Death of the Smartphone?

The smartphone has possibly been the most transformative technology of the past hundred years. It’s unleashed the power of the computer in a portable always-with-us way that has changed the way that most of us interface with the world. But as unlikely as it might seem, it also might be one of the shortest-lived major technologies in history.

When looking forward it seems inevitable that smartphones will largely be replaced by voicebot technology. Voicebots are already intertwining into our lives in major ways. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo and Google Assistant are already replacing a lot of other technologies.

Voicebots have already entered my life in several key ways. As a music lover I’ve gone through every technology upgrade since vinyl. I had a huge CD collection and burned tons of custom CDs of my favorite songs. I used an iPod heavily for a few years. I downloaded music and built custom playlists of my music. And I used streaming radio services. But this has all now been replaced by my Amazon Echo. It’s integrated into Amazon music, Sirius XM Radio, and Pandora, and I can just ask aloud to hear the music I want.

I also now use voicebots for simple web searches and I no longer have to use my phone or PC to find out when a local store or restaurant is open. I use my Echo to take notes to remember later, something that is important to me since I wake with ideas at 2:00 in the morning!  In the past I would scramble for something to write on, which inevitably woke me up – but no longer.

Voicebots are also supplanting a lot of apps I used to use. It’s a lot easier to just ask about the weather rather than look it up. I can ask for sports scores before my feet hit the floor out of bed. Voicebots are starting to displace other smartphone functions. I can now make and receive texts by voice – this isn’t quite fully integrated into Echo, but I expect it soon will be. Voicebots integrated into the car give us driving directions and can lead us to the nearest gas station, all directed by voice.

Voicebots are growing steadily better at voice recognition. I’ve had the Amazon Echo for about 18 months and it gets a little better month by month. Voicebots are also getting better at responding to requests. All of the major voicebots are using primitive artificial intelligence to learn from their mistakes and to get better at responding to user requests. Questions that puzzled my Echo months ago are now sailing through.

Some voicebot functions are still nearly unusable. I have Microsoft’s Cortana on my PC and it’s not really helpful in the way I would like to use it. Ideally it could replace most of my keyboard functions. But it’s not hard to forecast that within a few years that voice commands will finally make it easier to use a PC.

If voicebots are going to grow to the next level it’s going to take improvements in AI. But everything is pointing in that direction. Just a few weeks ago a new AI from Google learned the game of Go from scratch in just three days with nothing more than being given the rules of the game. The new AI won 100 games straight against the older Google AI that beat the best human player earlier this year.

As AI gets better the voicebots are going to get better. There will come a time soon where it’s easier to use a voicebot for most of the apps on a smartphone, and that’s when voicebots will start to eat away at smartphone penetration rates.

I for one would love to ditch my smartphone. Even after all of these years I’ve never been comfortable having to remember to carry it and I walk away and leave it all of the time. And somehow we’ve gotten roped into spending $600 or more every two years for a new device. I would be much happier wearing tiny earbuds that let me talk to a voicebot that has been able to learn my habits.

Most of the developers in the AI world think that voicebots will enable real digital assistants that step in many times a day to make our lives easier. This trend seems inevitable and one has to wonder how the emergence of voicebots will affect the huge push for 5G wireless? Most of the things that voicebots do for us are low bandwidth and could easily be done using a fully implemented LTE network. It’s hard to picture where this all might lead, but one thing seems certain – the death of the smartphone will probably be just as disruptive as its birth.

Industry Shorts, June 2017

Following are some topics I found of interest but which don’t justify a whole blog.

Amazon Bringing Alexa to Settop Boxes. Amazon has created a develop kit that would allow any settop box maker to integrate their voice service Alexa. The Alexa voice platform is currently supporting the popular Echo home assistant device. It’s also being integrated into some new vehicles and Amazon has made it available for integration into a whole range of home automation devices. The Amazon Alexa platform is currently ahead of the competitors at Apple, Google and Microsoft mostly due to having made the product open to developers who have already created over 10,000 applications that will work on the platform. Adding Alexa to a settop box could make it a lot easier to use the settop box as the hub for a smart home.

Comcast Tried to Shut Down anti-Comcast Website. LookingGlass Cyber Security Center, a vendor for Comcast, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the advocacy group Fight for the Future. This group is operating a website called comcastroturf.com. The advocacy group claims that Comcast has used bots to generate over a half million fake filings to the FCC in the network neutrality docket. These comments were all in favor of killing net neutrality and the group claims that Comcast used real people’s names to sign the filings, but without their permission. The website allows people to see if their name has been used. The cease-and-desist order was withdrawn after news of it got a lot of coverage in social media.

Net Neutrality Wins in Court. Not that it probably makes much difference now that the FCC is trying to undo Title II regulation, but the challenge filed by Verizon and other large ISPs against the FCC’s net neutrality decision was rejected at appeal. This affirms the ability of the FCC to use Title II rules for regulating broadband. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld an earlier court ruling that affirmed the FCC had the needed authority to implement the net neutrality decision.

