Friday, 21 November 2008

Future of Mobile, unfortunately the operators hold the cards

I've been pondering the Future of Mobile conference this week. Many better people have posted on the conference (Helen Keegan, Alan Patrick) but rather than regurgitate the same review, I wanted to share what I felt was the really fundamental issue.

Not, how did Rudy de Waele get Michael Madsen to stand in for his press shots; or even that Rich Miner of Google must have been 12 when his was taken. Check out the FoM home page, it's all there.

More that while the vision espoused by Tomi Ahonen, Jonathan MacDondald, Andrew Grill, et al is all eminently sensible, fundamental logical and absolutely the way forward, it relies on one party to play ball, the network operators.

Problem is they don't like the rules, and anyway it's their ball and actually it's their pitch and if you don't like it you can...

I've worked with the operators for several years now and one thing I have learned is that they're not risk takers. They are very dull utilities, addicted to their existing revenues that leave the risks to other people.

How exciting do networks get? All the 'exciting' stuff is left to the handset vendors. Who, let's face it, are hardly pushing the envelope. Oohh I can get a 8MP camera instead of a 5MP if I get the new Sony Ericcson thingamy-wotsit. Wow guys, you really went wild this time. How did you squeeze those extra 3 million pixels in you crazy things?

I remember an episode of House where he was interviewing new students and he ripped a poor lad apart (he was an actor so it was OK, it wasn't real) for thinking he was so 'out-there' for having a tatoo. House made the point that the real rebels were those guys working all the hours to succeed while the rest of you the students were partying and playing at being rebels. I'm paraphrasing but you get my drift.

Being revolutionary isn't necessarily about bells and whistles or being Web 2.0 or being the new black. It's about pushing on in the face of detractors, staying true to a vision and always adapting and tuning until it works. It often starts slow and builds and builds until it's a freight train that no one can stop.

It's that slow start that operators just don't get, or they're not setup to support. Give them a big presentation, loads of credentials and predictions of millions of pounds of revenue and you might get through the door.

You need a big story to stand a chance of pushing through the next hurdle which is the internal politics. As Rich Miner says of his experience at Orange launching the SPV (I had one, I know how crap it was) political infighting derailed the whole process, as well as Microsoft not being prepared to patch a critical bug for 18 months, and of course it being a pile of crap.

The kinds of changes discussed at FoM require a fundamental shift by the operators. If the vision laid out is to become a reality then the operators have got to open up. Invest in the platforms for the next generation of mobile services. Provide the access points to allow companies, startups and established, to leverage those platforms in ways never imagined.

If they're concerned about haemorrhaging value, it's time to get innovative with the commercial models. With startups, what about taking a stake in the venture. I'm sure many would jump at the opportunity if Vodafone or Telefonica turned round and said we'll support you. Established companies can look at JVs.

The Internet and mobile worlds are converging. The Internet world is looking at the mobile world and trying to work out how to replicate the models. The operators are looking at the Internet world, terrified that they'll go the way of the fixed-line ISPs. Problem is, it's that erosion of value in access that drove the innovation.

I, and I'm sure many other people, have so many things we want to achieve and bring to market. Convincing the operators to let us prove it shouldn't be the hard bit.


JMac said...

Very insightful post Adam.

These are the kind of conversations we have to have now and build the roadmap of change together (as outlined here:

It is imperative that others read posts like yours and we collectively can plan the way forward. Keep up the excellent work and lets stay close.

Adam said...

Thanks Jonathan. Looking forward to Vol 2, will email you as requested.

alanp said...

Adam - good points, I largely agree.

By the way, there is an insightful article in the Economist today on the impact Smartphones / OTT services will have on Operators.

Adam said...

Thanks Alan. I'd heard the Economist article mentioned but hadn't got round to seeking it out.

Yours was a great summary of FoM and ossify is definitely my word for the day.

SMSblack said...

"Being revolutionary isn't necessarily about bells and whistles or being Web 2.0 or being the new black."

Adam, I completely agree. Operators and developers are too busy looking for the next killer app, but at the same time taking things away from the mass market of users and the people who, if treated right, could make real profits for the industry. What they forget is that they haven't properly explored the last killer app - SMS.

I believe that actually SMS is the new black (

Adam said...

Thanks Patrick.

I have to admit to checking out your blog for the first time yesterday. "The new black" obviously struck a chord with my subconscious.