The PSTN is a dinosaur but it won’t be replaced. Not directly. The species that filled niches vacated by dinosaurs didn’t directly replace the t-rex – the entire ecosystem changed. In this case, the new communications ecosystem is IP-based, decentralized and individualized. That is not an ecosystem for a PSTN replacement to inhabit. It is an ecosystem for islands of communication, with voice and video built into many applications and services.
Is PSTN replacement necessary?
The PSTN is fading away. As Tom Evslin writes, user behavior changes will result in the end of the PSTN , at least the PSTN as we know it today, possibly in the next 5-7 years in the US.
So what will replace the PSTN? It won’t be replaced. Not with a global, ubiquitous, 100% interoperable (any-to-any), full duplex, five nines availability communications replacement. That’s somewhat painful to write because the concept of global, any-to-any real-time communication over IP is powerful and tantalizing. But perhaps PSTN replacement is the wrong goal, the wrong means to the end?
Our goal as users is to easily use voice (and increasingly video and other real-time communications services) whenever, wherever and however we want. It used to be that we needed a PSTN replacement to meet that goal. Maybe not anymore?
Today’s landscape is great for innovation but toxic to interoperability and unification
The forces of nature that led to the end of the dinosaurs left behind some uninhabitable conditions for certain species. The Internet forces have done the same, at least for species that rely on interoperability and unification. As opposed to the PSTN, a pipe to the Internet is a conduit to any IP-based communications service or app. That open pipe is rocket fuel for innovators, especially because it means voice and video can now be integrated inside other IP-based applications that we are already using. Meanwhile, the less recognized side of that separation between transport and service is that it is poisonous to the species of universal interoperability:
- The separation means you win by innovating, quickly. Skype won in retail VoIP due to their innovation…which also meant developing proprietary, non-interoperable solutions.
- Since customers are not locked in by the pipe, and because features that may be poisonous to interop are often important to customers, interop often becomes desired rather than necessary. You develop very specifically for your specific use case or you won’t acquire or keep users; interop is thrown off the bus the moment it conflicts with your use case, which is often at the start of the journey.
- Infinite use cases can be served by that pipe. Voice or video from within another app. Standalone video, video group chat, video messaging. Integration of real-time communications with other tools, processes and applications.
Without a replacement for the PSTN, how will I have a universal way to call you or video chat with you?
We won’t have a single universal way to call or video. We won’t have a PSTN replacement. We’ll have many islands and they won’t all be bridged. But in sum they will be the future of communications for each of us.
- Much of our voice and video won’t be standalone calls or conferences. We’ll launch them as part of other applications or processes, eg. LinkedIn, Facebook or Salesforce.com.
- Conversations will often start as quasi real-time IM and then get “promoted” to real-time voice or video – either by the IM app, or by launching a third-party voice/video function/service. Global interop/directory/connectivity/presence is much more feasible for IM than voice or video so one path will be to launch voice/video on top of IM services. Think federation and XMPP rather than island directories.
- New mobile and web apps and the potential for many more robust apps with emerging programming frameworks such as Node.js and standards such as XMPP, Jabber and Jingle (real-time communications); IPv6 (better P2P communication, QoS and multicast), VP8 (video) and WebRTC (real-time browser-based communication)
- If we just want to call, then we’re both using Skype. Or Tango. Or another standalone service with low barrier to entry that may be one of (x) options on our tablet, mobile or PC.
- We might both use an iPad or Android app. Or we use a WebRTC, browser-based app that works on both our browsers. In many cases, we pick by use case.
- If we’re not both on Facebook, then we’re both on Google+, GroupMe or WhateverComesNext.
- The PSTN itself will be an island too. The only island that is (was?) globally accessible, pervasive, ubiquitous and interoperable. Very well engineered for its purpose, but not designed for today’s communications use cases, and not able to extend into the future, at least not for every use case. The PSTN is also a bridge – but not forever – we need to ditch most of our bags (features) before crossing the PSTN bridge and pay a relatively heavy toll to the trolls underneath it – so PSTN as a bridge also has a relatively short half-life
We don’t need a single universal service to have universal service in aggregate, and today’s landscape favors distribution, decentralization, differentiation and very specific solutions. We do need universal (not homogeneous) access, but that’s very different from the service layers that can now independently live above. In fact, we’ll need multiple access (IP) “connections”. The PSTN will finish its long sunset and the next morning we’ll have more robust and powerful communications apps and services. But don’t expect to see another PSTN any more than you might expect to see a t-rex tomorrow and keep in mind that today’s mammals don’t look much like yesterday’s dinosaurs.Google+