Bringing the 'social' out of the operator walled gardens

[Mobile services have long been a carefully guarded commodity, kept within the ‘walled gardens’ of network operators. But as innovation moves to the software and social era, operators need to adapt. Guest author Avner Mor discusses how networks are inherently social and why they should open their walled gardens to developers]

Bringing the 'social' out of the operator walled gardens

A ‘walled garden’ is the term aptly applied to the last decade of mobile operator services. And Facebook is the generic name aptly applied to the social network revolution of our times.

Wikipedia defines ‘walled gardens’ as referring “to a carrier’s or service provider’s control over applications, content, and media on platforms … and restriction of convenient access to non-approved applications or content”. This has been the common sense approach to operator strategies; build high walls to protect your revenues – which by now we know is becoming irrelevant. Mobile operators are facing market saturation, declining ARPU, higher subscriber acquisition costs (see iPhone), fierce regional competition and viable threats of being replaced by the over-the-top players. In 2009 alone, global operator ARPU fell by 7.3% year-on-year and is forecasted to further decline around 10% y-o-y  according to Strategy Analytics. How come operators – having a ‘social’ network at their very core – have been steadily declining, whereas Facebook has risen to a 600 million user, $35B valuation business in just 7 years? Let’s take a step back.

[poll id=”9″]

2010 will probably be known as the year where mobile service innovation has moved squarely to the software domain. Think about the 100,000s of applications against the 10s of operator services launched in the last 2 years.

To compete in this software world, operators/carriers need to leverage their network capabilities to compete with the over-the-top players. For example, think of a voice application that automatically switches to taking a text or voicemail if it knows the other user is busy. Or a service provider in the travel business that can target their Java app and SMS campaign to users who travel abroad frequently. Or web pages that feature a 1-click-buy based on keying in your mobile phone number. Or a “where are my friends” service, where you opt-in to a friends location request no matter what phone you ‘re using. Or travel recommendations where a virtual concierge suggests places to visit in your holiday based on where your friends have been.

Such innovation has shunned the mobile world because network operators have adopted the walled garden business model of building a supermarket with their own branded goods – rather than a shelf (a platform) for third party goods that leverages on the social aspects of the platform. To compete in a world where innovation is defined in software and social, operators need to become a platform – and compete over the top, not in the network.

A platform business model is about leveraging operators’ underutilised, walled network assets, taking a cut from the delivery of innovative services, in the same way that Apple takes a cut from the delivery of mobile apps or Facebook takes a cut out of ad delivery. It’s not just operators that are playing in this developer game – it’s handset vendors investing in developer programs and app stores, online brands opening their assets to developers (from the BBC to Facebook) and Digital TV operators exploring methods to open STB, EPG and DVR channels to developers. Yet operators are the most ubiquitous and most social players of them all.

Leveraging the social side of the network

Networks hold lucrative assets within their walls including voice, messaging, location, presence, user authentication, billing – plus social graph, user profile and preferences. Take location for example; despite wide penetration of GPS receivers in handsets, network-based location covers any device, works indoors, and is particularly suited to emerging markets.

More importantly, mobile networks hole a treasure trove of information about its users; based a few key information like age bracket, ARPU bracket, address region, roaming characteristics and device model which are provided in an opt-in model, one can deliver better search results, ads or campaign targeting. Think about how restaurant recommendations can automagically cater to your spending habits, taste for international cuisines and social lifestyle – an app that knows you from day one.

There are tons more of examples where network APIs can enable unique applications. Yet, when developers try to connect their app to an operator network they experience barriers and restrictions, such as technology fragmentation, long and expensive technical integration, tedious commercial engagements, long time to payment, plus distribution challenges. What’s worse, developers need to engage and integrate separately with each operator. All of these factors hinder the vast majority of developer innovation and essentially diminish the operator ability to be the center of innovation gravity.

Many infrastructure vendors have jumped into the opportunity to connect operator networks to developers:

– Alcatel Lucent – A dominant SDP provider, extended a hosted ‘OpenAPI’ service for developers, providing Consent Management and  ‘LBS API’

– Ericsson – through their ‘Ericsson Labs’ initiative, the SDP provider offers a broad ‘Maps & Positioning’ API set: web & mobile maps, 3D maps, Cell-id look-up (with its own worldwide cell-id database) , operator based  cell-id and  consent management . Ericsson is currently working with operators in Sweden and Norway.

– Amdocs –  an OSS/BSS leader moving into positioning as an open mobile service providers network to 3rd parties: “service providers have the opportunity to drive new revenues by monetizing their unique assets – networks, customer information, charging, billing and customer care…”

– Huawei – An emerging market player builds its position by partnering America Movil and Telefonica in LATAM. Telefonica has completed in 2009 the deployment of Huawei’s openness platform across 13 Latin American countries

Social cloud APIs

Yet such efforts are limited to single-operator deployments. In addition, they have limited developer outreach potential as many these infrastructure vendors stem from the network, not the software world.

The logical next step is a single, cloud-based network API platform across multiple operators, spanning not just regions and multiple screens, but the entire application lifecycle: develop – deploy – discover – monetize. This network API cloud paradigm is essentially a 4-sided platform connecting users (who discover and consume services), developers (who innovate and create services), the applications themselves and the developer program partners (with the tools and technology, go-to-market, support and community assets). Naturally, a multi-operator paradigm needs to support variable access policies for operator assets, including access to network assets, charging subscribers and accessing user info.

