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Friday, February 15, 2008

3GSM in Barcelona... no surprises

For the first time in years, I haven't used my own cameraphone to actually take any pictures at 3GSM this week. Nothing's made me say "wow". Nothing's been particularly unexpected. There's no new 'shiny thing' that's a must have. That said, there's been a lot of business and serious discussion going on.

It'll take a while to sink in, but some more comments and observations for now:
  • A surprising lack of discussion around 900MHz UMTS or spectrum refarming
  • Orange (and to a lesser degree Telefonica) are emerging as the key proponents of old-school mobile operator thinking ("We can control everything - content, handset UIs, home networking etc"). They seem to be believing the IMS/walled-garden mantra of customer lock-in. I probably need to understand their domestic French & Spanish markets a little more, but I think they'll probably fail.
  • Linked to this, the IMS Rich Communications Suite was announced by a partnership of operators and vendors. It's basically a 2002-era Yahoo Messenger client for IMS, running on PCs and handsets, bundling messaging, file/image sharing, IM and so on, but linked to the user's phone number and account. At first glance, I think it risks turning into another "coalition of the losers" as it doesn't directly peer (or easily integrate via web services) into today's defining social platforms like Skype or FaceBook. Maybe it'll be adopted by certain groups, or perhaps there will be a reason for it to be used as Social Network #4 by some users. I can't see an easy route to it becoming the primary network - operators aren't cool/differentiated enough, plus it'll probably involve payment. Bottom line - interesting as an IMS application. But unlikely to be popular, and certainly not an Internet-beater. At least it's been better thought-through than the useless basic IMS videoshare application, though.
  • There's an interesting spectrum of opinion emerging as to whether we'll be dashing straight to LTE, or dropping off via HSPA+ (also called HSPA Evolved) on the way. Some vendor-specific preferences (Qualcomm = HSPA+, Nortel = LTE, everyone else sitting on the fence but leaning in one direction or the other). It's likely to be geo-specific, with DoCoMo (which doesn't have a 2G GSM network to run in parallel, and has lots of spectrum) pushing hardest for LTE, while European operators may balk at 2G/3G/LTE coexistence and could procrastinate for years.
  • VCC seems to have been downplayed a lot this year (and UMA seems to be dependent on femtos rather than dualmode for any future operator sign-ups). Is WiFi/cellular dead? No, definitely, but there's certainly more pragmatism about operator-led deployments. And, thankfully, the word "seamless" seems to have been confined to the dustbin of history.
  • I'll be talking a lot more about femtocells in weeks to come. I saw some interesting demo's of how to take them beyond just cheap-voice-at-home. That said, there's a lot of debate about realistic timelines for their deployment. I wish we had a standardised way of defining telecom technology trials, akin to the pharmaceutical industry's Phase 1/2/3 methodology.
  • Smartphones are, like, so 2005.... It looks like the industry has woken up to the reality that the majority of end users don't care about smartness. They want a 5MP camera, cool design and GPS, not the ability to download software. Sure, the proportion of open OS's will creep up slowly, but many of the coolest devices (and likely best-selling) new devices around at the show used embedded RTOS.
  • The world seems to be dividing between those who think Google Android will save the planet, and those who are saying "Android - yeah, so what? They're underestimating how tough this whole mobile thing is". I'm in the latter camp for now.
  • WiMAX seemed "real" this year. I'm still unconvinced that massmarket phones are round the corner though - despite the prototypes.

More to come next week.

And to finish - thanks to the GSMA (and Huawei & Telefonica) for the HSDPA dongle & temporary broadband wireless access during the show. It worked very well (noticeably better than the 3 network in my part of London, in fact). Now just rename the show from MWC back to 3GSM for next year, and I'll promise not to be too negative about things like the IPX....


Anonymous said...

I really don't agree with you on the Rich Communication Suite initiative from the different operators, and I don't share your vision of the IMS and of its place in the Service plane. Obviously, you miss a point not discussing with Orange or other operators, because integration with social networks or web2.0 services is not antinomic with using IMS service building blocks.

Dean Bubley said...

I know that RCS *can* work in other contexts (eg mashups), and I hope that it is pitched appropriately by operators to exploit that capability first & foremost.

But I can't see many of them either "white labelling" their own platform to other brands, or offering their own branded services to customers on other operators' networks. (eg either an Orange "engine" behind a Web 2.0 brand, or an Orange client on a Vodafone handset). It would also have to be 100% churn-proof, so that you wouldn't lose your buddy lists, IM records etc. if you moved to another access provider.

There is still far too much "legacy IMS" thinking that I've seen in Barcelona - especially the notion that service and access are inherently best provided when linked.

But the impression I've had from several discussions is that Orange, especially, still does not "get" the Internet or openness very well. This is on a much broader level than just RCS - it is reflected in their handset strategy, use of UMA dual-mode, continued insistence on a central role in "content" provision and so on.

RCS would make most sense if it turned up as a FaceBook plug-in, for example, rather than a standalone client on a PC. I saw a presentation from one vendor suggesting that could indeed occur - but let's see if it reaches the market.

Christophe Gourraud said...

Hi Dean,

I think that many operators believe that they can maintain a walled garden approach in the years to come and they view RCS as a new opportunity in this area that will build over the success of voice and SMS.

This said, IMS in itself can support such a closed model as well as it can open up with the Internet.

For me it is important to discriminate between business and cultural telco aspects on the one hand, and IMS technical abilities on the other. IMS can support different business models and will hopefully be used differently in the future, as operators start to understand that there is a middle approach between keeping their customers captive and losing them to alternative service providers.


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