A history lesson for mobile operators

Professor William Webb argues that mobile operators should learn lessons from their past failures.

In the Harry Potter books the Weasley family has a "whereabouts clock". It looks like a grandfather clock but shows at a glance where each member of the family is located.

We currently have similar services such as Google Latitude, Facebook Places and FourSquare, but they are based on expensive technologies and only work on high-end smart phones.

Understanding why the whereabouts clock is not commonplace on all handsets is an instructive way to understand how the mobile operators have failed to understand user requirements and deliver against them.

Cellular operators have a terrible track record in delivering applications. Their attempts to introduce e-mail services failed until Blackberry arrived, effectively bypassing the operators by installing devices in the corporation and software in the handset.

Their efforts to introduce internet access firstly via WAP and then using "walled gardens" such as Vodafone Live gained little traction.

Pace setter

It was the introduction of the iPhone and associated browser which translated any web page into a form ready for use that revolutionised the mobile internet.

Picture message has never been a success - although users are now directly uploading pictures to social networking sites, bypassing the operators' messaging systems.

Group calling was touted as the next big thing but failed to make even the smallest splash, similarly mobile TV. Video calling was promoted heavily by 3G operators as the "must have" feature of their system but ignored by all - those who wanted to video call used Skype.

And attempts to introduce location-based services by the operators mostly failed, it has again been Apple that has achieved much in this space using simple information such as cell location, bypassing the operator.

What these, and other examples, show is that the operators are very good at providing "bit pipes" - basic voice and data connectivity.

Image caption iPhone owners are typically heavy users of the mobile web

But they are hopeless at delivering applications to run over the top of them. Instead, it has been companies like Apple, Google and Blackberry that have set the pace here. Why is this?

Firstly, it is not the operators' core expertise. For example, they have less understanding of location-based services than mapping companies or organisations such as Google that have integrated mapping data and location into much of what they do.

Secondly, they are trying to extract more revenue from the service than is viable, or that consumers are prepared to pay.

Thirdly, they do not have the right image with consumers. While they have a very strong brand it is associated with being a bit-pipe - with the provision of voice and data to a mobile phone - and not with innovation, with being cool or even with being a trusted entity.

That is why individuals are much more willing to try a new service from Apple or Google than they are from Vodafone or Orange. Equally, they probably would not want Apple to deliver the voice service that they rely on as a core part of their life. Brand can be critical in these areas.

Fourthly, they have to ensure any new service runs across all the handsets on their network - which can extend to hundreds of models.

And finally, many of their business models have concentrated on how they would add value to users by allowing them to conduct business on the move or to save time, whereas users often want entertainment and to waste time (but in an enjoyable manner).

Time ticking

So, back to the whereabouts clock. It would be easy for an innovative application developer to deliver one if only the cellular operators would release the location information of their subscribers (under the instructions of the user and with strict privacy control of course).

However, the cellular operators believe they could use location information themselves to deliver such a service and so are disinclined to do so, despite a track record that clearly shows they are unlikely to succeed. And as a result the whereabouts clock is still nowhere to be seen.

But this will not be the case forever.

Eventually, the cellular operators will accept that their role is one of a "bit pipe" and reorganise around delivering this functionality effectively.

They will open up access to their networks enabling a range of new mobile applications and facilitating the mobile playing a key role in entertainment, healthcare, home networks, smart grids and enhanced location services.

Being mobile in the next decade will be all about your relationship with your mobile and how it changes your life.

Getting the mobile operators to understand their key role in this is just one part of the puzzle along with new technology, changed behaviour and new types of social interaction.

Watch out for the whereabouts clock as a key indicator that a wider range of new mobile applications will be coming your way soon.

Professor Webb is visiting Professor at The University of Surrey and the author of Being Mobile.

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