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Thursday, November 13, 2008

The need for end-user forums to start specifiying handsets

There are already a number of organisations that capture operators' requirements for handsets and feed them back to the OEMs. The OMTP is probably the most obvious, along with the OMA and some of the activities of the GSMA and CDG and WiMAX Forum. Standards groups like 3GPP also are clearly important in defining the standards for "UE" (user equipment) behaviour.

These groups do sterling work in a lot of areas - from making sensible decisions about standard screen sizes & power connectors, through to defining APIs for browsers, and certification mechanisms for radios. They put out reams of documentation stating that manufacturers MUST do this, or SHALL do that, or OPTIONALLY MAY do the other.

But there's something missing.

As far as I know, there are no consumer advocacy groups defining what the end user wants to get from their phones, and how they expect them to behave. There's no group setting desirable specifications that "average" people want, such as "It SHALL be possible to delete useless apps like videotelephony from the homescreen", or "There MUST be a highly-visible indicator of monthly data usage, configurable in X, Y & Z fashion"

Particularly as handset subsidies fall - or handsets become cheap enough for normal people to buy "vanilla" - it shouldn't be just the mobile operators that get to define features & behaviour. Yes, they might be the handset producers' main direct customers, but it's about time that the people paying at the end of the value chain started to throw their weight around.

The only reason that people have to "put up with" hobbled Bluetooth, annoying operator-branded UIs, locked-down operating systems and so on is because they aren't organised enough to try to change it. Complaining on web forums doesn't cut it. But if a delegation from a "Phone Users' Forum" representing 100 million people turned up in Helsinki or Seoul with a list of demands, I suspect they'd get a good hearing. (Although probably not in Cupertino, California....).

There is already precedent for this in the enterprise world. Organisations like the EVUA represent powerful groups of telecom and IT-using multinationals, that collectively exert leverage on their technology suppliers.

Perhaps the starting point for mobile handsets is also in the enterprise space. Although the volumes are lower, there is a greater bias towards smartphones and "vanilla" devices. There are various organisations like systems integrators and unified communications vendors that also have a lot of pull here. Collectively, the business community needs to make sure that the phone manufacturers continue to enable "over the top" applications in the best way possible. An influential group articulating & defining that requirement in concrete terms would be hugely beneficial.

A particular point of future contention might be around the IMS RCS client, which if pre-installed on handsets could become the "default" IM and presence application, hooking them into operator IMS cores. This clearly needs to be delete-able from devices used as part of enterprise-controlled unified communications solutions. There need to be variants of handsets available that are optimised for server/PBX-anchored corporate alternatives.

Over time, there may be parallel consumer advocacy initiatives, but I suspect they be more difficult to organise, especially internationally. But I can see great benefit in mandatory requirements for easy sideloading / backup of content and contacts, for example, and better information about costs and balances. The best way for end users to avoid future "lock in" by their operators is to specify workarounds to the handset manufacturers upfront. Make them remember who the real customers are.

The bottom line is that the billion or so handset purchasers need to play the system better. Otherwise, the system will continue to play them.

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