AT&T Aims to Avoid Opening Can of Worms as It Opens Up Its Network
The windowless building in Lower Manhattan may not indicate it, but AT&T Labs is trying to be more open.
Using an area normally home to its network security team, Ma Bell had a science fair of sorts on Thursday, showing off a number of the technologies that it has been cooking up in its labs. Many of the projects on display take advantage of different pieces of network data that AT&T now makes available to developers.
The various projects and booths paint an interesting future where doors can be opened by voice, a chip in the phone or even the electrical signals that travel through our hands, to name just a few of the gee-whiz technologies on display. But whether this future is bright or grim depends a bit on how one feels about being tracked.
Cellphones are indeed powerful devices these days — portable computers that know who we are, where we are and how we pay for things. Many of the projects on display Thursday aim to combine that knowledge in useful ways.
One application, for example would allow parents to keep tabs on their kids while they are driving — getting alerts if they text and drive or neglect to wear their seatbelts.
Another project nearby shows something akin to Caller ID on steroids. Today’s Caller ID shares only one’s phone number, but AT&T has the potential to share a lot more. One demo imagined what it would be like to share location and all manner of other information with a person you are dialing. Such uses could make it easy when, for instance, one is ordering a pizza.
Data combinations clearly have downsides, though. Imagine how hard it would be to cancel an outing with friends if they knew one was in Atlantic City, rather than sick in bed.
There are two questions that companies need to ask when releasing new services, says Edward Amoroso, senior VP and chief security officer for AT&T.
The first, Amoroso says, is about the art of the possible. “What sort of technology could you actually do?”
Then, he said, it is important to ask a second question. “What technology are people going to be comfortable with?”
Thursday’s science fair was more about the first question than the second.
Not all of the projects were as fraught with controversy. One of the more popular demos was one AT&T has been showing for a couple of years now called “Air Graffiti,” which allows users to tag physical locations with art, photos, sounds or other information — all without the risk of irking the property owner. AT&T has been working on the idea for a decade, but the technology needed to make it a reality has only recently become widely available.
Locations can be as specific as a single spot or as big as the earth and users can choose to share their graffiti publicly or with only a small collection of friends or family. Graffiti can also be timed to last for a short duration or set to live forever.
AT&T also used Thursday’s event to launch Watson, a new speech-recognition technology that it says is the result of a million hours of research and development and is the subject of 600 patents. The platform can recognize natural speech patterns and translate among six different languages.
Several of the technologies on display are also making their way into AT&T’s latest “Rethink Possible” campaign spots.
AT&T, like other carriers, have been increasingly opening up various features of their network — even core things like location and messaging and payment — so that developers can create more sophisticated programs.
Opening up their most valuable assets — the networks — is a clear risk for the carriers. At the same time, each is looking to avoid becoming just a “dumb pipe” for which they are paid a toll that barely covers the cost of each generation of network upgrades.
Things are indeed at a critical juncture, says Chief Technology Officer Krish Prabhu.
“There’s a cultural transformation and we are right in the middle of it,” Prabhu told AllThingsD. In a couple of years, the result will be clear, he said. “Either we changed the company for the good or we missed the boat.”
One of the capabilities that AT&T is studying is whether to allow, for example, the ability for applications to send text messages on behalf of users, much the way that the iPhone or Android sends notifications. Striking the right balance between usefulness and spam will be key.
Also front of mind for AT&T is making sure that nothing it does compromises the overall security of its network, something Amoroso said remains his top priority.
Figuring out how to make money will be another key. Prabhu said that AT&T has some goals in terms of getting a certain percentage of new revenue by opening up its network. However, he declined to reveal any of the specific numbers.
“I think the network has a lot of capability other than just connectivity,” he said. “It is a business objective and there is clearly an understanding that at some level a certain percentage of our revenue will come from this.”