as the fax and other communications players lined up to support the new IP-based standards from the IETF and ITU which appeared to solve the problem of how to send faxes over IP.  Related standards work continued and I was active in making sure that the new T.38 fax protocol was supported under both the current H.323 call control and under the new SIP and Megaco (later H.248) protocols.

On the business side, fax was still doing well, but now had new competition. The advent of the World Wide Web had totally wiped out the Fax on Demand business that had done well in the early Nineties. Various pundits were saying that email was the future of business communications and that new portable document formats like the PDF from Adobe would be used in place of fax.  Curiously, the email experts who participated in the IETF Internet Fax work weren’t so sure. Fax had business quality of service elements which were hard to duplicate in email — notably instant confirmation of delivery at the end of a session, negotiations between the endpoints on what document formats were acceptable and the legal status of fax, where fax messages over the circuit network were accepted as legal documents for business purposes.  The IETF work group tried to upgrade email protocols to address the technical elements, but the work was hard and the path to adoption slow.

I also shifted my career and suspended my consulting business to join Brooktrout Technology and help them participate in the new Voice over IP business. But just before I left my business, I advised my fax clients and newsletter subscribers to get diversified and not put all of their eggs in the fax communications basket.  I saw both challenges and opportunities ahead. There had been a large number of new startups that had attempted to ride IP fax to success in the late Nineties, but most of them crashed and burned within a couple of years. E-Fax had introduced “free” IP fax mailboxes and that approach was quickly emulated by competitors, but the business model for “free” wasn’t obvious.  I’d helped form a new industry association called the Internet Fax and Business Communications Association in early 1999, but we had difficulty getting fax and other communications industry vendors to sign on. The times were turbulent and the way forward was less than obvious.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how the trends toward IP Fax and its communications competitors played out and which related business communications issues still need to be addressed.

If your organization has participated in the evolution of fax or other business communications during this evolution from the circuit-switched phone network to IP, please feel free to comment. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

Impact of Media Gateways on Voice Solutions

This is the latest in a series of posts on how voice development has been moving from hardware to software centered models. In my last post, we reviewed the classic approach to developing voice-centered solutions, which typically utilized voice boards. In this post, I’ll review how media gateways helped change the model.

In the classic voice model, the voice board often was used both for voice processing and to connect to a phone network, which might be either digital or analog. When Voice over IP (VoIP) began to emerge, new options became available for voice solutions. In the early days of VoIP, the H.323 stack was used to connect to IP networks, but the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) got some crucial support in the 2000-2001 time frame from Microsoft and the Third Generation Partnership Program (3GPP), the leading standards organization for mobile phone networks. Within a few years, voice developers began to add SIP to their development capabilities. This had multiple implications.

Let’s look at some business side drivers. After the dot com crash and the related “Telecom Downturn,” which decimated the ranks of engineering staffs of the large vendors known as The Equipment Manufacturers (TEMs), these companies were looking for ways to reduce the amount of hardware in their solutions. In the classic voice solution, the voice board processed media and also connected to the circuit-switched networks. When SIP became popular, many of the TEMs started saying they wanted to move away from the hardware business. Some of these companies started processing media as part of their voice applications and others continued to rely upon voice boards for this processing.  In either case, if they outsourced the connection to the network to another box, they could reduce the number of hardware dependent elements in their solution and simplify the process of building and shipping their solutions.

Enter the Media Gateway. As the application developer included SIP in their solutions, they could connect to a media gateway via SIP and then let the media gateway take over the role of connecting to the existing circuit-switched network. This had been possible before SIP with H.323, but SIP offered much more flexibility for doing the complex call processing needed by the voice developers and continued to gain market momentum. In turn, various hardware companies started building purpose-built media gateway appliances to connect to digital or analog networks. The gateways supported the most common networks such as ISDN first, but eventually some gateways got more sophisticated and added Signaling System #7 (SS7) support as well.  This decomposition  of the voice solution offered benefits for both types of vendors. The solution vendors could start their move away from hardware and focus more on software, whereas the media gateway vendors were able to specialize in connections between SIP and the circuit-switched networks. Each type of company could specialize in their area of expertise and the solutions providers could add value to their solutions by buying best-of-breed media gateways.  Since the network protocols were standards-based,  the gateways needed to have robust standard protocol implementations and this helped create a competitive market for media gateways.

As a result, solution developers took another step along the path of reducing their dependency on embedded hardware, since they could now outsource the network connection to a media gateway.  In the next post, I’ll talk about developments in IP-based media which continued the evolution toward software-based voice applications.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your company’s solutions to meet customer needs, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

Voice Development Models: A Journey Begins

During the past three years, I had product management responsibilities for products which covered the spectrum from hardware-centered to software-centered development.  In telecom, there’s been an evolution in development models as solution providers have taken a series of steps to gradually move away from hardware.  However, like many technical trends, there is a long tail as the older technology goes away only gradually.  In this post and others to follow, I’ll review models for voice applications at a high level and consider some steps along the way which have led to the software-oriented nirvana sought by many solution providers.

In the Nineties, voice development was often done with PCs at the center and embedded board hardware was an important component. The CPUs of the PCs ranged from models like the 386 on up to Pentium. Voice applications entailed lots of media processing, so voice boards with lots of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) were critical to get scalable applications.  The DSPs did all of the heavy lifting for the media and the CPU of the PC was freed up to support the application side for solutions such as call centers, interactive voice retrieval and fax on demand.  Many of the applications developed during this time are still being used, though the actual PCs or servers may have been replaced and there may also have been some upgrades on the voice board hardware. Nonetheless, thousands of voice boards are still being sold to support these applications. On the software side, there were efforts to create industry standard Application Program Interfaces (APIs) such as S.100 from the Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum (ECTF) and T.611 from the International Telecommunications Union, but most of the boards were controlled using private APIs supplied by the board vendors.

