The communication allure of enterprises in the web
In the works of imagination – as we know – it’s easy to find accurate predictions about our life evolution associated with that of technologies.
Even forgetting the great amount of existing literature on the topic, it’s sufficient to take some works elaborated by advertising, as an Italian newspaper just showed us, recalling the advertising campaign “You will” launched by AT&T in 1993 – the campaign, created by N.W. Ayer & Partners and directed by the gifted David Fincher, displays AT&T’s next commercial projects.
In the early nineties of XX century internet was practically a niche phenomenon being its users between 0 and 1% of worldwide population but, evidently, marketing people of telco companies saw the huge potentiality that a deep diffusion of networked digital technologies could bring in terms of information and communication applications.
To sum up, in each worldwide country telco companies had a relevant position having developed telecommunication network in a regime of natural monopoly in order to support the needs of interactions from distant locations in their communities – in particular, their most important and profitable service was absolutely the telephony so that they are also universally identified as phone companies.
Hence, having a strong feeling due to its leadership in the field, AT&T launched the heart beyond the obstacles announcing its ipertrophic challenge as the next provider of a series of high-tech innovative services.
So, in the advertising campaign “You will” is possible to see how works:
- Grocery checkout machines that would process an entire cart at a time without the groceries needing to be removed;
- Intelligent personal assistants (“Have you ever had an assistant who lived in your computer?”);
- Videoconferencing (“Have you ever shown up for a meeting in your bare feet?”);
- GPS navigation systems with automatic rerouting based on live traffic (“Have you ever crossed the country without stopping to ask directions?”);
- Wi-Fi/WAN, tablet computing and portable pen computing (“Have you ever sent a fax from the beach?”);
- Smartwatches (“[Have you ever] gotten a phone call, on your wrist?”);
- Self-service kiosks (“Have you ever renewed your drivers license at a cash machine?”);
- Real-time online collaboration, envisioned as two students teaching each other their native languages over videophone (“Have you ever studied with a classmate thousands of miles away?”) and, in a separate ad, as a father reading a bed-time story to his child remotely, while they both view the same page of the story on their individual laptops;
- Online libraries (“Have you ever borrowed a book, thousands of miles away?”);
- Electronic toll collection (“Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down?”);
- Video on demand (“Have you ever watched the movie you wanted to, when you wanted to?”);
- A combination of video conferencing, speech recognition, and translation software (“[Have you ever] conducted business in a language you don’t understand?”);
- Home automation (“[Have you ever] kept an eye on your home when you’re not at home?”) which is accessed in the ad via what resembles a touchscreen smartphone;
- Distance learning (“[Have you ever] learned special things, from faraway places”?) as a student learns the history of jazz via video conference with his teacher. [from Wikepedia]
The unfulfilled promises
Indeed, AT&T’s promises were very generous but – as noted by many people – there was only one flaw, to have not been able to provide almost none of the commercial services advertised – products left, at most, as prototypal versions in their secret laboratories.
It wasn’t only an AT&T’s issue but this evident inability – after around 30 years from ads – to offer as their own services and products the applications and devices billions of people using today on internet is a common problem for all telephone companies in the world.
Despite the available time and financial capitals, this kind of enterprises – as all players that are the absolute actors of a particular sector– do not be able to change pretty fast their organizative and industrial culture to tune up with the new spirit of time – meaning, the deregulamentation policy of telecommunication services, with the lost of monopolistic advantages, and the onset of new techno-economic and socio-cultural dynamics generated by internet phenomenon.
An explainer factor behind this kind of failure is the weak risk culture along with the will to protect the present profitability – normally based on a total control of productive and commercial lines in their industry – and the fact that all the management, whose duty should be to define a new company’s mission capable to face the new challenges, has a reward system based on short-term objectives.
Although the fear that innovations are going, in a futurible horizon, to undermine and unseat their power, every action substracting already now part of profit is lived as an economical menace much more concrete – it’s true at personal level, but also at the company level when enterprise health is now valuated every quarter influencing immediately its share performance on the stock exchange.
This quite conservative behaviour works as an obstacle for the renewal of enterprise processes – the revision of marketing plans, researching and hiring of new professional skills, refocusing of company culture, review of reward systems, etc. – all passages needed to face a so huge phenomenon as the convergence – in a deregulamented market – of products and services created by the intersection of industries before separated as those of Information Technology, telecommunication and media.
