I didn't stay long at this year's MWC conference (fka 3GSM) in Barcelona. Just long enough to tap the screens of the latest iPhone copycat devices, to absorb a lot of techie promo about LTE and WiMAX, and to wonder aloud whether CBoss's legendary booth babes are old enough to be here and what on earth they have to do with IT crisis management.
Two things struck me:
First, the number of subscale technology companies trying to sell similar software or hardware products to mobile operators -- mobile browsers, content delivery platforms, billing solutions, device management platforms, subscriber management, and so on.
It is clear that in mobile -- as in enterprise technologies -- only a fraction of the innovations of recent years have been integrated into mainstream services. There is a huge overhang of well-designed, scalable products, but too little appetite from operators to buy them. Many vendors stay alive by selling into operators in developing countries, while trying to find an angle into one of the majors.
There will be a lot of fall-out in the coming years, as many of the private vendors disappear or consolidate. Operators will largely focus on making the technologies they already bought deliver their ARPU-increasing promise.
My gross generalisation of the day: it's not a good time to be a mobile infrastructure or application startup.
Second, the battle of the giants for the mobile value chain is really heating up.
Microsoft, Nokia, RIM, Orange and O2 all announced new application store initiatives, trying to recapture lost ground against Apple's fabulously popular iTunes-based App Store. Operators are taking advantage to re-brand and re-launch their expensive, failed content portals. The competition among Ovi, Windows Marketplace, Application Center, and O2 Litmus should be a boon to app developers, and may well be the nail in the coffin for independent aggregators of apps and content.
Then Nokia really pulled took of the gloves, announcing that it would embed Skype's VoiP client in upcoming Nokia phones. That's a slap in the face of its operator partners, whose precious voice revenues are under attack from all sides. At the Jefferies cocktail, VCs were talking about peer-to-peer WiFi networking that would enable phones to connect while bypassing the operator altogether. Ouch.
Globally, mobile voice and data revenues are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak outlook for tech markets. But within those headline figures are some brutal shifts. Handset sales will be down this year, so phone makers have to find new sources of revenue. The mobile operating systems are being pushed into commoditisation by Google Android and a soon-to-be-open-source Symbian. And operators are under pressure to open their walled gardens so that consumers can have the mobile web access they so desperately want. The solution for all three is a subscription or transaction relationship with the consumer.
But surely the most exciting development of all was the GSMA's announcement that it had finally wrested agreement from handset vendors to standardise their chargers! Yippee!
Amazing factoid: disposed chargers generate 51,000 metric tons (!) of waste globally each year. I suspect that number will get a short-term boost as millions of people bin the 3 chargers they've been saving 'just in case' they return to Motorola... What I'd really like to know is how much revenue the handset vendors are giving up by doing away with proprietary, expensive-to-replace chargers. If they really go through with this during the recession, I will have a newfound respect for corporate social responsibility.