In the model above, the boards and applications were all designed to work over the circuit-switched telephone network, which ranged from analog services (POTS or Plain Old Telephone Service) to digital approaches which began with the Integrated Systems Digital Network (ISDN) and continued with the Signaling System 7 (SS7) network overlay.  The phone companies worldwide assumed that these circuit-switched networks with Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) and the related seven layer Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) models would be the focus going forward, replacing analog networks, and would perhaps be supplemented by new OSI stacks such as the Asynchronous Transport Method (ATM).

But a revolution had already begun as alternative flatter telecom stacks based on the upstart Internet Protocol  (IP) protocols were being used both for existing applications such as email and new applications like the Worldwide Web. In the telecom industry, a few companies began to explore running voice over IP networks, thus creating a new Voice over IP (VoIP) technical and business model for phone networks.  In the early days (from the late Nineties to the early 2000s), VoIP was mainly used to bypass existing long distance networks to reduce long distance charges, but the range of applications for IP soon began to expand.

At first, this looked like a great opportunity for the voice board manufacturers.  Now, they could add IP support to their boards or potentially just give software developers access to Ethernet ports on PC. An important new board category was created: the media gateway. These early media gateway boards allowed developers to use the existing circuit networks for most of their connections, but also tap into new IP networks where they existed.  Continuing on the same API trends, board vendors extended their private APIs to support IP in addition to TDM.  So now solution developers could run their solutions over both existing TDM and new IP networks, using these new hybrid boards which often could support voice, fax and tones.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how media gateways helped to kick off a new voice development model which accelerated the separation between software and hardware for voice and the new application category which became Unified Communications.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments.  If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your solutions, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

Faxed: A Book Review – Part 1

In 1993, I visited the city of San Antonio to participate in a speaking engagement on fax at a conference on electronic commerce.  While there, I had dinner with a professor from the University of Texas A & M named Jonathan Coopersmith.  We had an engaging conversation about facsimile technology and he told me that he was writing a history on the subject.  The fax business was in full ferment at the time and I’d been busy during the past several years working on the TR-29 fax committee, which prepared US fax standards and also submitted contributions to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the group which defined standards for fax and other telecom technologies.

Fast forward about ten years.  Jonathan visited Needham, Massachusetts to interview the executives of Brooktrout Technology and discovered that I also worked at the company. He invited me to share lunch with him and we talked about how much fax had changed in the prior ten years, going from the world’s hottest communications technology to one of many ways of communicating in a world now dominated by Internet based tech.  He also said that yes, he was still working on the book, but had taken out time to raise his family and he’d been sidetracked on that long running project.  We continued to exchange messages over the next several years, notably when he visited Japan to interview sources over there in person.  He sent me a draft of a chapter on computer fax and fax during the Nineties around 2010 or so and I offered some feedback.

In 2015, Jonathan got in touch.  Great news.  The book was done and published.  The result is called Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.  He sent me a copy and I recently sat down and read it over the period of a few weeks. Jonathan’s area of expertise is as an historian specializing in the history of technology.  He discovered fax as a user, finding the fax machine was a technology that even his mother could use effectively.  He’d also discovered that the books on fax were not written from an historical perspective, so he decided to write one.

IMG_1010 - Faxed - cropped

Fax has a fascinating history.  It was invented in 1843 by Alexander Bain, a Scottish physicist, during the era when the telegraph was the king of communications technology.  Bain was one of several notable figures in the early days of fax; as Coopersmith notes, the idea attracted a diverse group of inventors who worked not only on fax, but also on improvements to the telegraph.  I’d been aware of Bain, but Coopersmith digs in and finds many others who advanced fax in one way or another during its first seventy years.  The technology was promising, but difficult, involving aspects of mechanics, optics and electronic synchronization which tended to exceed the state of the art at the time.  The early markets for fax sprung up around World War I and its aftermath, as newspapers began to supplement written words with photographs transferred via fax and competitive technologies.

As Coopersmith recounts, fax moved forward in fits and starts and consumed a great deal of financial capital in the process, but did not actually result in a successful commercial market until the Sixties, when new technologies such as the photocopier from Xerox made it easier for faxed documents to be copied and exchanged within businesses and other organizations.  Even in this period, there was a lack of standards and the main markets were the US and Japan.  Xerox appeared to have all of the pieces to dominate the market, but invested elsewhere and other startups began to compete for the burgeoning market of fax machines targeted to offices.

Two developments changed the landscape in a dramatic way.  First, the Carterphone decision forced AT&T to allow 3rd party devices to connect to the phone network and opened the way to telecom technology to advance outside of the monopolistic Bell system.  Coopersmith notes that NTT was forced to open its network in Japan just a few years later, which also encouraged a number of companies in Japan to jump into fax.  The second development was the hard set of compromises that resulted in the first well accepted fax standard, Group 3, which was agreed within the International Consultative Committee on  Telegraphy and Telephony (aka CCITT) in 1980.  With the advent of Group 3, the factories in Japan were able to standardize mass production of fax machines and Japan became the supplier of fax machines for the world.

In the late Eighties, the sub-$1000 fax machine debuted and the fax explosion was in full motion.  Around this time, a court in New York State accepted that fax documents could be used in legal proceedings and fax gained a stature which pushed other technologies like Telex aside.

During this period, I worked for Fujitsu Imaging Systems of America (FISA) and was a product line manager for a new technology called computer fax modems.  FISA had bought one of the early fax success stories from the Sixties, Graphic Sciences, from Burroughs Corporation in 1986.  This is where my story begins to intertwine with the fax history which Coopersmith recounts.  I’ll continue this review in my next post.