“Nothing ages as quickly as yesterday’s vision of the future!”

“Nothing ages so quickly as yesterday’s vision of the future!” So said Richard Nelson Corliss. Richard Corliss passed away in April of 2015; he was an American film critic and magazine editor for Time, among other things, focusing on movies, with occasional articles on other subjects. In the technology industry, we often have the arrogance to lay claim to a particular version of the future. I have succumbed to this myself, and I wanted to share an example of my folly — and a new version of a future!!! Of course. I can’t help it.

In 1999, I was in Hong Kong, I think in October, meeting with mobile operators and journalists at an upmarket hotel in Kowloon. I was talking about the imminent collision of the Internet and mobile. It was going to be massive! Remember, this was pre-dot-com-bust… It was going to be transformative! All I had for evidence was a CNN ews service, a Nokia 7110, a new feature called WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and an early release of a 3G network, which worked, but not without frequent behind the scenes re-boots of the phones and the network…

By the time the dot-com bust rolled around and 3G networks were like helpless ducklings flapping in the lake trying to take off, this future collision of the Internet and mobile seemed uninteresting and terribly outdated. In fact, the biggest innovation around this time was pre-paid services, which allowed millions of new users to join the mobile revolution. They didn’t care much about WAP or 3G they cared about the new opportunity to connect with friends and family.

“As an electronics engineer by training and geek at heart, I love new technology. But as an investor, I try to force myself to take a more measured approach.”

As an electronics engineer by training and geek at heart, I love new technology. With a Myers-Briggs ENTJ profile, I am prone to jumping on new ideas quickly and discarding the old stuff even faster. But as an investor, I try to force myself to take a more measured approach, which is not easy in an environment with a macroeconomic boom cycle heading into its12th year, and a tech industry that has barely seen a setback since the dot-com bust.

Now, this brings me to the NEXT BIG THING something called 5G, the next chapter in the mobile revolution.

It’s February 2019 at Mobile World Congress. Everybody is literally falling over each other to tout 5G devices, networks, and services. We have another big, futuristic vision of 100x download speeds, ultra-low latency, autonomous cars, remote controlled robots, and untethered AR/VR.

But I think the headlines today are really buried somewhere else, in the arcane world of network and SIM card virtualisation, and international roaming.

One of the biggest obstacles to connecting everything, and I mean literally EVERYTHING, lies in a complicated area we call service provisioning. Every country in the world has 3 to 4 network operators that own dearly-acquired frequency spectrum acting as gatekeepers for services and subscriptions. During the last 18 months, several trends have come together in what I believe will fuel the most profound change in the telco landscape over the next 5 years. And it is mostly NOT about 5G. It is about something much more profound. It is about how, after having succumbed to the OTT onslaught unleashed with the advent of the smartphone and ubiquitous IP connectivity, mobile operators may lose one of their last bastions of control.

“With the advent of LTE/4G, the virtualisation commenced and with 5G it will arrive in full force.”

First, let’s look at network virtualisation. What happened with IT virtualisation is now happening in the telco infrastructure world. It has been somewhat more difficult, because the telco networks have been running SS7 network protocols or derivatives, and SS7 was originally designed for fixed telephony on largely proprietary hardware. With the advent of LTE/4G, the virtualisation commenced, and with 5G, it will arrive in full force. Virtualisation plus commodity hardware will shatter the old paradigm, enabling you to run “instances” of any network function, anywhere, as long as you have an IP connection. Think of how you buy cloud computing on Amazon.

In addition, the SIM card is going “soft.” As you know, a SIM card needs to be installed, configured, and activated for your mobile or IoT device to operate. The SIM function is critical, as it provides authentication, invokes encryption, and separates the hardware device from a phone number or IP identity. Now SIM cards are being replaced by a so-called “soft-SIM.” It is no longer necessary to ship a physical SIM card; you can remotely configure and activate a SIM function anywhere in the world.

When you marry these two virtualisation developments with international roaming, it means that:

Any company or organisation can issue and activate subscriptions from a single central point with their own services, which will run on any device, in any mobile network globally, at a price that is “local everywhere.”

For consumers, think about a Netflix or Apple mobile subscription. Such a subscription will, for many, be much more appealing than a subscription from the operator.

For businesses, think about shipping a car, a coffee maker, a dishwasher, a toothbrush, or whatever it may be from any factory, pre-configured and ready to get connected with little or no intervention from the consumer.

For industries, they can run their own private instance of a network, keep control of service quality, and keep their data inside their own servers or at their own cloud instance if they so choose.

For the two latter groups, I believe this will happen rather swiftly, and probably somewhat under the radar of operators. Consumer-oriented services will have harder battle lines drawn. We have already witnessed a scramble by operators to merge with content guys; Verizon’s acquistion of AOL/Yahoo and the AT&T/Time Warner merger attempt are cases in point.

So, this is my vain attempt at predicting the future. My view is likely to become terrible outdated very quickly, and, in that case, I will instead reward you with a list of some of the favorite Richard Corliss movies, several of which have their own interesting predictions for the future. Enjoy!

Some of Richard Corliss’ favourite movies:

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Bo Ilsoe

Partner at NGP Capital. Raised in Europe. Sharing my learnings through Notes to CEOs, the bi-weekly letters I send to the CEOs and leaders in my portfolio.