On show: The three faces of mobile

17 Feb 2006

The mobile industry has three faces and all were on show in Barcelona last week.

The first, the hopelessly optimistic face, was represented by industry chieftains offering new ways for consumers to spend money through their handsets. In time-honored trade show style they flaunted initiatives for mobile IM and mobile TV, warm words about the prospects for HSDPA and 3G, and the usual flood of new phones.

No surprises there, but we've seen too many brilliant ideas come to a bad end to take these with more than a grain of salt. It's encouraging that large mobile operators have jointly seized the IM initiative, for example - but who knows if that's what consumers really want‾ MMS seemed a good prospect at the time, too.

Set against that boosterism is the industry's business face, which follows the growth. These days the growth is in the emerging markets, so we heard a lot about low-cost phones. Texas Instruments, for one, is promising handsets at close to $20 this year.

Such concern for the unconnected is due partly to the GSMA's emerging markets program, but more to the fact that there is nowhere else for device-makers to go. (GSMA does deserve a tick for its report on Africa's poor telecom regulation, which costs sub-Saharan GDP an estimated $900 million a year.)

High volume, global brands

Motorola has done well out of the GSM program, shipping 12 million terminals in the last year, but Nokia has also brought its entry-level handset range to market. Only those players really have the scale and reach to make the low-end viable. For all the talk of mobile TV and putting SIM cards into laptops, it's all about high volume, low margins and branding.

Mobile's third face also made an appearance in Spain, and that is its defensive mode. There is no better example of this than Hutchison's tie-up with Skype.

Leaving aside Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom's claimed antagonism to telcos, this is a big shift for Hutchison. This is the company that for the last five years has been adamantly and solely 3G. Hutchison has resolutely eschewed Wi-Fi and does not offer a dedicated 3G data service. Its UMTS business has been about mobile video, walled garden and cheap voice.

With a business based on those three, it's no wonder Hutch has made the shift. Mobile video is still a novelty service, and you won't see Canning Fok tearing down his 3G walls just yet. But this deal acknowledges that, thanks to P2P and VoWLAN, voice pricing is going to be somewhere south of cheap.

It actually synchs nicely with the Hutch 3G business model, which draws in customers with big buckets of voice minutes and hopes it can make gains from other services.

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