No, this won’t be a 2012 type prediction of Armageddon! But the mobile industry has begun the inevitable and likely irrevocable evolution towards an all IP ecosystem. This also means that services – basic services such as voice and messaging have already begun to go IP – or “over-the-top” (OTT) ahead of equivalent offerings from the network providers themselves.
In the past two years, I’ve written and spoken extensively about the “NUVO phenomena” as well as impact or lack thereof on global SMS (and really MMS) volumes. I’ve also discussed other non-SMS interoperable OTT players such as Blackberry Messenger, iOS 5.x iMessenger, Facebook Messenger and a few others.
This is a time of transition and I think it will cause considerable strife and struggle in some parts of the market, before the industry stabilizes around what it is to become in all-IP paradise. In some markets, such as Western Europe, independent OTT players including the infamous WhatsApp are having a profound effect on GSM operators SMS revenues and traffic.
In the USA and Canada, NUVOs (interoperable with the ecosystem) got an early start and consequently MNO revenues and traffic have not seen the dramatic drop. Both the North American and Western EMEA markets have strong mobile IP ecosystems.
In other markets, where smartphones are not so prevalent, there is less cannibalization from OTT players for voice and messaging. In fact, just the other day, I heard a statistic (attributed to Tomi Ahonen) that 90% of the world still doesn’t use smartphones. We all know that the “next billion” is coming from developing markets and we are already into that billion right now. Our global mobile world will evolve at different rates – we all know that, but in markets where it is evolving faster than others, there is and will be considerable conflict and discord among the major players. Many analysts and operators point to the emergence of the OTT service provider as a major culprit.
But are OTT service providers the blame? I don’t think so. These are innovative solutions that have taken the basic services that we all know and love – such as talking and texting – and rebuilt them, amended them, brought them to the new current technology. The network providers built and are continuing to build wonderful mobile networks. And why shouldn’t the gaps be filled by OTT services over these wonderful networks? Yes, there are issues with many of them. Some don’t understand the concept of interoperability with each other or the existing ecosystem. Others are deluded that the world will ONLY use their service; therefore, they do not need to interoperate.
So, are the operators (and I’m speaking about the mobile operators, specifically, here) to blame? Again, no – let me explain. Telecommunications operators are very regulated bunch – in the US included. Basic services such as voice – the original phone call – are quite regulated and mired in long legacy ecosystem. This is part of the MNO’s burden. If they could, they would have moved to OTT voice on top of their own networks much sooner. They really couldn’t and the regulatory agencies in various countries couldn’t figure out what to do with the already gap-filling, independent players that emerged to just do that. Think Skype, Google Voice, and many others that now have pure mobile voice alternatives.
The blame lies with the subscribers. You, me and everyone who are the consumers of all these new, shiny, twisty, twirly applications and services. We use them – and many of them are free! All we are asked is to look at some advertisements. The good one’s even target ads and products to our own liking. This is one of the catalysts that is changing the mobile industry. These services work! The good ones are indistinguishable from the CS-based voice or GSM/CDMA text messaging and MMS messaging that we’ve all loved over the last 10-15 years.
The result is that we see analysts talking to MNOs about how OTT is bad. We also see MNO’s showing decreased revenue, profits, and traffic. There is talk of banning OTT services, even regulation (gulp!). Yes, we are in a time of strife in many mobile markets. The early-adopter markets as we all know, will have to figure it out as we go along. The ones to the party later on, can learn from what the early-adopter markets are going through right now.
The key for both service providers (OTT, traditional, value-add) as well as MNOs are to accept that these first shots (from the OTTs) are not meant to be provocative, but are filling a consumer gap – that is services that people want, but at lower costs and ways that can leverage all of this great new network infrastructure. For OTT service providers: They must play nicely, they must be willing to interoperate and bridge between the old and new – to work with legacy services and innovate to a new level of service. Be disruptive, but not destructive. For the MNOs: You do OWN the network. You built it. Accelerate your own OTT services. Embrace the good independent ones – it is them that will bring and keep subscribers on your network.
2012 doesn’t have to spell the end. It won’t be easy. And with apologies to Gartner, I am optimistic that this industry can avoid the “trough of disillusionment” before we reach the age of enlightenment once again.