When Vodafone first announced its 360 service, I was pretty enthusiastic as it was one of the first examples of a major operator launching a so-called "over the top" service, decoupling access from service. It was theoretically available to anyone to download and register, irrespective of which operator they subscribed to.
Basically, it came in various tiers - fully customised and integrated devices like the launch Samsung H1, as a client or icon on Voda's other devices, or as a download to anyone else's smartphone as an app or widget. And importantly, it was web-based, rather than using legacy IMS concepts of centralised telecom services.
I firmly believe that this general philosophy is absolutely critical, especially for social networking and cloud services. Interoperability of lowest common denominator capabilties is not enough for real, differentiated offerings - Operator A must be able to sell unique services to Operator B's customers as well, if it is to scale to compete with Internet players with a 2-billion strong potential audience.
However, the focus of 360 - network address books and aggregating social networks - together with its initial fully-integrated devices, have been a serious disappointment. Ewan at Mobile Industry Review is possibly more outspoken than me - his coruscating comments from end-2009 speak for themselves here and here .
The general perception among many I've spoken to is that the early execution was poor. I'm also not convinced that the social aggregator role is useful anyway, although doing it web-based at least makes much more sense than shoehorning it into IMS.
Given that the basic premise didn't seem to work well, there clearly hasn't been the opportunity to expand 360 beyond the dedicated-device stage. There's no 360 app pre-loaded on Vodafone's iPhones, although its People Sync is apparently available on the AppStore. There's certainly been no viral buzz.
In the past week or so, the picture has started to shift. It is becoming much clearer that 360 genuinely is a much broader software platform, and that the address-book / social network thing is just a small part. More importantly, I think it's central to Vodafone's broader Internet strategy, and explains its lacklustre enthusiasm for traditional, conservative, walled-garden telco stuff like RCS.
Two things brought this home to me:
- The launch of 360 Shop for Android - a Voda-branded app and content store, billable to the customer's own account. Even Ewan at MIR likes it.
- Re-configuring my replacement iPhone (the old one fried its baseband last week), re-doing my email settings. Looking online, I was advised to set my SMTP outbound server to smtp.360.com for which I needed a 360 registration and log-in.
Separately, Vodafone has persuaded me to register for its (currently non-360) online customer portal, so I can track bills and sign up for its WiFi offload, as I'm getting close to its 1GB/month cap for iPhone data.
In other words.... Vodafone is going all-out to get people to register via web with one or more of its 360 properties. Yes, that's web username & password stuff.
For all the rhetoric about SIM cards, telco subscriber data repositories and identity, the fact remains that many of the best-organised and *most useable* datasets about individuals are those linked to traceable web log-ins. They're structured from Day 1, not based on 20-year old legacy billing platforms and chunks of data locked in vendors' proprietary databases in diverse network elements.
Think about the company that Vodafone is hoping to keep:
- Microsoft Passport / Live / Hotmail etc. login
- Google Gmail / Blogger / Android /GVoice etc. login
- Facebook login
- Yahoo! Mail / Messenger / My etc. login
- Apple iTunes / MobileMe / AppStore login
- Nokia Ovi login
For all the value of the SIM card in the traditional combined (service+access) telco world, it's much less useful for operators wanting to monetise access-independent applications. It locks them into onerous wholesale and interoperability relationships such as mobile roaming agreements. It makes it much harder to launch and monetise services across operator bounaries.
Some form of password / cookie / federated ID + certificate approach is much more flexible in these cases, despite its detractors' comments on its clunkiness. In my view, the clunkiness of username/password is a price worth paying - as billions of Internet logins have proven.
I'd estimate broadly similar numbers of SIMs vs. regularly-used web passwords. 4-5 billion, about 3-4 per Internet user. That tells a rarely-spoken story.
The next logical step will be another attempt to push 360-branded offerings to the Internet at large, perhaps downplaying the Vodafone brand in some cases. It's not immediately clear if the 360 Android shop is available to non-Voda users, but that could help, although how billing would work is an open question. If 360 can get past, say, 100m username/password registrations in aggregate, it will be in the big league.