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Bringing the ‘social’ out of the operator walled gardens

[Mobile services have long been a carefully guarded commodity, kept within the 'walled gardens' of network operators. But as innovation moves to the software and social era, operators need to adapt. Guest author Avner Mor discusses how networks are inherently social and why they should open their walled gardens to developers]

Bringing the 'social' out of the operator walled gardens

A ‘walled garden’ is the term aptly applied to the last decade of mobile operator services. And Facebook is the generic name aptly applied to the social network revolution of our times.

Wikipedia defines ‘walled gardens’ as referring “to a carrier’s or service provider’s control over applications, content, and media on platforms … and restriction of convenient access to non-approved applications or content”. This has been the common sense approach to operator strategies; build high walls to protect your revenues – which by now we know is becoming irrelevant. Mobile operators are facing market saturation, declining ARPU, higher subscriber acquisition costs (see iPhone), fierce regional competition and viable threats of being replaced by the over-the-top players. In 2009 alone, global operator ARPU fell by 7.3% year-on-year and is forecasted to further decline around 10% y-o-y  according to Strategy Analytics. How come operators – having a ‘social’ network at their very core – have been steadily declining, whereas Facebook has risen to a 600 million user, $35B valuation business in just 7 years? Let’s take a step back.

Which developers have the most to gain from getting access to network APIs?

  • All of the above (61%, 19 Votes)
  • Why would developers need network APIs? (13%, 4 Votes)
  • Web developers (10%, 3 Votes)
  • Indie app developers (6%, 2 Votes)
  • Major software houses (6%, 2 Votes)
  • Content developers (4%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 31

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2010 will probably be known as the year where mobile service innovation has moved squarely to the software domain. Think about the 100,000s of applications against the 10s of operator services launched in the last 2 years.

To compete in this software world, operators/carriers need to leverage their network capabilities to compete with the over-the-top players. For example, think of a voice application that automatically switches to taking a text or voicemail if it knows the other user is busy. Or a service provider in the travel business that can target their Java app and SMS campaign to users who travel abroad frequently. Or web pages that feature a 1-click-buy based on keying in your mobile phone number. Or a “where are my friends” service, where you opt-in to a friends location request no matter what phone you ‘re using. Or travel recommendations where a virtual concierge suggests places to visit in your holiday based on where your friends have been.

Such innovation has shunned the mobile world because network operators have adopted the walled garden business model of building a supermarket with their own branded goods – rather than a shelf (a platform) for third party goods that leverages on the social aspects of the platform. To compete in a world where innovation is defined in software and social, operators need to become a platform – and compete over the top, not in the network.

A platform business model is about leveraging operators’ underutilised, walled network assets, taking a cut from the delivery of innovative services, in the same way that Apple takes a cut from the delivery of mobile apps or Facebook takes a cut out of ad delivery. It’s not just operators that are playing in this developer game – it’s handset vendors investing in developer programs and app stores, online brands opening their assets to developers (from the BBC to Facebook) and Digital TV operators exploring methods to open STB, EPG and DVR channels to developers. Yet operators are the most ubiquitous and most social players of them all.

Leveraging the social side of the network

Networks hold lucrative assets within their walls including voice, messaging, location, presence, user authentication, billing – plus social graph, user profile and preferences. Take location for example; despite wide penetration of GPS receivers in handsets, network-based location covers any device, works indoors, and is particularly suited to emerging markets.

More importantly, mobile networks hole a treasure trove of information about its users; based a few key information like age bracket, ARPU bracket, address region, roaming characteristics and device model which are provided in an opt-in model, one can deliver better search results, ads or campaign targeting. Think about how restaurant recommendations can automagically cater to your spending habits, taste for international cuisines and social lifestyle – an app that knows you from day one.

There are tons more of examples where network APIs can enable unique applications. Yet, when developers try to connect their app to an operator network they experience barriers and restrictions, such as technology fragmentation, long and expensive technical integration, tedious commercial engagements, long time to payment, plus distribution challenges. What’s worse, developers need to engage and integrate separately with each operator. All of these factors hinder the vast majority of developer innovation and essentially diminish the operator ability to be the center of innovation gravity.

