Successful Failures

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I recently read a very interesting article, “Symbian OS—One of the Most Successful Failures in Tech History,” written by a former leader of the Symbian project. Symbian is the operating system used by Nokia and others for their cell phones. Every month Nokia pounds out millions of cell phones that use Symbian, so why does the OS have almost no credibility?

As I interpret the article, blame seemed to lie squarely with Symbian managers who pursued the past and not the future of cell phones. They focused on their  record of present-day success and ignored warning signs about the future.

Does your OS run on a device that’s primarily a phone, perhaps with a half-baked calendar thrown in, or does it power an information appliance? Are third-party applications for your OS just annoying distractions or crucial parts of the device’s allure? Symbian had one view; Apple and Google a different one entirely.

Of course money always plays a part. If you’re Symbian and you make 80 percent of your revenue from consulting on how to port your hard-to-engineer OS onto new phones, then you have little monetary incentive to modify your OS to be easier for manufacturers to use. Well, that is, until Android comes along and eats your lunch, porting to new Motorola and Sony Ericsson phones in just weeks and without shipping bags of money to consultants.

With Symbian as a backdrop, let’s think about how the speech industry as a whole has risen to recent challenges. From a financial perspective, we’ve seen some excellent innovation. We’ve seen new methods of doing business. You can purchase prepaid minutes of speech/telecom service in addition to the more traditional long-term contracts. Voicemail transcription services offer different levels of accuracy at different price points. Cloud systems join hosted and premises-based solutions to offer new business and architectural models. But I believe we have a dangerous problem as our industry continues to focus on old competitors, not new competitors.

Thirty years ago our main competitor was Mabel the operator. Our business was driven by these high school graduates who were expensive, and some of us made money selling boxes to replace them. But we never did kill off Mabel. Push-button phones did her in.
We’ve been pursuing touch-tone ever since, and we’re getting closer all the time. Unfortunately, our most meaningful competition is no longer push buttons. It’s text. Apple and Google both have delivered smartphones, which are really pocket computers with a continuous link to the Internet. These devices are not push-button-centric. Most designs have a small handful of buttons, instead of an itty-bitty keyboard, and various on-screen displays.

Traditionalists argue that our real competition becomes the on-screen keypad and soft-button interface, and we should capture the hands-free/eyes-free market. That idea makes a lot of sense, and Google seems to validate it by  providing built-in speech tools to supplement the soft buttons and soft keyboard.

Let’s look at the future of the phone before we settle on competing with buttons. Service providers are scrambling to provide high-bandwidth 4G services. They won’t use this bandwidth to replace outdated GSM codecs and upgrade to higher-fidelity voice connections; instead, they will deliver faster Internet connections and more downloads, and chase their perennial pipe dream of becoming high-value content providers instead of dumb pipe providers.

In other words, manufacturers believe—and I do, too—that consumers will use smartphones to grab data in the form of text, images, and video, and audio will be their last choice. Ordinary merchants pour money into Web and mobile portals with little patience, time, or incentive to upgrade their legacy IVR systems to speech.

Our competition is text, not buttons, and it gets worse. The highly significant, highly profitable social networking experience revolves around text.  If there’s a telephony- or audio-based social networking site out there, then they’re doing a masterful job of being ignored.

Do you object that text is too old-fashioned and certain to be replaced in the next generation of social networking? I don’t agree: Text is revolutionary. Smartphones definitively disaggregate text from location—you can send and receive from wherever you are, not just when you’re sitting at your laptop—the same way cell phones disaggregate voice calls from location. Text is compact and easy to read, reread, skim, edit, annotate, and forward; it can be used in the quietest of locations, yet it is perfectly intelligible in the noisiest ones. An entire generation has embraced text as the medium of choice. What’s our game plan?

Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of  The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.

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