Such a developer-friendly cross-operator pilot program was announced recently in the form of WAC, the Wholesale Applications Community, a joint effort to create a standards based apps platform that operators can leverage to build their storefronts. Network API’s are also part of WAC, based on OneAPI, a Commercial pilot project aiming to establish a unified, developer-friendly API environment across operators. Aepona is the technology provider for the GSM Association’s “OneAPI” initiative.

So is WAC the answer? Operator alliances are essential to achieve this goal. Yet, historically we have seen internal complexity and operator competing agendas hinder effectiveness of these pilots. The missing piece is an infrastructure player that understands software innovation, developer programs and running telco-grade cloud infrastructure. A Facebook-like (software) player that can bring the Facebook out of the operator walled garden.

– Avner

[This article is dedicated with appreciation to the Telecom team at Microsoft Israel R&D center
Avner Mor has over 25 years of experience in senior management positions with leading Israeli hi-tech telecom companies and start-ups. In his last role, Mor served as the General Manager of Telecom Products at the Microsoft Israel R&D center.]

Mapping the mobile ecosystem: top-20 most connected companies

Back in March we released the 3rd edition of the Mobile Industry Atlas, the definitive who’s who of the mobile industry. Since its humble beginnings in 2008, the Atlas has grown to more than 1,100 companies across 69 industry sectors; including all key companies, from 20:20mobile to ZTE, and market sectors, from Active Idle Screen solutions to Service Delivery Platforms.

To distill market noise into market sense, we have broken down the entire mobile ecosystem into four main categories:the core value chain, the suppliers to network operators, the suppliers to handset manufacturers and finally the services that run on top.

Top-20 most connected companies in mobile
We run some stats on our Atlas database and came up with an interesting analysis on the most ‘connected’ companies in mobile, i.e. the companies who have fingers (products) in most pies (market sectors).

At the top of the list are Nokia, Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm, which represent heavyweights from manufacturing, services, software and IP backgrounds respectively. Nokia appears in 17 market sectors including, the OS and Browser sectors, Developer Tools, Mobile Search, Barcode Services and Connected Addressbook sectors, to name a few.

It’s also instructive to analyse which market sectors are most frequently encountered within these top-20 companies: it’s operating systems, browsers, application stores, as well as content management & delivery infrastructure. These sectors are either building blocks as part of a more integrated offering (as in the case of operating systems or browsers), or high growth opportunities (as in the case of app stores).

How does this help me?
The main function of the Atlas is to provide a clear view of the key players operating in each sector of the mobile ecosystem. For example, the Handset Manufacturer Supply Chain can give you an idea of the leading companies operating in this part of the ecosystem, from chipset manufacturers and RF component manufacturers all the way to operating systems and browsers. It’s all in there, from the much-hyped Android platform to the more obscure plastics manufacturers and vendors of input technologies. Most of the Atlas is being a paywall, but you can see a sample here.

Under-the-radar sectors
We ‘ve showcased several under-the-radar sectors into the Atlas, including Application Analytics, Campaign Analytics and Service Analytics. These three sectors comprise the leading providers of usage and marketing analytics tools to developers and mobile web (or WAP) sites, as well as platforms for mining network or service data to extract service intelligence. Naturally, you ‘ll also find your typical hyped sectors like Mobile Ad Networks & Mediation Engines, as well as Mobile Advertising Platforms and Agencies. The Connected Addressbook sector is yet another category that has attracted a lot of media attention and is part of our Atlas.

The complete list of market sectors in the Atlas is below, broken down into the four main categories:

Network operator supply chain Handset manufacturer supply chain
– Billing platforms
– Call completion, voice messaging & voicemail
– Content Management & Delivery
– Content retailing and billing mediation
– Core network and radio infrastructure
– Customer support services
– Deep Packet Inspection
– Mobile media publishing platforms
– MVNEs
– OSS / BSS
– Service Analytics
– Service delivery platforms & Network APIs
– SMS/MMS gateways & aggregators
– Traffic & content optimisation
– Application environments
– Audio middleware
– Baseband and application processors
– Browsers
– Camera technology and subsystems
– Imaging and video middleware
– Input technology
– Multimedia chipsets
– Non-cellular connectivity components
– Operating systems
– Plastics & mechanics
– RF components
– Silicon
– UI frameworks
Core value chain Content and services
– Industrial design
– User interface design
– Reference hardware designs
– System integrators
– ODMs and contract manufacturers
– Handset OEMs
– Luxury handset OEMs
– Mobile network operators
– MVNOs
– SIM card OEMs
– SIM application vendors & services
– Distributors
– Retailers
– Active Idle Screen solutions
– Application Analytics
– Barcode Services
– Campaign Analytics
– Connected Address book
– Content backup & synchronisation
– Developer tools
– Device capabilities databases
– E-mail synchronization
– Enterprise mobility
– Games publishers
– IVR Platforms
– Mobile Ad Networks & Mediation Engines
– Mobile Advertising Platforms & Agencies
– Mobile banking and payments
– Mobile content publishers
– Mobile Device Management
– Mobile instant messaging and chat
– Mobile search
– Mobile social networking
– Mobile VoIP
– Navigation, Mapping and Location platforms
– On-Device Portal solutions
– Recommendation services
– Security solutions
– Software integration services
– White-label Application Stores
– Widget Platforms

The Mobile Industry Atlas is available in A1+ wallchart format or PDF, for carrying around in your iPad or sharing with colleagues.
What do you think of the Atlas and what would you like to see next?

– Matos