You need to listen to customers

“We as manufacturers are losing control over how people use our products.”Chris Hobbs, senior manager of system architecture at Nortel Networks Corp., made that comment in a closing roundtable session on the future of telecommunications at the inaugural Voice 2.0 conference in Ottawa in mid-October.

Hobbs comes from the telecom industry and was talking about phones and phone switches and such things, but his comments are relevant to all sorts of technology.

One of the reasons is the mash-up, a concept that was talked about at Voice 2.0 but really comes from the computer and Internet world.

The idea is that you take two seemingly separate products or services and you write some code that ties into the application programming interfaces (APIs) of both and makes them work together to do something unlike what either of them did separately. Some of the best examples involve tying Google Maps to other applications and services.

That kind of thing is happening in the telecom world too. One of the Voice 2.0 speakers, David Clarke of Ottawa-based Pika Technologies Inc., described how his company tied the free online calling service Skype to the open-source phone-switch software Asterisk so Skype calls can be routed into a call centre, just like ordinary phone calls.

Asterisk is, of course, open source software, and that’s another reason software developers have less control of what people do with their wares. Open source allows anyone with the skills and the inclination to make changes to the code itself, adapting it to what they want to do.

In a way it’s nothing new that software vendors can’t control what people do with their software. Just ask the first spreadsheet developers – did they really expect their software to be used as a substitute for databases, scheduling systems, accounting software, even word processors? It certainly happened, and continues to happen.

The Web services and service-oriented architectures we hear so much about are contributing to this trend. No longer is it the norm to put out a narrowly defined product with clear instructions on what it can do and assume that that’s all it will ever do.

Which means those who make the products, and those who sell them, need more than ever to listen to the users. Those users are part of the product design team.

Using Wiki as a tool

For example, going back to the phone world, Motorola has set up a wiki for users of its recently launched Q phone.

A wiki, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a sort of Web page that anyone can edit; the best-known example, of course, being Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written and edited by volunteers. Motorola started its Q wiki off with the contents of the user manual for the phone, and invited its customers to add to it.

“Because the possible applications for the Q will always expand, the ‘ideal’ user guide would also be able to grow and change,” says the wiki. “This wiki is an attempt to do that.”

“We are shipping services which people will mash up together in ways we have not foreseen,” Hobbs says.

“It’s a different thought process for the manufacturer.”

Indeed it is, and a different thought process for users as well. Though there are bound to be some problems when people start twisting things around to do something the original designer might not have intended, the possibilities are indeed interesting.

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