Mass. CIO Peter Quinn Resigns

I usually reserve this blog for postings on voice technologies and their use in government. However, I feel compelled to comment here on an issue relating to the use of information technology in government more broadly — the recent resignation of Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn.

Mr. Quinn has been the subject of many a news article and blog posting since late summer because of his leadership in developing a policy for the Commonwealth regarding an open document format. If your not familiar with this issue, its worth boning up on. Since the announcement of this new policy last August, a good deal of controversy was been generated and a pretty animated debate (which included top Romney Administration officials and State Legislators) ensued.

Mr. Quinn was the subject of intense scrutiny, and was also investigated for possibly accepting inappropriate reimbursements for travel expenses to various open source conferences – he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in this regard.

I don’t know Peter Quinn well, but we did meet at a gathering of State IT officials that preceded the launch of the Government Open Code Collaborative project. (Mr. Quinn’s leadership in getting this project off the ground was invaluable in my opinion.) I have followed the news accounts surrounding the Massachusetts open document policy and generally believe that it was the right thing to do. I think that Mr. Quinn is a dedicated, smart, passionate public servant that served the people of the Commonwealth well – they may one day find that they were better served by having him as the CIO. We’ll see.

Having said all of that, I think this issue provides a number of very important lessons for government IT professionals:

  • Government is inherently a political environment. IT policy makers and managers can not delude themselves into thinking that they are not operating in an arena that is populated largely by political actors. The nature of this environment must be recognized and respected if significant policy changes (especially controversial ones) are to be enacted.
  • Being right often isn’t enough. Simply having a good idea, or proposing a change that is broadly recognized as being “the right thing” often isn’t enough to get a policy enacted. In some ways, politics is the art of reciprocity (or, as Don Vito once said, “Some day I may ask you for a favor…”). IT managers are often hesitant to engage in horse trading, and dirty their hands in the political arena. Legislators, budget officials and politicians are generally interested in doing the right thing – they just want to know what’s in it for them.
  • Company cools controversy. Radical changes are often helped by having key stakeholders buy into the proposed change. The open document policy did not have support from some very key players, most notably the official in charge of archiving state records and documents. Obtaining buy in from key administration officials and legislators should have been part of the broader effort to enact the proposed policy change.
  • Wear a cup. If a proposed policy threatens an entrenched interest (especially one with lots of money) you’re going to have to deal with a couple of kicks to the wontons. Get your ducks in a row – know who the opponents of your policy are likely to be, and how they are likely to come at you. As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War – “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles.”

Google to Takeover Opera?

Some interesting talk of late about the possibility of Google making a play for the Norwegian browser company Opera.

Some analysts are speculating that such an acquisition would support Google’s recent partnerships with Sun and the OpenOffice.org project, and align with its strategy to deliver office software functionality as a service through a browser interface. There is a lot for advocates of voice technologies to be enthusiastic about in such talks – and some things to be concerned about as well.

Google clearly recognizes the value of using voice as a medium for delivering information, and for allowing users to interact with each other – take a look at Google Talk (if you haven’t already). The possibilities of a pairing between Google with the browser company that has been at the forefront of helping further the development of the XHTML+Voice standard are very exciting.

However, there are those speculating that such an acquisition could lead to the development of a Google-optimized browser:

“Whilst it may be difficult for Google to make any direct income from acquiring a browser, there might be the advantage that the company could package a browser pre-configured with Google goodies that it could then attempt to get PC suppliers to preload as part of the machines’ base install,” said Tony Lock, chief analyst with Bloor Research of the U.K.

I for one hope that if this happens, that the excellent XHTML+Voice features that the developers at Opera have built in to their browser don’t get crowded out. If the folks at Google were smart (which they obviously are), they would find a way to leverage the X+V support in the Opera browser to further their click-to-call strategy.

If Larry and Sergey decide to give me a ring, this is the advice I’ll be giving them. 😉

Adventures in Extreme Phoning – Vol II.

Extreme web surfers have know the joy of being untethered for some time now, with the continued maturity of the 802.11 family of standards and the proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots. But VoIP telephony – an absolute must for extreme phone users – remains largely a tethered experience. It’s hard to go mobile with VoIP today, unless you want to run a softphone or Voice over IM client on a laptop that connects to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Still, this type of wireless VoIP experience can’t match the convenience or utility of cellular telephone service. But that appears to be changing.

