Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Game-changing Devices

The battle for the consumer's mind has never been more intense. The balance of power between the three major segments of the communications world is rapidly shifting and it is difficult to predict winners. 

Telecom service providers, handset & device manufacturers and the content / software companies are all vying for customer ownership. Only one thing is for sure - telecom companies that had a traditional edge in this battle because of their ongoing / recurring commercial relationship with the customer are now losing out.

I will use the example of the iPhone and my recent experiences to illustrate the point in this post. 

The mobile operator typically had the strongest relationship with a mobile subscriber. From choice of device to service provisioning to customer service to billing, the telco was always the primary face of the mobile service. In the few cases that the customer used any mobile content or data service, the operator would channel the services through its portal. 

In some markets, however, the choice of device was mostly with the customer. So handset manufacturers would try and attract users to their latest models with accessories that usually had no connection with the mobile service. FM radio, Bluetooth and external memory were actually making the phones more than just phones, and in a way, taking away revenues from the mobile operator. But the handset vendor had limited ongoing relationship with the customer -- perhaps once in 12 to 18 months when the device came up for replacement. 

By controlling the content / services portal and with its ongoing billing relationship, the mobile operator dominated the customer relationship. The user had limited choice in what more she could do with the phone, except by changing the device or the service or both -- but we all know how expensive and difficult that is.  

For the first time (almost), the iPhone has tilted the balance of power significantly away from the telco. The phone hardware has some exciting features but not exclusive. Similarly, the user interface is extremely intuitive but lacks some basic features. But the killer app is its App Store. With thousands of third-party applications in the store, many being added daily, Apple now dominates the customer relationship. 

The mobile operator is just the (wireless) pipe provider. 

I have been a subscriber of Vodafone (earlier Orange and Hutch) in India for nearly eight years. I have admired their capability to innovate and create interesting applications / services. However, for the last six weeks since they launched the iPhone, they have lost my attention. I have downloaded nearly fifty applications which are the center of my attention (when I have the time to spare). True, many of them use the Internet and therefore, I do continue to provide Vodafone with a revenue opportunity for the EDGE/GPRS access, but that's dumb pipe. 

Vodafone could have used its 'relationship' with Apple to create unique services that would have combined the strengths of the services platform and network access - to do something that an ordinary third-party developed cannot. But it has not done so. Like most other operators that have launched the iPhone. Today, they are hoping that their (near) exclusive commercial relationships with Apple will tide them through. They are mistaken.

Mobile operators would do well to learn from the Broadband experience. In most cases, the Broadband operators have become dumb pipe providers; Google, Facebook and others  dominate the customer engagement online. The traditional telco response to such situations is to flex their (monopoly) muscles and choke access speeds, thwarted either by regulation or user pressure. Yet, there are also a few Broadband providers that have managed to fight back and create services like IPTV that rely to a large extent on network capabilities. 

Let me go out on a limb here and make a prediction. The likely winners in this battle will be the guys with the services platforms that pour life into the dumb pipes and nearly dumb devices.


Sudesh said...

You are right in your observation about dumb pipes. The officially stated position of Vodafone is what you have mentioned--earn through the increased usage of data services (now GPRs and later through 3G) by iPhone users. Officially they have also stated that "pricing of iPhone was decided by Apple" and that they are not making any money from Apple and thereby not subsidizing the phone.

Please check out my take on iPhone launch


Srinivasa Addepalli said...


Thanks for your comment and the link to your interesting post.

I am not sure whether the mobile operators could (or should) have subsidized the handsets, they could surely have done much more to integrate their service experience with that of the device.

If you see the marketing, it is about the "iphone you've been waiting for", and nothing about any local apps or unique services... it was one more expensive device that is available on the network, and btw, if the gprs or edge works, we will charge you 5p/10Kb... what a let down and waste of an opportunity!

No wonder very few people have bought the phone. They set it up for failure.