I spoke at a telco-heavy event last week. Really I do not see what their future is, other than to provide fat pipes. Once WiFi (or WiMAX) is prevalent in the cities and people start using IP phones (Skype has announced one and rumors are that Apple is readying one for the market), the combination of fast 'net access and open standards will drive innovation to really take off at the edges in radical new ways. And the telcos are not known for innovation, so they will, I think, more and more be left behind.
Another challenging idea: the average time to pay off investments in the older generation of switching equipment was 30 years (according to one speaker at the conference I attended). The time to payoff is now 3 to 5 years but technology generations (read: software-driven innovations) are on the order of 18 months, and accelerating. So anyone who is deploying expensive infrastructure and expecting to reap the profits from their investments is deluded. What happens when technology generations occur every 6 months or less? (Yes, the time is coming.) Forget about all that centralized telco stuff -- only small, decentralized technologies will thrive.
Final thought: once IP phones take off, presence will indeed become the new dial tone (why call someone if they're not available?). So the buddy list will become the center of the universe, even more than it is today.
May you live in interesting times. :-)
Peter Saint-Andre > Journal