Proponents Hope IP Multimedia Subsystems Will Propel Convergence
Technology’s combination of VoIP, cellular, and WiFi leads one analyst to call it the “holy grail” of convergence.
by Mark Fritz
The topic of IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS) has been simmering in the telecommunications industry for the past few years. It has been like lava bubbling in the throat of a volcano, and when it erupts, the impact on the streaming media industry could be earth-shaking--not earth-shakingly bad but earth-shakingly good--at least for those who have prepared themselves.
Recently there has been a flurry of market reports and conferences devoted to IP Multimedia Subsystems. IMS will create a "shift in personal communications," according to promoters of Fixed Mobile ConvergenceLIVE!, which is being held in Chicago this week. "New technology is rapidly emerging that combines VoIP with both cellular and WiFi connectivity," says the conference's promotional material. The result will be the delivery of sophisticated multimedia services to users "in simple packages that combine the best of both worlds--seamless mobility and the economics of Internet Protocol."
And in a just-released market report, Henry Goldberg, senior analyst for high-tech market research firm In-Stat, goes even further, calling IMS "a revolutionary vision for the future of telecommunications" and predicting that "IMS will deliver the `Holy Grail' of convergence..."
So what exactly is an IP Multimedia Subsystem? Well, according to Venture Development Corporation (VDC), a technology market research and strategy consulting firm, IMS is "a next-generation network architecture" that was originally developed by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) "to support multimedia convergence of voice, video, messaging, and data and access convergence among 2G, 3G, 4G, and WiFi networks...[and which]...also supports convergence of wireline networks." A sort of hybrid solution, IMS is "really neither a Telecom nor an Internet network, [but] rather a complex, to-be-determined mixture of both."
And as In-Stat states in Goldberg's report, IMS will lead to "new multimedia services, new business models and relationships, and new end-user devices with new capabilities. In the long term, all telecommunications services (voice services, business networking services, the Internet, IPTV) will be provided through IMS."
The IMS trend will create a proliferation of new IP-based multimedia applications and simplify the creation of new services. Thanks to IMS, these new services will be universal and accessible on any network. One example that VDC gives is a universal buddy list that will allow a user to find out if his friends are available for communication (via a telephone call, a video conference, or a short message session) from his home, office, or cell phone.
IMS will "provide unprecedented flexibility in the way mobile data is delivered to the subscriber," according to Unstrung, an online publication that covers wireless networking. New applications that we may soon see thanks to IMS include the ability to launch a circuit voice call from an instant messaging session, the ability to start a video-sharing application during a circuit voice call, multimedia conferencing, and multiplayer gaming, says Unstrung.
One new service that IMS makes possible is something that already is available on Nokia phones in Italy. Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM) is offering a video-sharing (see-what-I-see) service over a Nokia IMS network to Nokia handsets, according to an Unstrung report. Video sharing is a new multimedia service that allows 3G mobile users to share a live camera view or a video clip while speaking on their mobile phones. "It provides the users with an instant way of adding a visual element into a phone conversation," says Unstrung.
Nokia and TIM reportedly also plan to take advantage of TIM's IMS network infrastructure to offer other services such as content sharing, media push, IP voice messaging, and push-to-talk.
In-Stat's Henry Goldberg believes that the most popular class of multimedia tools and services that IMS will produce is "variable systems that will make collaboration as effective and transparent as possible." And these applications will not be limited to offices. Goldberg foresees IMS bringing collaboration and videoconferencing right into the home. "The IPTV architecture that is enabled by this architecture will enable people at home to communicate through their TVs in a flexible way," says Goldberg. "People will use their TV just like any other communication device."
Spyros Photopoulos, an analyst for VDC, sees a bright future for IMS, even though it is "still very young ... a gradually evolving market," he says. In-Stat's Goldberg agrees and is equally optimistic about the future of IMS. He says the whole pace of implementation will be determined by wireless carriers who seem to be moving forward cautiously, perhaps confused by the unfamiliar new business models the technology promises to spawn. VDC echoes this in one of its white papers where it notes: "While IMC is evolutionary in nature, its impact on the market will likely be revolutionary. IMS is a unique catalyst and potentially disruptive technology to the telecom community."
But even the most cautious carriers will eventually employ IMS, says Photopoulos. "I think most carriers have already bought into the overall concept. It is very attractive them," he says. Indeed, it is very attractive to everyone, from carriers to hardware infrastructure providers like Cisco, Nortel, Lucent, etc., to 3rd party application and content providers.
Not surprisingly, cellular carriers are expected will be the "most aggressive" early adopters, according to VDC. After all, IMS has evolved out of 3G activities and therefore many cellular/mobile companies have a sort of head start. Likewise, the first IMS multimedia applications we will see are likely to come from mobile and cellular companies--the previously mentioned Nokia video sharing application being a good example.
Of course, for both carriers and 3rd party applications and content providers, the problematic question will remain: What video and multimedia products and services will consumers want and be willing to pay for? But the analysts say that IMS will allow entrepreneurs to create and deliver applications and services quicker and easier and with less up front cost and thus less risk. And thus, developers and content providers should be able to afford to experiment.
In the past, carriers have been reluctant to implement new multimedia services, says VCD in an IMS white paper subtitled, "The Emerging But Uncertain IMS Market." But by separating the software logic from the hardware, "IMS lowers the financial risks of implementing new applications," says VDC. "Instead of purchasing new hardware for each new application, a common hardware platform is used to trial application software that is easily modified or replaced."
"IMS will save development costs and lead to faster time to market," says VDC's Photopoulos. The one big obvious advantage to IMS is that multimedia applications developers won't have to create separate wireline and wireless versions of their programs/applications or services. Developers won't have to be constantly reinventing the wheel.
One can argue about who will be the biggest winners as IMS matures, but content developers are clearly in an enviable position. "Content and Application Providers have the most to gain relative to their current position," VDC asserts in its white paper. "IMS offers them new distribution channels and new business models in both an open and closed network scenario."
And so for anyone in the streaming media community who owns video or multimedia content and who has been searching for new ways to profit from the distribution of that content, IMS is good (if somewhat confusing) news. It presents both opportunity and, of course, challenge.
"IMS is a powerful architecture for quickly and easily implementing almost any service you can imagine," says Goldberg in summation. Okay all you creative and ambitious content owners, developers, and entrepreneurs--start imagining.
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