Networking vendors, desperate to differentiate themselves from one-another, are trying to blind us with science, while most of the telcos for much the same reason try to persuade us that things are a lot more difficult than they actually are - or at least, so claims Matthew Finnie, the outspoken CTO of Interoute, the network operator and application service provider.

"The move towards VoIP is all muddied up by the equipment vendors - the problem is the traditional TDM vendors looking for a way to re-establish themselves in the enterprise, attacking Cisco and Juniper," he says.

"But it's not about the technology, it's about what you're trying to do. And all you want to do is log in, right-click on a name, and make a phone call."

The problem has got even worse recently, he says, with the arrival of offerings such as Metro Ethernet and Carrier Ethernet. These are now being pitched as Layer 2 alternatives to Layer 3 technologies such as MPLS - even though when it comes down to it, it all ends up on the same fibre-optic backbone, travelling in the same direction.

"There's a lot of chatter coming out of the vendors saying it's all going to be Layer 2," he explains. "I even had a customer say 'We're thinking of using Ethernet instead of MPLS because it's faster.' I thought, it's the speed of light, mate - the only delays between Layers 2 and 3 are microseconds in the router!

"How it's delivered is irrelevant. The question is, do you want to manage the router? If yes, you'll probably be delivered Ethernet. If no, then you'll probably be delivered a Layer 3 service, and that's MPLS.

"It reminds me of the old Not The Nine O'clock News sketch in the hi-fi shop and the salesman asking 'You want woofers and tweeters with that?' Only now it's 'You want Layer 3 with that?' The answer's the same - you already got it whether you like it or not."

To Finnie's mind, a lot of it derives from the way networking and network technology has been simplified over the years. Once upon a time, you needed an in-depth understanding of how networks worked to help you get them working, especially if you wanted to connect together different types of network.

Now, easily available bridging technologies and the delivery of pre-configured and pre-adapted services make much of that learning unnecessary.

"People have lost that basic knowledge," he says. "The vendors and operators could do everyone a service and be a bit more honest. Essentially they're trying to go back to the days of ATM, when this stuff was really really hard, and you needed them to help you.

"They're trying to throw away ten to 15 years of simplification. This is the issue I have with telecoms operators who always want to drag it back to the importance of the network - the network for the network's sake."

He argues that there's no point now in operators selling their networks on a technology basis - what they are actually selling, and we are buying, is just a platform for the delivery of services.

"You differentiate on what you allow people to do once they're plugged in, then it boils down to the economics of delivering that," he says.

So if you can't decide which service to buy based on network layers and all the other obfuscations of vendors, how can you decide?

Of course Finnie himself isn't entirely unbiased - after all, he works for a company which sells remote access to applications and virtual servers as online services, so a part of its sales pitch is that it's better to lease than buy outright. Still, his advice is interesting.

"Knowing what you'll want to do in 18 months is hard - so don't try," he says. "There is no right answer, the only wrong answer is to do something that costs you money and can't be reversed."

That doesn't just mean going for on-line or hosted services, he adds - it could also mean going for an incremental move rather than a Big Bang approach.

"So before buying Cisco IP telephony, say, first unify what you have and see where it gets you," he concludes. "Business units are as unpredictable as consumers. You have to allow them the room to migrate."