Friday, April 05, 2013

Home. Improvement? AT&T allows Facebook's identity to be the key to services via Home. And they're not alone. Is this an official OTT victory?

"Yes. OK, we're a dumb bit pipe. Are you happy now?"

KEY MOBILE TRENDS: over-the-top content, walled gardens, identity.
EVENT HORIZON: on-going.

Yesterday Facebook unveiled their "Home" app for Android. Rather than a stand-alone mobile platform as some expected, Home turned out to be a UI layer which runs on top of existing Android builds. Home is essentially a deeply embedded social phonebook, allowing Facebook to become the absolute experience center of the device.

While much of the product news had been leaked, there was one significant surprise during the presentation: the inclusion of AT&T's president & CEO, Ralph de la Vega. And this certainly highlights a most notable development: wireless operators are acknowledging over-the-top services as never before.

For me, this is a great opportunity to take a step back and realize how much things have changed during the past decade. I immediately thought of the story of Motorola's V710, an unremarkable clamshell introduced in the year 2004 for Verizon. While a key feature of the phone was to be Bluetooth, Verizon required Motorola to disable much of the Bluetooth stack. Verizon claimed this was for security reasons, but many in the industry suspected it was to help secure the operator's bottom line as content on the device such as photos and phone book had to be synched over Verizon's network at significant cost to the subscriber.

I won't second guess Verizon's true intentions, but I do know that operators' "dumb bit pipe" fears were real and influenced the industry in many ways. When the Open Mobile Alliance was being formed, for example, and standards from other specification-making bodies were to be recognized, IETF e-mail standards were considered "controversial" as e-mail was a direct competitor to profitable operator services such as SMS and potentially MMS. (And now I wonder what will become of Joyn.)

The notion that an operator would take a backseat to Facebook or Skype is not unprecedented. In 2008, operator 3 in the U.K. introduced the INQ1, what some called the Facebook phone or Skype phone as such OTT services were highly integrated into the device.

But 3 was not a leading operator in the U.K. They needed a fresh approach to gain some young subscribers in a saturated market. But AT&T is not a 3. It's not a T-Mobile USA looking to shake things up. AT&T has 107 million subscribers in the U.S. For AT&T to risk its identity is a bold move. Despite the on-stage group hugs, my spider sense was picking up a touch of unease in the chemistry. For AT&T there might be no going back.

AT&T executives once said they envisioned the day when everybody in the U.S. would get a unique, operator-issued phone number at birth as their key identifier. Forget the tax number. Who would have pictured operator execs taking a step to the side to make room for other services to take the lead?

There was one feature noticeably absent during Mark Zuckerberg's presentation: voice. VoIP and video chat were apparently persona non grata at the show. Voice remains an operator safe zone for now, but could be the next to fall.

20 years ago many wireless service providers didn't even allow handset vendors to have their brand on the phone. There was to be no middleman between the operator and subscriber to complicate the relationship. Facebook's Home highlights the extreme makeover of the industry. The identity crisis is coming to a close.

Motorola's V710: Verizon wanted Bluetooth disabled. Could they do that today?

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