|By Esmeralda Swartz||
|April 4, 2014 01:00 PM EDT||
How do you know when a technology has become mainstream? A good clue may be when politicians start talking about it on the campaign trail and with mainstream media. David Cameron, the UK prime minister, was the latest, indicating that the world was now on "fast-forward" with the Internet of Things (IoT) ushering in the new industrial revolution. No mention of IoT targeted at the masses would be complete without the clichéd example of the communicating fridge. While it is easy to get caught up in the hype and over-simplify, the complexity associated with making IoT mainstream will be unlike anything we have seen before it.
In the last Internet of things (IoT) blog, I suggested that in the emerging IoT world, humans will set policies and rules that define desired outcomes, while the execution of minute-by-minute decisions driven by those policies will increasingly be handled by automated agents. In turn those agents, as they evolve in sophistication and functionality, will drive new business models, new ways of generating revenue, and new strategies for pricing and charging.
Today, enterprises are discovering that one-trick billing is not suitable for a complex services world. We all know that a billing system needs to flexibly support, for example, recurring and non-recurring charges, volume discounts, short and long-term commitments, settlements, and (for enterprise billing) bill tracking and assignment across multiple departments and product lines.
Yet here we are today in a world increasingly being made more complicated by a proliferation of online services, by IoT and by a maze of evolving business relationships, and what do we find? Service providers are still being sold one-trick billing systems.
Perhaps there is some deep-rooted psychological need for some people to deny complexity. Over-simplifying, like politicians with their fridges, may be part of the popular culture, but in business, as in engineering, science and medicine, it is important to face up to complexity, understand what is really going on, and build our plans accordingly.
When Internet services emerged, some people predicted that everything was going to be paid for by advertising: a really simple business model. Then the online shopping cart came along and, without diminishing the importance of advertising much, vendors were able to trade online and offer services and products for money in a subscription form: another simple business model supported by one-trick billing systems. While subscription services have always been with us, the Internet enabled providers to offer many new services using the subscription model: software, music, movies, news.
And now we have IoT, and - even better - IoT with smart agents. We will see, naturally enough, that Internet merchant platform players insist that IoT devices and systems can be sold in shopping carts. Subscription billing system vendors will tell us IoT services are perfect for vanilla subscription billing. While others will come along with billing systems that are IoT-specific and assume some kind of a business model that is absolutely the best for IoT.
Yet in this increasingly complex environment, one-trick billing starts to look like a shaky idea. If you only have a merchant platform you can't handle subscriptions. If your billing system only supports subscriptions, forget selling service-related products through your own portal. If your billing system is designed just for IoT-style services, you could find yourself shut out from expanding into other lines of business. You will either have to constrain your business model, buy or license additional systems, or go to third parties for help.
For a new-start company, a one-trick billing system could appear to be a great way of getting into business, especially if it's available as a service with no long-term commitments. But as a company matures and expands its portfolio of services and products, it also expands its perspective on the marketplace. They experiment with more varied and more nuanced business models. They want to try interesting new approaches to pricing and billing to attract and retain customers. At this point, businesses find that they've outgrown their start-up one-trick billing systems. They find, as so many companies have discovered before them, that they cannot form their pricing and billing strategies around the needs and preferences of the market. Instead they must constrain their strategies to conform to the limitations and ways of working defined in their billing system. If you want to evolve your pricing and billing approach, you will have to buy a new system, either to replace or supplement the old system.
An earlier generation has seen this before; it's not a distinctive feature of the Internet. One traditional phone company, a giant, started with one billing system, as everyone does. They grew and refined their approach to the market and added new services. Their original billing system was a one-trick system, so they bought or built some new systems: systems specific to a particular product set; systems specific to a particular pricing strategy; systems to link all the other systems together... After a surprisingly short time, they found they had over a hundred distinct systems in their billing environment, strung together after a fashion, but with fragmented and highly duplicated data. Expensive and dysfunctional. Getting out of that kind of trap is not easy. The company sought help from another corporate giant and bought one more billing system, the system to end all other systems. Five years later they still had over one hundred plus one systems.
If they'd had a billing system able to support the agile needs of the business, they could have spent more time developing and selling services and less time band-aiding their systems environment. I have pointed out in several previous blogs that MetraNet users have a distinct advantage: the system can handle any business model, or any combination of business models, including business models that haven't been invented yet. By contrast, when you buy a one-trick billing system, you are also buying into the one-trick business model supported by that system.
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