It’s not just Apple and the iPhone that are the subject of some extreme views (particularly in North America). Network operators also provoke some red-hot far-out responses. But whereas the iPhone tends to provoke unduly strong admiration, the operators tend to provoke unduly strong opprobrium.
For example, here’s some verbatim comments that came up in a private piece of research conducted in and around Silicon Valley earlier this year:
“Everyone in tech has rope burns around their necks from doing business with the carriers. They hung themselves trying to do carrier deals.”
“The operator is an adversary, not a partner.”
“The basic problem with mobile is that the operators are in the way”.
In London, the sentiment is less blatant, but it’s still present. During almost every Mobile Monday London event that I’ve attended, sooner or later some question from the audience takes a semi-joking, semi-serious pot shot at network operators, blaming them for one or other aspect of lack of openness. I find these comments uncomfortable – first, because I count many friends among employees of network operators, and second, because it seems to me that the issue is considerably more nuanced than this kind of easy scape-goating suggests.
It was for this reason that I deeply enjoyed discovering and reading the recent article “Open=Beta?” by former Qualcomm SVP Jeffrey Belk. The article started by recounting some of the the usual criticisms:
“The application community, and the Venture Community that finances them, are rightly tired of what can be perceived as a small global cadre of folks in the carrier community, as well as egregious application qualification processes, putting a chokehold on the deployment of innovation in the applications space. And the chokehold is stifling innovation and growth of the wireless data applications business”.
However, as Jeffrey goes on to say,
“But as usual, the truth is not so simple…”
“One REALLY cool company got a trial with a few operators. A small problem: Their application bricked (i.e. killed dead, dead, dead) the phones of some of the trial users. Other applications, usually written by folks that are accustomed to the massive memory and hard drives of PCs or Mac, are WAAAY too resource intensive (memory, processing power) for anything but the top tier of smart phones, and even with that tiny market, performance of the apps is often suspect. Another application (fixed now), kept a persistent data connection up between the phone and carrier network. This is a huge issue, as a lot of users still don’t have unlimited data, and if an app is sucking data without them knowing it, it could be costing them a fortune, let along putting an anchor on the data performance of the operator’s network…”
“For the operators, the simplistic reality is that the bottom line is the bottom line, and they CANNOT allow applications to either 1) raise their costs structures or 2) damage their brand/customer base, because when things go wrong with an application or phone, people blame the operator. Every piece of research I have seen (or conducted) over the past decade makes that point clear. And just why do operators need to protect their network? A few months ago, I saw a CEO of a major operator speak. In the Q&A, he mentioned as an answer to a question that it costs him a minimum of $8 per phone call to answer a support call. That’s not counting the pissed off customer factor and dilution of the brand that he’s spent billions of dollars or euros building…”
“At a recent developers conference, an operator was telling a story of a section of a city where service parameters all went to hell, cells shrinking, customers losing service. They tracked it back to an enterprise customer that had gotten permission to test a new piece of hardware, and that hardware was causing nasty network effects. Bad. Another example, not as brutal, is when several applications that, when I asked about some trial metrics, with persistence (or even no persistence but frequent network access) were impeding customers’ ability to make or receive voice calls. Very bad, again — something operators just ain’t gonna allow because when these things start to happen, customers are going to look down at their phone, look at the logo on the phone, and get pissed at their operator. And pissed off customers churn. And churn makes operators’ metrics look bad. And bad metrics make financial markets unhappy. And unhappy financial markets make operator executives lose their jobs. So it just won’t happen.”
In between the paragraphs I’ve quoted, there’s lots more interesting analysis. There’s no easy answer, Jeffrey suggests, except for some first-class development work by applications providers, who need to take the time to understand the special complications of mobile. Applications won’t be tolerated on the network, even with the label “Open”, if they are in reality only beta quality (or “pre-beta”), and risk significant network and support costs.
Is that the end of the story? Unfortunately, there is one more twist. Application developers often perceive that network operators have an additional motivation, lying behind their defensible motivation to preserve the quality of the network. That additional motivation is less defensible: it’s to block the kind of innovative services that could divert some of the network operator’s highly valued revenues to alternative services. Presumably that’s part of the reason why network operators appear to dislike open phones that support wireless VoIP.
That looks like another issue for which there’s no easy answer. It’s an issue that transcends mobile operating systems.