Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Lies Beneath - The Potential of Embedded Software Hidden in the Net Neutrality Debate

The recent announcement from Google and Verizon has brought Net Neutrality back into the public spotlight. From a branding and marketing perspective, it's probably worth a look at the broad negative reaction to Google and why there isn't the same sense of outrage about Verizon. However, rather than exploring that topic, I want to dive deeper look into the technology and point out some deeper areas that this issue touches.

NPR did a quick clip on Net Neutrality the other morning. One thing that always drives me crazy is when reporters characterize the regulation as something that network providers "might do". They like to characterize the whole thing as, "sometime in the future, network providers may use traffic management techniques to provide you with a paid version of the HOV lane so that you can watch Hulu without packet loss." Or they characterize it as, "those kids downloading files on Bit Torrent are crowding your Internet tubes and slowing you down -- we're gonna make'em pay extra for using up your tubes!" What they never mention is that providers use traffic management and manipulation now -- and there are no laws that prevent them from doing that.

The real impact of this manipulation is much broader than simply lag time when accessing high-bandwidth services. The easiest example might be with a service like Skype. Imagine a world where your carrier decide that Skype is a threat to a key profit center -- like long distance. Why not block the service (as AT&T initially did with the iPhone app on their 3G networks)? But perhaps complete blocking would be too obvious and gather to much public outrage. Suppose that they simply selectively degrade the service, making it appear to perform poorly or interrupt calls so that you're experience using the product makes you think that it sucks?

How To Personalize a Bad Experience
Several month back, I published links to a Techcrunch series that they called "Scamville". One aspect of that series that might be overlooked is a technique used by "Scammy" advertisers to avoid getting their ads shut down. What they did was look at the location that the IP address and then filter to block scammy ads from appearing to users from areas where the ad auditors might be.

People often underestimate how much the software that's running the device shapes their perception of the device. In our simple approach to understanding complex technology, we often look at sophisticated devices like our cable TV receiver or our broadband modem and imagine it working like a toaster -- you turn it on, it starts working. In reality, modern electronic devices conduct sophisticated communications back and forth between the unit and it's home base.

Take DSL signaling as an example. Back in the days when I worked in the DSL industry, there was one company that made a chipset that was widely adopted as the industry standard. DSL signaling requires that the chips in the phone company equipment speak the same language as the chips in the modem. When some other companies tried to make interoperable equipment, they often found that, while it was possible to mimic the market-leading chipset for a short period of time, the market-leader's chipsets could 'figure out' that there wasn't a matched chipset on the other side and would then reduce the performance of the connection. This is part of the reason why you can't just use 'any old modem' on your broadband connection and your network provider gets to decide what hardware will work.

Increasing Revenue by Getting Your Existing Customer to Buy More
What happens if your network provider decides that they want to farm a little bit more revenue from you? Consider this example: back when I had DSL, one day the DSL modem just stopped connecting. Lights came on, unplug, replug, all of the usual fixes -- but no connection. Eventually, the service tech came out, said that the modem was dead and that we needed a new one -- our cost, only $200. What I realized at the time was, how do you know what caused the modem to die? It could easily be affected by software on the network provider's side.

But imagine this same strategy using the added information provided by today's increasingly intelligent devices. With today's smart phones, network providers have the increased access to location data. What happens if AT&T, in an attempt to sell it's Micro-cell signal booster device, tweaks their network performance to drop your calls more frequently when your location is "home"?

Next Generation Product Life-cycle Management
Today's smart devices offer manufacturers increased potential to manage user experience and product lifecycle through ongoing communications with the product in the field. And while many people have read about jailbreaking their iPhone (and Apple's efforts to update their software to block jailbreaking), what happens when your blue-ray player manufacturer decides that you need to upgrade? Or maybe they want to coordinate 'device failures' with a next generation product launch? But it might be even more subtle than that. What if, in an effort to get existing customers to purchase more blue-ray discs, the manufacturer subtly changes the DVD decoding algorithm so that it seems like your DVDs are 'wearing out'?

Does it all seem too far out, too far fetched? If you can't see the connection between manufacturer and media, keep in mind that this is the area where corporate alliances are driven. And going back to my DSL modem, consider this scenario: the decision to use software to force a hardware change could be made at a high level -- the customer-facing tech may never know -- in that way, he becomes a believable, honest word-of-mouth product specialist stating, "these things just die."

This kind of manipulation is a subtext of Net Neutrality. While this level of product manipulation may carry a host of moral and ethical questions for you, as more devices add intelligence and sophistication, more and more platforms will be available for this kind of manipulation. However, as someone in marketing, you need to realize that this also offers the potential for new ecosystems and new revenue streams. But before any of that can happen, you need a product that has intelligence and can communicate. So before you find yourself in your own Net Neutrality debate, the real question is: do you have intelligence, communication and end-user awareness in your product roadmap?

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