The message on the second day of Mobile World Congress from the heads of AT&T, Vodafone, Telefonica, China Mobile and American Movil was unambiguous: competition, open-ness and cross-carrier interoperability are what is needed to take mobile to the next level. (Perhaps in the spirit of interoperability, all five gentlemen were wearing blue ties, mostly with dots.)
All of them talked about the tipping point in smartphones that has occurred, Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao saying "The clear good news of 2010 is adoption of smartphones" which are up 44% from the previous year, and resulting in an "explosion of data".
Colao also noted that tablets are not proving to be a replacement for laptops but a supplement, relating the humorous observation of seeing travelers going through airport security by taking out of their bags their iPad, a laptop, and a smartphone, which got a knowing chuckle.
The Importance of Interoperability
In discussing interoperability, AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson made the analogy of SMS: In the early days, texts could only be sent to other people using the same carrier as you. As a result, texts were rarely used. Once carriers established interoperability and allowed sending of texts to anyone on any carrier, usage skyrocketed, and a host of other services (e.g. Twitter, Kindle) that relied on SMS in some way sprang up as a result. Several key areas were consistently called out as requiring inter-carrier cooperation in order to reach critical mass and the necessary convenience for consumers in order to take off:
■ Machine to machine (M2M)
■ Mobile banking/mobile wallet/near-field communications for payments
■ Mobile advertising (creating standards for type and display of ads in apps)
Applications were another area, both in terms of streamlining development (avoiding fragmentation of having to develop for multiple platforms/device types) and purchasing (buy once, use anywhere and on multiple devices in one's possession). An effort in this direction is the unfortunately named WAC, which stands for Wholesale Applications Community and which everyone pronounces "whack". While this is still in formation, it's in principle a means of pooling access to users and devices across dozens of partners, making it easier for developers to create and sell their apps.
Avoiding the Dumb Pipe
WAC is also a way of sidestepping the current app store leaders like Apple. And un unspoken subtext of the open-ness and competition mantras was that by encouraging these at the device, app, content and OS level, the carriers avoid losing too much control of the customer relationship and becoming, as China Mobile Chairman Wang said several times, "dumb pipes", the dreaded fear of all carriers.