Altice Buys Ad-Tech Company. Altice joins other big ISPs that want to take advantage of the end of the new FCC rules that allows ISPs to monetize customer’s private data. Altice, which is now the fourth largest US cable company after the acquisition of Cablevision, now joins the other big ISPs who have added the expertise to slice and dice customer data. Altice paid $300 million for Teads, a company specializing in targeting advertising based upon customer specific data.

Other large ISPs are already poised to take advantage of the new opportunity. For example, Verizon’s purchase of AOL and Yahoo brings this same expertise in-house. It has been widely speculated that the ISPs have been gathering customer data for many years and so are sitting on a huge treasure trove detailing customers web browsing usage, on-line purchasing habits, email and text information, and for the wireless ISPs the location data of cellphones.

Charter Rejects $100 Billion offer from Verizon. The New York Post reported that Charter rejected a purchase offer from Verizon. The Post reports that Charter thought the offer wasn’t high enough. It also came with some tax implications that would complicate the deal. Whether this particular offer is real or not, it points to the continuing consolidation of the industry ISPs, cable providers and cellular companies. The current administration is reportedly not against large mergers, so there’s no telling what other megadeals we might see over the next few years.

Top 7 Media CEOs made $343.8 Million in 2016. The CEOs of CBS, Comcast, Discovery Communications, Disney, Fox, Time Warner and Viacom collectively made a record salary last year, up 21.1% from 2015. It’s interesting in a time when the viewership of specific cable networks is dropping rapidly that the industry would be rewarding their leaders so handsomely. But all of these companies are compensating for losses of customers with continuing rate hikes for programming and most are having banner earnings.

Frontier Lays Off WV Senate President. Frontier just laid off Mitch Carmichael, the President of the Senate in West Virginia. This occurred right after the Senate passed a broadband infrastructure bill that was aimed at bringing more broadband competition to the state. The bill allows individuals or communities to create broadband cooperatives to build broadband infrastructure in areas with poor broadband coverage. Frontier is the predominant ISP in the state after its purchase of the Verizon property there. The West Virginia legislature is a part-time job that pays $20,000 per year and most legislators hold other jobs. West Virginia is at or near the bottom in most statistics concerning broadband speeds and customer penetration rates.

Amazon as an ISP?

Amazon EchoI mentioned in a blog last week that there is a rumor that Amazon is considering becoming an ISP. This information came from The Information, which says it got this by somebody inside Amazon management.

It’s an intriguing idea. Amazon has shown throughout its history that it loves to own its supply chain. If you recall, Amazon started out as a web reseller of books. But over time the company has built what must certainly be the largest and most efficient bricks and mortar fulfillment infrastructure in the world.

And the company hasn’t stopped there. The company has been building a fleet of semi-trailers used to haul its inventory, thus bypassing UPS and the Post Office. The company uses third-party tractors today but their goal is to build a fleet in anticipation of self-driving trucks within the coming decade. The company is also experimenting with drones, wheeled robots and other ways to bypass local delivery services.

The company has done the same with its successful data center business. They have built massive data centers and assembled a dark-fiber network to connect them together and to connect to major customers. And it is that fiber network that could create the backbone of an ISP network.

You have to think that Amazon learned a lesson from Google Fiber’s foray into FTTP, and so it seems unlikely that they would leap into a massive infrastructure build in that same mold. The article says Amazon might consider using the open access networks in Europe as a way to avoid building fiber. But they don’t have to go the whole way to Europe to try this. For example, just across the mountains from Seattle are a number of Public Utility Districts (county-wide municipal electric companies) that have built open access fiber networks that pass over 100,000 homes – an easy way for Amazon to test the ISP idea.

And around the country are a number of other open access networks. All of the municipal networks in states like Colorado, Utah and Virginia are required by law to be open access. We have the example of Huntsville, AL that built a FTTP network for Google that will become open access after a few years. There are numerous communities around the country that would gladly build fiber networks if they were guaranteed to get companies like Amazon and Google as major ISP tenants. It’s been my experience that almost no city wants to be an ISP unless it has no other option – but there are many who want fiber badly and would welcome Amazon with open arms.

I would think that Amazon will also keep their eye on the developments with wireless last mile. There might come a time when they might be able to leap into the ISP business with a reasonable cost per customer – at least in selected markets.

Amazon would be an interesting ISP. It was just a few years ago that it was clear that an ISP needed a traditional cable TV product to be successful. Google tried to launch without cable TV in Kansas City and hit a brick wall in selling to residential customers. But the tide is turning and I’m not sure that TV is mandatory any longer.

