Like Nokia, Operators Must Start Thinking Differently

I love this week — Barcelona in February is a special time. Mobile World Congress, the GSM Association’s flagship event, has become the centrepiece of the mobile industry. And yet one thing has always perplexed me. The GSM Association is the operators’ representative body, but, with one or two notable exceptions, its members fail to exploit this opportunity. All mobile network operators are facing broadly similar threats to their authority. This week I expect to hear the CEOs of almost every network talk about the direct challenges to their businesses posed by Apple and Google.

The pace of adoption of iOS and Android in the mobile world is staggering. The “burning platform” memo from Nokia CEO Stephen Elop summed it up pretty well. And the challenges he outlined are not too different for operators. Apple and Google have been long frustrated by what they see as operators obstructing access to how people use their mobile phones. But that’s changed dramatically in the past 12 months.

Operators are going to have to do something, and soon. The notion of any operator “owning a customer” seems more ludicrous than ever. In contrast, Apple and Google are capturing imaginations and engaging and delighting people with devices and services. Operators are starting to look like an embarrassing rich uncle trying to hang out with the cool kids.

There are some signs that operators are starting to change tack. We expect to hear about some exciting developments from the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) this week, though they’re likely to need more operator support and will take time to come to market. And operators will be keen to promote the burgeoning machine-to-machine market, which is set to become a huge business for all operators in the next couple of years and will be an important new revenue source.

Let’s hope speakers in Barcelona stay focussed on these new developments, rather than harping on the problems of working with those cool kids.