While it’s difficult nowadays to write about telecoms or the mobile sector without drifting off into other areas of the TMT industry, Zeitgeist spent an evening last month as a guest of Accenture in Cambridge, discussing the successes and failures of the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It came in the middle of a year so far that has already some significant shifts from mobile companies, in terms of branding, operations and revenue streams.
2013 has seen some interesting news in mobile. The week before last marked, incredibly, the 40th anniversary of the first phone call made from a mobile phone. This year also saw Research in Motion renaming itself to BlackBerry, with shares sliding 8% by the end of the product launch announcement for its eponymous 10 device. It saw Sky acquire Telefonica’s broadband operations, while responding to major complaints about the speed of its own broadband service. It has seen Huawei, which in Q4 of 2012 sold more smartphones than either Nokia, HTC or BlackBerry, come under scrutiny particularly in the US for its lack of transparency. Moreover, after much editorial ink spilled on Facebook’s lack of initiative and innovation in mobile, the release of the ‘super-app’ Chat Heads has piqued interest as it looks to compete with Whatsapp, Viber, iMessage et al., which Ovum reckons cost MNOs $23bn in lost revenue every year. This news mostly pertained to developed markets; JWT Intelligence’s interview with Jana CEO Nathan Eagle features some interesting insights on mobile trends in emerging markets.
Interestingly, 2013 thus far has also been witness to the beginning of more flexible contracts and payments. At the end of March, T-Mobile USA announced it would offer the iPhone to customers for cheaper than its rivals, and customers would not have to sign a contract. It effectively ends handset subsidies – something which Vodafone pledged to do last year and was punished by the stock market when it failed to do so – spreading the full cost of the phone over two years “as a separate line item on the monthly bill”, which may strike many as still quite a commitment. Customers must pay the bill for the phone in full in order to be able to end their tenure with the network. The New York Times elaborates, “Despite T-Mobile’s promise to be more straightforward than other carriers, some consumers might still find it confusing that they have to pay an extra device fee after paying $100 up front for an iPhone.” In the UK, O2 is going a similar route. At the end of last week the company announced similar plans to T-Mobile. While still keeping contracts as an option, the FT explained the company was looking to a plan, dubbed O2 Refresh, “that decoupled the cost of the phone from the cost of calls, texts and data. Customers will be able to buy a phone outright, or pay in instalments over time, and then sign up to a separate service contract that can be cancelled or changed at any time.” Although O2 said in the article that they expected customers to pay the same as they would on a standard contract, the new plans by both network providers will surely add to customer churn. Brands will have to work harder to develop true loyalty rather than relying on the lock-in feeling that adds to switching costs for many customers. Conversely, this added flexibility may make the providers feel less like utilities, creating more choice and differentiation.
At the aforementioned conference Zeitgeist attended last month, Accenture hosted an evening they dubbed “MWC: Fiesta or Siesta?”. It soon became apparent that many of the speakers invited were less than enthused with the conference this year. This was partly because there were no extraordinary leaps in technology or hardware on offer. It was also because of, as one speaker lamented, “the proliferation of suits”. Another speaker complained it was like listening to The Archers: long storylines “that ended up having no conclusion”. The very essence of the conference though is not about trendsetting, or cool new consumer devices. Mobile operators are utilities, the excitement around such an event is not going to be as visceral as that of SXSW or Embedded World. It led some to wonder whether the “real innovation was being developed in such ‘niche’ events, away from the “glitz”. Moreover, perhaps Samsung’s decision not to launch their new S4 handset at the Congress alluded to this lack of excitement, or at least a wish not to be drowned out by other announcements.
Among exciting trends on display at MWC, M2M – something Zeitgeist has written about before – was front and centre at the conference, particularly with regard to cars. Phablets continued to make their foray into the consumer’s view, with bigger screens meaning more data transfer. Zeitgeist wondered whether such a transition would put even more pressure on networks already struggling with large data handling. And although Firefox’s new OS gave some – including those at GigaOm – hope that it could provide more innovation through diversified competition in the marketplace, others, including Tony Milbourn, Executive Chairman of Intelligent Wireless, speaking at the event, thought it “underwhelming” after “lots of hype”. Bendable screens were also to be found at MWC, but those speaking at the Accenture conference like Richard Windsor of Radio Free Mobile said it was early days and much was still to be seen from this new type of phone. Its potential though, he readily conceded, was formidable. Wearable technology was a huge issue at the conference and one that Zeitgeist is particularly interested to see develop, especially as companies like Apple, Sony and Google enter the fray.
It seemed then that the Mobile World Congress failed to reflect what is turning out to be a tumultuous year in telecoms. Not only is there an increasing desire to address consumer needs – in the case of more flexible contracts and more consumer-facing company names – but as economies sputter their way toward ostensible recovery we are also starting to see M&A activity return to the sector. Time will tell whether new technologies, such as M2M or bendable screens can breathe new life into the sector.