Amazon already has an impressive content platform with Amazon Prime and they have said that they are going to spend billions to create their own content, following the lead of Netflix. It’s also becoming clear that customers are becoming willing to accept an abbreviated line-up of popular cable channels like what’s being sold by Sling TV and other OTT providers. Amazon could be competitive with an abbreviated cable line-up made up of local programming, popular cable channels and its own content.

But Amazon has some advantages that other ISPs don’t have. For now Amazon is leading the pack in the intelligent personal assistant market with its Amazon Echo. I’ve had an Echo for about six months and I already can tell that it is improving. The company is working towards introducing cloud-based AI to the platform and within a few years the Alexa assistant should become a true computer assistant like has been envisioned for decades in science fiction.

My gut tells me that bundles which focus on smart computer services like Alexa will soon be more popular than the traditional triple-play bundles from Comcast and AT&T. Amazon has one huge advantage as a start-up ISP in that customers like using them – something they have fostered by delivering packages regularly on time to a huge percentage of households in the country. They are at the opposite end of the customer service scale from Comcast and the other big ISPs.

I have no idea if this rumor is true. But the idea is so intriguing that I hope Amazon is considering it. One of the major complaints about broadband in this country is the lack of competition and choice. Companies like Amazon can bring fresh competitive bundles that break away from the traditional triple play and that can redefine the ISP of the future.

Update: This rumor persisted and in February 2017 I posted an update about this rumor. https://potsandpansbyccg.com/2017/02/21/amazon-as-an-isp-2/

Responding to Customers in a Virtual World

Amazon EchoI don’t know how typical I am, but I suspect there are a whole lot of people like me when it comes to dealing with customer service. It takes something really drastic in my life for me to want to pick up the phone and talk to a customer service rep. Only a lack of a broadband connection or having no money in my bank account would drive me to call a company. My wife and I have arranged our life to minimize such interactions. For instance, we shop by mail with companies that allow no-questions-asked returns.

The statistics I hear from my clients tell me that there are a lot of customers like me – ones that would do almost anything not to have to talk to a person at a company. And yet, I also hear that most ISPs average something like a call per month per customer. That means for everybody like me who rarely calls there are people that call their ISP multiple times per month.

It’s not like there aren’t things that I want to know about. There are times when it would be nice to review my bill or my open balance, but unless there is no alternative I would never call and ask that kind of question. But from what I am told, billing inquiries and outages are the predominant two reasons that people call ISPs. And if a carrier offers cable TV you can add picture quality to that list.

Customer service is expensive. The cost of the labor and the systems that enable communicating with customers is a big expense for most ISPs. Companies have tried various solutions to cut down on the number of customer calls, and a few of them have seen some success. For instance, some ISPs make it easy for a customer to handle billing inquiries or to look at bills online. This is something banks have been pretty good at for a long time. But it’s apparently difficult to train customers to use these kinds of web tools.

Many companies are now experimenting with online customer service reps who offer to chat online with you from their website. I don’t know the experiences other people have had with this, but I generally find this even less satisfactory than talking to a real person – mostly due to the limitations that both parties have of typing back and forth to each other. Unless you are looking for something really specific and easy, communicating by messaging is not very helpful and might even cost a company more labor than talking to somebody live. Even worse, many companies use a lot of pre-programmed scripts for online reps to reduce messaging response times, and those scripts can be frustrating for a customer.

There are a handful of solutions I have seen that offer new tools for making it easier for customers to communicate with an ISP. For instance, NuTEQ has developed an interactive test messaging system that can answer basic questions for customers without needing a live person at the carrier end. Customers can check account balances, report an outage, schedule and monitor the status of a tech visit or do a number of other tasks without needing to talk to somebody having to wade through a customer service web site.

But I think the real hope for me is going to be the advent in the near future of customer service bots. Artificial Intelligence and voice recognition are getting good enough so that bots are going to be able to provide a decent customer service experience. Early attempts at this have been dreadful. Anybody who has tried to change an airline ticket with an airline bot knows that it’s nearly impossible to do anything useful in the current technology.

But everything I read says that we will soon have customer service bots that actually work as well as a person without the annoying habits or real service reps like putting a caller on hold, losing a caller when supposedly transferring you to somewhere else, or in trying to upsell you to a product you don’t want. And there ought to be no holding times since bots are always available. If a bot could quickly answer my question I would have no problem talking to a bot.

But as good as bots are going to be even within a few years, I am waiting for the next step after that. I have been using the Amazon Echo and getting things done by talking to Alexa, the Amazon AI. Alexa still has a lot of the same challenges like Siri or the other AIs, but I am pleasantly surprised about how often I get what I want on the first try. In my ideal world I would tell Alexa what I want and she (it?) would then communicate with the bots, or even the people at a company to answer my questions. At the speed at which AI technology is improving I don’t think this is going to be too many years away. I may like customer service when my bot can talk to their bot.