Convergence For No Good Reason At All
By Mike Masnick, Thu Jan 27 23:30:00 GMT 2005

There have been some bizarre attempts at convergence in the past, but BT's Bluephone offering, which plans to "merge" Wi-Fi and cellular makes so little sense it's hard to see how it's convergence at all.

Lots of people like to make fun of "convergence," wondering when we're going to start seeing microwave ovens included in our phones -- but the truth is plenty of converged offerings make sense because they let people do something that was simply impossible without the merged features. For example, many have wondered about why it made sense to mix a camera and a phone, but that misses the point. Cameraphones aren't about putting a camera in the same device as a phone and treating them as separate features, but the fact that it suddenly makes your camera connected in a way that's never been possible before. That's where the differentiator is, and that's where the powerful applications will come from.

Bad or pointless convergence is what happens when the converged offering doesn't actually let anyone do anything differently at all. It just combines two (or more) separate offerings into a single box. It may be gimmicky, but it's hardly "convergence." Take, for example, BT's latest description of its Bluephone offering. The company had announced Bluephone nearly two years ago, with a promise that it would be out in spring of 2004. As the TechWorld article notes, BT still hasn't updated the website making this claim -- which seems a bit embarrassing. Even more embarrassing may be the context, where they note that the 12 months from announcement (April, 2003) to launch (April, 2004) "could be considered almost leisurely" since its being done by the same guy who built up BT Openzone in six months. Apparently, leisure got the best of him, because we're now pushing 20 months.

The original idea (somewhat vaguely and misleadingly explained on the BT site) was to "converge" fixed and mobile phones, just like many other attempts at VoWi-Fi. A caller would have a local base station that would connect to a landline. If the phone was in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi range of the station, the call would be routed over the PSTN network. If it were outside the range, it would switch to a GSM network.

However, it sounds like the plans have changed drastically as this device was leisurely designed. What BT is talking about now makes almost no sense no matter how you look at it. It no longer interfaces with the PSTN network -- which was the whole point, since PSTN calls are likely to be cheaper than GSM calls. Instead, the base station handles GSM calls (which is no benefit to BT, since it doesn't own its own GSM network anyway), and the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection transfers the calls from the base station to the nearby phone. Of course, the phone, itself, also has a GSM radio in it so that it can handle calls outside the range of the base station. If that's the case, what good is the base station at all? If anything, it's an amplifier of GSM signal, but that doesn't seem like a particularly compelling selling point. It's certainly not about convergence.

It's not clear why the development went this way, but it's not hard to speculate on one of the main reasons. One of the problems with all the talk about "seamless" Wi-Fi/cellular handoffs is that it's anything but "seamless" right now. Part of this is a technology problem, but just as much is a business model problem. Convergence has a way of squeezing business models as well. How do you charge for a call that is transferred mid-stream? How do you know which network is cheaper, and do you have to interrupt the phone call to let someone know that they're moving from a cheap VoWi-Fi call to an expensive roaming GSM call? So, in developing the system, someone may have realized that the handoff, from both a technology and business model perspective becomes much easier if it's all GSM. What no one seemed to think about, however, was whether that made any sense at all for the end user.