I had an interesting discussion today, about mobile cloud applications and syncing.
In part, it covered my regularly-expressed disdain for social network aggregation, and the metaphor of the extended address book on mobile phones. I remain unconvinced that users really want to have their contact lists heavily integrated with Facebook, Skype, Twitter or whatever.
Nevertheless, it highlighted an interesting angle I wasn't previously aware of. I'd recognised that most of the major Internet players had exposed APIs so that developers can hook into them for various mashup purposes - but I hadn't realised how the terms and conditions worked.
In particular, I didn't realise that if you're a large-scale user of some APIs (Facebook, say), then you have to pay. So an operator or handset vendor wanting to do a complex enhanced-phonebook with imported photos & status updates, for millions of users, is not only competing with the standalone downloadable Facebook client, they may also be writing a cheque for the privilege. Ditto if they want to give an MNO-customised variant to their users out-of-the-box.
I've been saying for a while that the power of Apple, Google, Facebook et al was such that operators play Net Neutrality games with them at their peril ("No, how about *you* pay *us*?") . I hadn't realised that they - or some of them, at least, I don't have details which will undoubtedly by confidential - were already throwing their weight about.
Now, I've also been talking and writing about operator-provided APIs for a long time as well, including through my work with Telco 2.0. Initiatives like the GSMA's OneAPI, as well as telco-specific services like BT Ribbit and many others in the mobile world, point the way towards operators selling access to messaging, billing, authentication, voice call control and numerous other features and functions.
In theory. In the real world, telcos' commercial sales of API access has been evolving at a glacially-slow pace, hamstrung by painful back-end integration work and lots of design-by-committee delays. In the meantime, some supposedly valuable telco "assets" have now depreciated to being (essentially) worthless, such as location. I expect "identity" to be the next to be replicated and improved by Internet players.
So... the telcos' API revenue streams haven't yet materialised to a meaningful degree. But instead, they're starting to have to spend money on other companies' APIs in order to provide the services their customers actually want.
I wonder where we'll be in a few years time, in terms of the "balance of trade" in APIs - will operators be "exporting" or "importing" more? In which direction will the net flow of cash be going? It will probably be difficult to measure, but it's certainly going to be an important analytical question to answer.
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