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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Under-the-floor to Over-the-top

One interesting trend I'm starting to see early signs of: the transition of some mobile or fixed operators (aka "under the floor providers") to becoming access-independent service providers ("over the top players").

This is where an established vertically-integrated network operator starts providing branded applications and services to users of *other* operators.

Top of the list here is Vodafone, which has already pushed ahead with a branded presence on Facebook and which has also started playing with an iPhone app which works on non-Vodafone supplied Apple handsets.

In the past, BT has also dabbled in this area, with an enterprise-centric branded softphone client for Windows Mobile devices, which was also aimed partly at users with phones provided through other operators.

I'm keeping a very close eye on this - I think that this is one of the greatest taboos in the mobile industry, where one operator could partly "own" the customer of another carrier. Normally the same bogeymen get rolled out by spokespeople: "those nasty Skype / Google / FaceBook / BBC iPlayer people are using our network for free". It will be interesting to see how the rhetoric changes when it's one of their direct peers, instead.

In some ways, it's a similar situation to using Carrier A's femtocell over Carrier B's broadband.

My view is that it's an extremely healthy development - if you're Vodafone, or for that matter NTT DoCoMo or a small mobile operator from Africa, why *shouldn't* you have inhouse-developed cool mobile apps, which you want to make available to everyone, not just people on your own network? Sure, maybe you *optimise* for people who have both access+app from you, but why not distribute your software as widely as possible?

This is particularly relevant in areas like backup 0r network-based address books. I've long said that these are being viewed by some in the industry as lock-in tools to reduce churn, rather than as good services intended to generate loyalty (and ideally revenue) in their own right.

It will be interesting to see if Vodafone turns Zyb into a true cross-operator platform, competing with "native" services by individual carriers. They could certainly cite "contact portability" as a prime advantage. It's interesting that Big Red hasn't rebranded Zyb to "Vodafone Contact Manager" or similar - perhaps in this scenario, overdoing the rival branding is counterproductive?

It will also be interesting to see if BT can resist any charges of hypocrisy, if it offers any more services that take a "free ride" on other fixed or mobile networks - given its recent controversial statements about charging web video providers for QoS. In fact, any network provider that complains about "over the top players" is setting themselves up as a hostage to fortune when they find a great service that *they* want to distribute to a broader global audience.

One thing this will likely accelerate is the desire for operators for inhouse-controlled AppStores, where they have right-of-refusal for apps they decide they don't like.

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