Viber makes me wonder.

(I usually write about pens and art, so this is amazingly out of place on this blog, but I can’t think of where else to put it now, as I have been working for 3 days straight and am only 1% more alive than zombie. So do visit all the lovely pen, ink and paper friends I have listed on the lower right to get your writing instrument fix, and skip this technoramble.)

So I downloaded Viber, and it made me wonder about the near future.

Viber’s a free iPhone (next, BB and Android) app that lets you place and receive free phone calls directly from your phone’s contact list, without having to sign in with a username and password, unlike Skype or Nimbuzz. It uses your phone’s data plan, or WiFi. An incoming Viber call acts just like a regular phone call.  You can call people who don’t have Viber, and that will be part of your regular call plan or charged to your prepaid amount. A Viber to Viber call is free. If you’re using a mall’s free WiFi in Singapore, vibing (yes, I know that has overtones of some sort) someone using free WiFi in Manila, you’ve sidestepped all possible roaming and local charges. Soon, Viber will have free SMS.

Calling and texting, the most basic services, are highly commoditized. Carriers have their good and bad points, and they average out. Customers complain, or stay quiet. They stay with their brand out of assumptions of coverage and usage inertia. I don’t think there’s such a thing in this category (or in any utility or service category, for that matter) as unshakeable, irrational brand loyalty.

I’m not in the telco business, but I wonder. I can only imagine how massive the investment is in physical assets to provide access. Huge investments, huge infrastructure, huge number of employees. Economies of scale make it possible to earn, but with the commoditization of basic services, it would be reasonable to assume that profit per customer on basic services is flat or shrinking. Overall profit can still increase thanks to a growing population entering the market, but most likely at less profit per head. A player can upgrade to LTE, can increase usage of add-on services – but at huge cost.

I wonder about radio stations going down because of costs marching ahead of revenue. (See Jim Ayson’s excellent analysis of the NU 107 case.) I wonder about print in a flurry of reinvention to sell their form when people want the content, not the form.

I wonder what will happen to “TV stations.” Or should we now think of them as entertainment content providers? Or talent managing organizations that create entertainment content around their talents? Should they start thinking like energy providers and not fossil fuel providers? Why should they be tied to the current delivery system? Will buying a badass super-expensive digital broadcast transmitter today that they have to pay for using advertising revenue make sense tomorrow? Why should they worry about which screen?

(A long aside: Traditionally, advertising has subsidized (if not fully paid for) content. It’s advertising revenue that has provided capital for broadcast infrastructure, and even for the production of entertainment content. I think advertising has trained people NOT to pay for entertainment. As long as advertising paid for airtime that paid networks that publicized artists that paid managers that paid networks… I’m glad artists and producers of content can now be paid directly by the consumers of their content, and can even be paid even before production – see Kickstarter – but we have a long way to go before people will get used to paying for what advertising previously paid for.)

If people with access get TV content on their other devices, when they like (not Hulu, just straight download), will airtime get devalued? I should think so. Ad money used to follow eyeballs, now it can follow connection behavior. It would be interesting to see an auction-type model for TV commercials (similar to Adwords) where an algorithm just places realtime bids for airtime depending on the realtime rating of the program segment right before the commercial gap – instead of the standard prices (open to negotiation) charged by networks today, with post-airing reports. Can media buying be replaced by an app on a marketer’s device?

In the next couple of years, everyone will have a smartphone, thanks to China. Let’s say Viber has figured out its business model by then and hasn’t sold to Google. If consumers can get by on almost free, will they? And will any player be making any actual money?

I think a small, nimble player can make money. A player that doesn’t have to move thousands of employees’ worth of infrastructure to get things done, and who doesn’t have the best and the latest, but the most appropriate technology, just enough, and who innovates on the fly.

Let’s say it uses WiMax and makes it possible for everyone to have dirt-cheap mobile broadband. And let’s say WiMax comes in a SIM card, not a USB dongle or a giant modem. That small, nimble player doesn’t have to worry about hurting its other sources of revenue, because this is its only source of revenue. So the same mom who buys shampoo in sachets and dishwashing liquid in unbranded refills buys a dirt-cheap Chinese smartphone, puts in a WiMax SIM, and buys access like she buys shampoo, stretching a single purchase over several days. (At this point, my mind wanders and asks if access purchase can be “diluted” like shampoo, and made to last longer, and then I think, oh, then it’s a SIM that can also pretend to be MiFi, and then my mind asks for a bit of a rest.)

VOIP sucked 5 years ago. It’s almost indistinguishable from placing an old-school landline phone call today. Will a straight-up phone call be the upmarket niche of the near future, where the elite don’t have to connect the same way as the mass market?

Access descends all too easily into becoming a commodity. Innovation holds back the tide. Irrational delight can turn it. Price and coverage don’t always win the game, and they shouldn’t. Players need to experiment faster, fail faster, go to market faster, and be ready to upend existing structures and processes that have served well in the past but might just be holding them back from an awesome near future.