The communicative downsizing
If AT&T feels safe in the 1993 to be able to bring itself such technological wonders – the catch-phrase repeated in every spot begins with “Have you ever…” and ends with ”… you will. And the company that will bring it to you: AT&T.” – in the next periods its communicative actions begins to become much more prudent having experimented the hard task to compete – as a big and structured company shaped by traditional business – with the lean and fast-processing companies of web, and to find the righ business models in order to get relevant profit in a still immature market of internet.
Effectively, in the subsequent years advertising campaigns are mostly focused on business that, although in evolution, are in their direct sphera of influence, meaning network services, above all internet data connectivity – also the telcos, in line with their tradition, became Internet Service Provider in order to intercept the increasing demand for internet services.
In the meantime the digital convergence produce huge changes in the industry. The adoption of a common network protocol (Internet Protocol, IP) from the Internet Service Provider and telcos – a mandatory condition for consenting people to partecipate and communicate on internet – opens up new entrepreneurs the gate of the industry value chain, previosily enterely controlled and managed by telcos.
Internet – the network gathering the networks adopting IP protocol – is an open structure whose main function is to flow and speed up the IP data packets elaborated and transmitted/received from software applications running on devices linked to its end-points – these terminal devices can be managed, indifferently, by normal users or service providers.
The new value chain for the ICT services
In the creation of ICT services – to say, upstream – telcos now have to compete with other ICT providers. The same condition is replicated downstream, on the front of the customer devices transformed finally in IP application platforms ready to offer new user experience to people.
The old value chain – once dominated in every part by telco – is now broken, fragmenting in favor of many other entrepreneurs both the upstream side, that of service creation, and the downstream side, where customer is interfaced. The network infrastructure part is the only one controlled by telcos that, in so doing, play a fondamental role for the whole system being in charge for the maintenance and development of the different network segments – access, interregional, national, international, both fixed and mobile.
The dethronement of telcos from the mobile devices business
Another downsizing for telcos happens with the commercial introduction of smartphones – exactly, with the launch of Apple’s iPhone in the 2007. Until then phone companies were able to control the commercial distribution chain – thanks the domain of telecommunication services and the specificity of technical interfacing between customer devices and telephone switches – mediating commercial relashionships with the different enterprises operating in this sector (operation system producers, content owners, VAS aggregators, hardware vendors).
When mobile phones can leave the misery of data services relying from SMS data, and finally data can flow through the third generation data lines (UMTS) – supporting IP data packets – personal phones become portable computers with their own operating systems and Application Stores – an online place full of multifunctional applications ready to be installed by users and that works as intermediaries with the associated service platforms on internet.
So, Apple was a forerunner for a new business model in which every enterprise aimed to create a mobile service on internet can directely offer its application to every user – ousting phone company from the previous position of compulsory intermediation.
Briefly, internet becomes a melting pot of entrepreneurial initiatives based on the development of application platform ready to offer connected people both traditional (but in new ways and modalities) and innovative services in every field – communication, information, entertainment, productivity, etc.
In the context of this new digital ecosystem the role of ex telephone companies remains fondamental but, of course, less extensive and bubbly in terms of new user applications despite their initial hopes.
The new course of telco advertising
Left behind the dreams of glory – of being a protagonist in the field of internet application services – telcos reimposted their advertising campaigns having also to defend themselves form a kind of negative sentiment – users, eager to use internet services they feel as essential for their own lives, see with annoyance their role as sentinel and administrator of access network. From this point of view some moves as flat subscription and the rise of amount of internet data usableare a lenitive cure.
However, these campaigns have also another kind of problem, that of making a difference compared to its own competitors given that telco companies are all squeezed on the same functionalities – mostly, connectivity services for access network. So, they are obliged to engage themselves for reassuring in terms of network performance, availability, technology evolution, network expansion, customer caring.
In short, important topics but, in terms of scenographic effects for advertising communication, not very sexy. A certain panache in these campaigns was added with the opportunity to also talk about cinema after telco marketing devised bundle offers – associating broadband connection services with on-demand streaming subscriptions of films and TV series – a way to differentiate themselves (and we, perhaps, not to get bored…).
“Così degli spot della compagnia telefonica AT&T avevano previsto esattamente il futuro 29 anni fa“, La Repubblica, 1/7/2022.
Trotman, A., Zhang, J., 2013, Future Web Growth and its Consequences for Web Search Architecture, Cornell University.