The operator-centric mobile model is over

There is no such thing as the mobile Internet. There is just the Internet. In his talk, Pogue refers to the “completed marriage of the Internet and the mobile.” That is, in fact, exactly what we are witnessing. The mobile device is rapidly evolving into just another window onto the web. Whether we are talking about the iPhone, the rumored CrunchPad, the Kindle, or a netbook, it’s all pretty much the same. What we want is a window to the web that we carry around in our pocket, our briefcase, or our backpack. Voice communication is one type of service that we’ll expect from all of these devices. Browsing is another. What we don’t want is anyone or anything standing between us and the Internet, between us and great third-party applications, or between us and reasonably-priced access fees. If operators don’t proactively unlock their phones, users will (and already are) – and I expect this will start happening faster than the operators would want us to believe.


David Pogue says the end of a telecom-company centered world is rapidly approaching, in a remarked upon presentation, which cites four trends:

(see the video below for the practical demo’s)

VOIP on a mobile phone.

David demonstrates how easy it is to make a call with a Skype client on a mobile phone. Anyone under 30 knows what Skype is and has no appetite for expensive cell-phone bills just for a basic services such as “voice calling.” The under-30 crowd is the first “post dial tone generation.” They rarely pay an operator for landline dial-tone and have no real need to pay for cellular dial-tone either. What they want (and all they need) is Internet access and an open device. One of the most exciting Israeli start-ups, Fring, is playing exactly to this trend – and has signed up several million users already. The good news is that with mobile platform convergence around 3-4 major platforms, its getting easier and cheaper for software developers such as Skype and Fring to develop and deliver their software to users. The emergence of off-deck “appstores” is only going to accelerate this.

“Mobile” calling over wifi.

Wifi is the dark horse that seems to have already upset this race. We all have little tiny wireless base-stations in our homes. Many of them are open. Even my grandmother has one. They don’t belong to any operator’s network, but they provide us with effective wireless coverage in the places we spend most of our time: our homes, offices, and favorite cafes. Do I need the cellular network when I’m driving or walking around? Absolutely. And will I be willing to pay for that? You bet. But does my mobile operator see even a penny of revenue when I’m sitting at a cafe downloading songs onto my iPhone via WiFi? Nope. Recently, operators have been touting the idea of femtocells – small base-stations owned by them that users will install in their homes. It’s a great idea in theory and certainly makes sense in terms of the operators’ own network topology, but it’s hard to believe that expensive, dedicated, and tightly controlled hardware is going to be widely deployed to do something that an entirely homegrown, low-cost, and unmanaged wifi network seems to have already achieved. I’m already covered by free (wifi) wireless access at least 75% of the time. I’m already using it for data – and I think voice will happen sooner than the operators would like. Ironically, the service Pogue demonstrates is offered by T-Mobile.

Wifi to cellular handoff.

I don’t know how widespread or realistic this capability is, but Pogue clearly demonstrates it in all its glory. It is truly a game-changer because, once widespread, wifi will gain real credibility as an infrastructure for voice calling.

Unstoppable off-deck services.

Throughout his talk, Pogue demonstrates a series of off-deck mobile services that would be pretty difficult for operators to block (at least politically if not technically). These include services that bring voicemail into the Internet age, replace traditional 411 directory services, and place a world of information in the palm of your hand via voice or SMS. Beyond being incredibly useful, these services demonstrate two critical points. First, consumers will increasingly look beyond the operator to provide core voice-calling related services such as director services and voicemail. Secondly, consumers will become increasingly comfortable accessing traditional internet search directly from their mobile phone either by voice, sms, wap, dedicated search apps, or traditional browsing. Just like on the wired internet, search will be the key to breaking the grip of the operator portal. Once we learned how to search the web, we relied on AOL and Yahoo “portal” pages much less. And once we learn to search the Internet from our mobile, we won’t need or want the operators’ portals either.”