AT&T Innovation Showcase Highlights a Changing Carrier

Pair a "super computer" with a software-defined network and very cool things become possible, AT&T made clear at its annual Innovation Showcase.

AT&T hosted its annual Innovation Showcase May 16, shining a spotlight on ideas that might someday be powered by its fast-growing and evolving network.

"I don't know of any industry where change is happening at such a rapid pace," said Marian Croak, an engineer and developer with more than 156 patents to her name and AT&T's senior vice president of Applications and Services Infrastructure. A slight woman with a quiet voice but commanding presence, Croak is also responsible for the design and implementation of Domain 2.0—recently renamed the User-Defined Network Cloud.

The network, now in year one of a six-year plan, is expected to begin offering its first services in the coming weeks.

Kicking off the event, Croak explained that the industry's growth has largely come thanks to smartphones, "super computers in the palm of your hand," which have changed both the way people communicate and the way wireless carriers build their networks.

"All the engineering around our networks has changed, as well as the way we design services and introduce them," Croak said. Also changed is the way AT&T builds and perceives its networks.

"We used to be more protective. Now, we make APIs available … and give developers tools to use so that reliability and resiliency—things that can take years to develop—are available to any innovator [immediately] and is theirs to use," she added.

More intelligence is also being built into networks that will allow end users—"not just developers but all of you," Croak said, smiling at the crowd, "to have access to [a new kind of experience]. Customers will be given the tools to create their own services. It will be your network. You'll be able to design it."

If the last 10 years were about smartphones, the next 10 years, it's not a stretch to say, will be about the networks and what they make possible.

While the focus is certainly still on smartphones today, "We're really early on [in the process], in that there will be a lot of different ways people connect," Christopher Rice, vice president of Advanced Technologies and Architecture at AT&T, told eWEEK.

In addition to watches, cars and homes, he said, "Sensor networks want to be connected as well, and the value of the network grows with the more things that are on it."

Croak described the group Rice oversees as being "laser-focused on key, strategic big bets."

"When you look at the historic events in telecom," said Rice, "there's the move from analog to digital, then from voice to data—and then cellular. We're in one of those exciting moments again now, moving to software."

What might AT&T's software-defined network enable?

The innovators dotted the room, each assigned a tiny table on which they exhibited their magic.

One showed off a technology that uses a smartphone's camera (connectivity isn't necessary) to enable consumers or business users to view very sensitive information in public without the worry of someone seeing over their shoulders at an ATM or using a bit of malware to note their keystrokes at a café. The technology is scrambled until viewed through the digital camera, which can also present a randomized keypad onto which a user can type a one-time PIN.

Another pair showed off an application that turns a user's smartphone into a microphone. Integrated into an event-planning application (including a speaker list, hotel info and other relevant data), the feature would eliminate the moment of microphones being run around for questions after a presentation. The user taps a button to ask to speak, and the request gets sent to the moderator's device, where he or she can approve it, activating the user's phone-based microphone.

Another app, with the potential to reach across multiple verticals, enables users to share images and video with customer service reps.

Croak, smiling and gesturing toward the scientists, developers and engineers toward the back of the room, before opening up the Showcase to journalists, stated, convincingly, "I want you to understand the talent that's in this room!"

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