Many infrastructure vendors have jumped into the opportunity to connect operator networks to developers:

- Alcatel Lucent – A dominant SDP provider, extended a hosted ‘OpenAPI’ service for developers, providing Consent Management and  ‘LBS API’

- Ericsson – through their ‘Ericsson Labs’ initiative, the SDP provider offers a broad ‘Maps & Positioning’ API set: web & mobile maps, 3D maps, Cell-id look-up (with its own worldwide cell-id database) , operator based  cell-id and  consent management . Ericsson is currently working with operators in Sweden and Norway.

- Amdocs -  an OSS/BSS leader moving into positioning as an open mobile service providers network to 3rd parties: “service providers have the opportunity to drive new revenues by monetizing their unique assets – networks, customer information, charging, billing and customer care…”

- Huawei – An emerging market player builds its position by partnering America Movil and Telefonica in LATAM. Telefonica has completed in 2009 the deployment of Huawei’s openness platform across 13 Latin American countries

Social cloud APIs

Yet such efforts are limited to single-operator deployments. In addition, they have limited developer outreach potential as many these infrastructure vendors stem from the network, not the software world.

The logical next step is a single, cloud-based network API platform across multiple operators, spanning not just regions and multiple screens, but the entire application lifecycle: develop – deploy – discover – monetize. This network API cloud paradigm is essentially a 4-sided platform connecting users (who discover and consume services), developers (who innovate and create services), the applications themselves and the developer program partners (with the tools and technology, go-to-market, support and community assets). Naturally, a multi-operator paradigm needs to support variable access policies for operator assets, including access to network assets, charging subscribers and accessing user info.

Such a developer-friendly cross-operator pilot program was announced recently in the form of WAC, the Wholesale Applications Community, a joint effort to create a standards based apps platform that operators can leverage to build their storefronts. Network API’s are also part of WAC, based on OneAPI, a Commercial pilot project aiming to establish a unified, developer-friendly API environment across operators. Aepona is the technology provider for the GSM Association’s “OneAPI” initiative.

So is WAC the answer? Operator alliances are essential to achieve this goal. Yet, historically we have seen internal complexity and operator competing agendas hinder effectiveness of these pilots. The missing piece is an infrastructure player that understands software innovation, developer programs and running telco-grade cloud infrastructure. A Facebook-like (software) player that can bring the Facebook out of the operator walled garden.

- Avner

[This article is dedicated with appreciation to the Telecom team at Microsoft Israel R&D center
Avner Mor has over 25 years of experience in senior management positions with leading Israeli hi-tech telecom companies and start-ups. In his last role, Mor served as the General Manager of Telecom Products at the Microsoft Israel R&D center.]

  • http://twitter.com/danbec Daniele Beccari

    This post brings up one question I always try to answer (unsuccesfully) when looking at mobile telcos: how can they differentiate?

    Everything described above makes perfect sense, but it can only work if the carriers come together with standards and cross-operational platforms. This way, mobile developer will be reassured their investment will work with many networks (if not all, at some stage). But this makes the networks replaceable and interchangeable, and undifferentiated again… thoughts?

  • Avner Mor

    You are right. This can be done by introducing a single multi-operators cloud based platform encompassing the entire eco-system to enable an efficient and simple service life-cycle. The network API cloud flattens the world for developers by creating common access to telco network assets. Differentiation can be achieved either by the carriers' first party services or by mashing-up of their assets with other web based assets. For example – a mash-up of the subscriber’s location with maps and points-of-interests. This service leverages the user’s cell location information, and then accommodates requests from the user for information around his location.

  • http://www.morodogroup.com Ving Chou

    Great article Avner.

    I work for Morodo Group and you have raised many interesting points to which Morodo can relate. Through our MO-Call service, we already have every element of the Social Network tightly integrated with Telephony, Messaging and Presence. By opening up to developers, we aim to continue to innovate in the telecom sector.

    I will use your article as a reference and send you a link to read so you can hear what we think.

    Many thanks,

  • http://www.morodogroup.com Ving Chou

    Hi Avner:

    Thought this might be of interest: http://www.morodogroup.com/morodo-bringing-the-so

    Thanks,

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