Percentage Driven: Should IP Telephony Die?

Is IP Telephony dead? “When a technology market stops growing, it’s dead” — this is the call and mantra of the technology world. Since we live in a percentage driven world, the first question we seem to ask is, “what story do the percentages tell?” Tom raises the counterpoint — it doesn’t matter if the market is growing or not, there’s still a huge need for phones on desks. Who is right?

But I think this entire percentage driven thing points to a problem in our technology culture. Let me tell you a story…

We have a dog. A black and white (black with white spots as my daughter tells me, because his nose is black) English Cocker Spaniel. With black spots in his white spots. Spaniels, if you’re not familiar with them, are balls of energy. They never really “grow up” — not really, anyway. The most sedate Spaniel breed in the world is a Clumber, and they’re not what you’d call “down” personalities. Now, when we first brought this little bundle of energy home, we weighed him on a regular basis. At some point, he slowed down in gaining weight, and eventually he stopped gaining weight altogether. In fact, he’s a bit of a hog, so we’ve been trying to get him to lose a little weight recently. He just retorts that he’ll lose weight when I lose weight, “so there!” Yeah, I know he can’t talk, but I can still see it in the way he looks at me when I put his dish in the stand.

At any rate, the day he stopped gaining weight, I said to my daughters, “and now he starts to die.” Can you imagine the faces? “Really, dad? He’s going to start dying now? That’s soooooo sad…” My youngest cried. They didn’t want to play with him, or even bother feeding him. After all, he’s going to die anyway, right?

Okay, not really. I’m too nice to my kids to say any such thing. But I hope, by now, you’re getting my point. Just because something isn’t growing doesn’t mean it’s going to die. Certainly vendors will stop investing as much in it. Certainly there will be fewer applications in the market. Certainly there will be less innovation. But let me ask something: once we got past the point of voice mail and a built in directory, what innovation do we really need in the way of phones? Maybe levitation so they don’t take up so much desk space?

Look, I’m all for innovation. Without innovation we wouldn’t — what’s the word? — progress. And we all know how important progress is. How important being progressive is. I think I can say that I’ve done my fair share of innovation in this industry. Not as much as others by a long shot, but enough to be a bit respectable in a shabby sort of way (after all, I’m not a progressive). But we don’t just innovate. We rush around like turkeys the day before Thanksgiving. Seriously. We don’t build houses, we just make a big mess digging a foundation. By the time it comes to finishing the roof, we’re on to the next house. At which point we look at the one we just left and say: “That house is dead because the number of people living in it isn’t increasing. Besides, it’s a horrible house, the roof leaks.” Or something like that.

There is a huge danger here in getting caught up in the hype cycle. Recruiters only want the latest skills (whether or not they need them, and they forget to ask how they think you’re going actually get those latest skills if you can’t ever get a job doing anything new because you’ve not done anything new). And then we whine about the firehose. Really?

Is this really healthy?

We certainly don’t seem to end up with competitive companies or technologies. For instance, from a recent article in the New Yorker

In the course of nearly two decades of closely following (and writing about) Silicon Valley, I have seen products and markets go through three distinct phases. The first is when there is a new idea, product, service, or technology dreamed up by a clever person or group of people. For a brief while, that idea becomes popular, which leads to the emergence of dozens of imitators, funded in part by the venture community. Most of these companies die. When the dust settles, there are one or two or three players left standing. Rarely do you end up with true competition.

Beyond this, we don’t seem to end up with better technology. We don’t let people or technologies grow and mature — we seem to skip from teenager to old age overnight. Everything is in beta, just out of beta, or it’s end of life.

I’m not a sociologist, of course, and I’m all for innovation. But I’m not all for declaring anything and everything “dead” at the moment it “stops growing,” including a technology, Cookie (the black dog with white spots and black spots in his white spots), or even people. Sometimes things stay the way they are for years at a time, just sitting there doing useful work. Don’t discount the ability of a technology, an idea, or a person being able to just do useful work. Don’t underestimate the value of taking the basic lessons of one technology, or an older technology wholesale, and pulling it into a new way of solving the same set of problems. Rule 11 is still true. The percentage driven way of looking at the world doesn’t always tell the whole story.

MPLS isn’t dead. Routing protocols aren’t dead. IP isn’t dead. IP telephony isn’t dead. Things are changing, yes, and some things will be subsumed into a larger technology or service at some point.

But the death of everything, it seems to me, is greatly exaggerated.