Indonesia's Telkomsel and Skype last week forged a partnership to embed Skype services into smartphones offered by the operator.
The tie-up is the latest in a series of ripples that signal a change in attitude in many leading telcos when it comes VoIP. Skype, when all is said and done, is no longer just a product or a service, but rather is a marketing tool; an identifier to entice the highest spenders to one’s network; a shortcut to revenue, as it were.
Hark back to 2006 and the days when the ultimate smart phone was the Nokia N80 and some of us will remember the hullabaloo that centred around the custom firmware that the N80 was straddled with on the UK’s number one network, Vodafone.
With the N80, Nokia introduced a VoIP stack to the phone so it could make SIP calls. This was in the days when 3G networks were just starting to be widely rolled out and carriers had not too long ago been charging local and long distance tariffs.
However, The N80’s VoIP feature was viewed as such a threat that Vodafone’s version of the firmware had it removed. Most other carriers of the day did not go as far, rather banning VoIP in their fine print rather than in the hardware level.
With the advent of 3G, carriers feared that VoIP would eat into their voice revenue. Free calls anywhere in the world? What was once a radical thought is today taken for granted.
Nokia’s strength, so it thought, was its close relationship with carriers across the globe. However, perhaps that turned out to be a weakness in hindsight.
Nokia’s love-hate relationship with VoIP was evident for any Nokia fanboy. On the 3250 (the Rubik’s phone, one of the first Symbian S60 V3 devices) it had a section for SIP settings which was pretty useless as it was an EDGE phone. The N95 had it, but it worked only on WiFi. The N78 removed it again. The list goes on. Towards the end, most phones had a VoIP settings that waited for a non-existent or perhaps enterprise-class VoIP app, but by then the iPhone happened and the rest is history.
Nokia’s original N800/810 tablets (running Maemo, not Windows Phone) were Wi-Fi only and reports later emerged - posthumously - that it was lobbying by carriers that that had them remove the SIM and modem, rather than a design decision. Would Maemo / Meego have succeeded were it not for the close relationship with carriers? Perhaps. Nokia was bullied into removing features by the carriers. Apple bullied carriers into offering unlimited data plans. There is a slight irony in the different approaches.
But back to Skype.
Skype today is no longer the huge threat it once was. Voice revenues are on the decline anyway and data is where the future is. What Hutchison's 3UK discovered was that by not just allowing Skype, but by actively promoting it on its network, it could latch on to high ARPU users and win over these valuable accounts from the larger incumbents. For example, Vodafone, who religiously believed that VOIP was evil.
A few years ago, that strategy was radical. Now, it is being tried out everywhere in the world, though in the case of Telkomsel, it is probably more a pre-emptive move to keep their subscribers from defecting.
It is a decision that will have to be made many more times as carriers around the region finally get to grips with the realities of a data-oriented market.