title: That future was a thing of the past


by: Scott Bradner


The demise of ION has finally been accepted by all concerned.  It has taken a very long time. Sprint launched Integrated On-demand Network (ION) in June 1998 with great fanfare after which ION quickly disappeared as far as most of the world was concerned.  Apparently Sprint has been busy behind the scenes shoveling money at ION all this time, as much as $5 billion according to the obituary in NWW. ("Sprint's ION, AT&T's Concert reach end of line", NWW, 10/22/01) 


I did write about ION when it was first announced and was not all that positive about its prospects. "It is far from clear if Sprint will be able to actually make a go of ION..." ("Is Sprint doing it again", NWW 6/22/98) Since ION was based on ATM to the customer I mostly dismissed the possibility of anything technically viable coming of the effort but some of the non-technical aspects were quite interesting.  Particularly interesting was Sprint's plan to move away from minute-based phone billing to billing based on the amount of data sent, whatever the application.  That may still happen but not because the carrier decides to offer voice service on a per-bit rather than a per-minute basis.  It will happen because users will just use their Internet connectivity to replace their current wired phone service and the carrier will not be able to tell what is going on. I expect it's just a coincidence, but Sprint announced that it was giving up on ION a week before Microsoft's introduction of Windows XP which, with its built in Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) support, will make this type of call-around much easier.


SIP is the IETF's multi-media signaling protocol.  SIP is defined in RFC 2543. (www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2543.txt) SIP is getting a lot of traction in the IP-telephony world these days.  In addition to Windows XP, SIP-based Ethernet-connected phones and telephony servers are now on the market.  SIP has the potential to significantly affect the traditional phone world by enabling individuals and enterprises to easily by-pass the telephone service providers.


But I do not think the root cause of the ION failure was the threat of SIP.  I think it was mind-set.  Specifically it was telco mind-set.  In the case of ION this mind-set manifested itself as services based on circuits, ATM virtual circuits to be specific.  The Internet has proven again and again that application-specific circuits are not needed and just add technical and managerial complexity and thus cost.  A few million people running SIP-based voice applications will show this yet again.  I wonder if anyone in telo-ville is listening.


disclaimer:  Managerial complexity at Harvard?  Say not so! Anyway, the above prediction of the past is mine alone.