You might not think that the mobile industry could be accused of lethargy. It has been one of the fastest moving sectors for the last twenty years. Yet it has taken the arrival of a range of challengers from the internet for the industry to begin to fulfil its potential.
When I say “the mobile industry”, what I’m really referring to is the old guard. The companies that make up the standards bodies; the ones who’s names are synonymous with mobile; the ones who have been coming to this conference since it was a few dressed tables in a Berlin hotel conference suite. Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Alcatel/Lucent, Nortel et al. And the operators they supply: Vodafone, Telefonica, Orange/France Telecom in Europe, Sprint and Verizon in the US, and all the many others responsible for establishing the major markets around the world.
What these companies have failed to do is understand their own value in the internet era. All have spent the last few years trying to fight the inevitable advance of the internet into mobile devices. They may argue that they have pushed services through as fast as technology and regulation would allow. But in reality they wanted to control the internet, something that has been proven impossible in the fixed line world.
Users want unrestricted access to the world wide web and all of its associated standards and applications. They will pay good money for this access. What they don’t want is walled gardens, restricted by punitive bandwidth charges and the operators’ poor attempts at delivering content.
If the operators had recognised this fact earlier — whether on their own or because they had been convinced of it by the vendors to whom they have historically been so closely tied — then there would have been little room for Google and the Apple to come in and have such a radical impact. The whole nature of the mobile industry is changing. Improving for users, worsening for the operators.
The models of both Google (with its Android software platform for mobile devices, available in the UK on the T-Mobile G1) and Apple (via iTunes and the iPhone) relegate the operator to the position of dumb pipe. A supplier of bandwidth and nothing more. Not only that, they force the operator to handle all the expensive, unpleasant parts of service delivery — billing, sales, customer care — and cream off the most attractive profits — content and services.
It didn’t have to be this way. There is a huge amount of intelligence in mobile networks, and a huge amount of data about users. The mobile operators know your name and address and your billing details. They can find your current location and, given permission, look at all the places you have travelled recently. They know who you call and what content you buy.
Sound scary? Think about how much information most of us happily supply to Facebook, with whom we have no financial relationship. We seem quite happy for Facebook to access this information and act upon it.
Imagine if the mobile operators had understood the value of this data, and the vendors who supplied them had built services and solutions based upon it. Nokia and the other handset manufacturers wouldn’t be fighting for their lives against GPhones and iPhones that overnight made their entire ranges look clunky and dated. And operators would be selling access to data to a variety of applications rather than wasting time trying to be funky content companies.
This is obviously a vastly oversimplified argument. The reality is a lot more complex than this black and white blog can convey. But the point remains: there is money to be made from being a pipe. As long as you’re not dumb about it.