VoIP companies are starting to work closely with commercial hot-spot providers to roll out true wireless VoIP service (technically called VoWiFi – Voice over Wireless Fidelity). VoIP phone company Vonage has even announced plans for a portable phone that will let customers use their Vonage service when connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Not surprisingly, competing interests will come together as VoWiFi service matures, and governments will likely have a role in determining the outcome.

Cellular providers will no doubt point to tough government regulations requiring them to provide locational information for cellular users. Will VoWiFi providers have to comply with the same or similar requirements?

It also remains to be seen how advances in wireless devices themselves will impact the competing interests between cellular providers and VoIP companies. Since hot spots can provide wireless connectivity only within a limited range (typically about 90 feet), to be truly useful devices will probably need to jump back and forth between Wi-Fi access points and cellular access points. This is probably true even within big metro locations that are rolling out large Wi-Fi service areas (e.g., the City of Philadelphia). It seems likely that some level of cooperation from cellular providers will be needed to make this work – will this cooperative spirit develop alone, or will government regulators enter the fray?

It’s too soon to tell, but if you live near an area where a large Wi-Fi rollout is scheduled to take place (like I do) and you fancy yourself an extreme phoner (like I kindasorta do), then you may need to have a go at this. If I have a chance to check this out I’ll post a review here in the weeks ahead.

Adventures in Extreme Phoning – Vol I.

For those knowledgeable in the realm of software PBX’s like Asterisk, the edge of the envelope might be defined by setting up your own home telephone system built around the latest Asterisk release. For those that want to go to the edge, there is a nice series of podcasts available from TechHelpWeekly that provide an overview of Asterisk and give some good tips on getting a system up and running:

  • Episode 17 – focuses on using Asterisk in a small business setting.
  • Episode 16 – provides some good information on some of the hardware requirements for using Asterisk.
  • Episode 15 – an introduction to Asterisk and software PBX’s. (Kind of “fluffy” – if your already interested in using Asterisk and don’t need to be convinced of its usefulness, go right to the next episode.)

Using Asterisk as the core for a small business telephone system is a great idea – it may also make sense for some smaller governments to give this a whirl. If Asterisk can make Bill & Dave’s Hardware Store sound like Home Depot, it may help jurisdictions with more limited resources provide useful service to their citizens.

VoiceXML 3.0 on its way

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has announced plans to develop the next generation of VoiceXML. The new version will include a feature — termed “speaker verification” — to allow for the verification of callers based on their voice print. This will enhance the security of voice applications, and extend their usefulness in supporting sensitive transactions.

For some background on speaker verification, check out this piece written for the VoiceXML Review by Ken Rehor, the new Chairman of the VoiceXML Forum. If you want to play around with speaker verification, you can check out the extension available on the BeVocal platform. (Keep in mind, however, that the implementation of speaker verification in VoiceXML 3.0 may differ from BeVocal’s implementation.)

As part of the same announcement, the W3C also announced that it will work to further internationalize VoiceXML and its sister specifications to include Mandarin Chinese.

New World Order

Very interesting article on CNET News.com documenting the shift from old line telephone companies to the world of today (and tomorrow), characterized by fiber optic cable, IP telephony and software-based routers and PBX’s.

It’s a brave new world, and it will have an indelible effect on old line phone companies. It will also have an impact on how governments regulate telecommunications companies, both old and new:

“In the end there is going to be more regulation, not less,” said Christiaan Hogendorn, who teaches the economics of technology at Wesleyan University. “Every infrastructure industry starts with lots of competition and then as competitive issues come up, we get more regulation.”

One of the primary issues that will likely shape the nature of the new world order is the stance old line companies (who manage the networks on top of which all of this fun new stuff is happening) take towards their competitors. There have already been skirmishes – scuffles have developed where broadband providers have blocked access to competing services delivered over their networks.

An uneasy truce appears to have settled around a policy statement adopted by the FCC to outline “net neutrality”:

  • Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and,
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Its not clear that this statement (as opposed to a formal regulation by the FCC) is going to cut the mustard as competition among the old and the new heats up. As old line companies lose these competitive skirmishes, the impact will continue to be felt by workers who a generation ago could count on beginning and ending their career with the phone company. The same phone company.