Thursday, November 09, 2006

Does it make any sense to design a broad-based communications service any longer?

At the recent VON show in Europe, Carl Ford dragged me up on stage to fill out a panel talking about the fight between 3G and and Fixed Wireless mobile carriers. One of the invited, as opposed to the dragged, speakers was Wolfgang B, the head of Internet operations for T-Mobile. As my day job has a good client relationship with T-Mobile, I sort of ducked identifying my self as much as anyone on a stage can. Carl dragged me up because Wolfgang was sort of trashing the whole mobile video space, including a "romp" through the logistics of adult content. He roundly dismissed any new mobile video service, with the flair of a German genius. At the end of his talk, he said "I wish there was a content provider in the audience", and up went my hand.

Of course, the REASON I put up my hand was that not that I claimed to be a P&R guy for Arista records, but I was one person who found himself in situations where I have taken video on the road, and wanted to share them with my friends. In my case, I wanted to capture this really neat Judo throw in my camera, and send it to my Karate teacher. What I was REALLY thinking about wasn't me, but my camera obsessed son, who takes videos of his friends with his phone constantly, and would gladly post them to myspace if he could. So, I made this point, and he conceded that you could specialize the market to such a degree that you COULD deliver that service, but the kids would become disinterested in three months, and how could you run a business on that?

What he didn't say publicly, but admitted afterwards in a side conversation, was that the problem was in the structure of carriers - they were too large, and the opportunities too fleeting, to really take advantage of the very niched application. I hope I didn't offend him when I suggested that the problem was with today's carriers, not tomorrow's.
Here's where my head went - as carriers search for new services, should you just generally rule out any service that's too general? Is it true that a general service will not have enough value to have staying power and resist commoditization? Should you go as far to say that anything that most people would need and pay money for is a non-starter? Talk about contrary thinking... maybe I'm low on my meds.


Schuyler said...

Hey Thomas,

I was at your panel in VON. I'm an American living in Berlin, and work for a notable Open Source Software company. Would love to chat with you!

You can contact me via e-mail:


Nir Simionovich said...

Hi Thomas,

I had to read your post twice before actually getting down with it. However, when I started thinking about it, the situation with current carriers is much worse - and it becomes even worse with emerging carriers that had sprung from existing service providers.

Take for example a DBS company that would like to start a telephony service, in order to keep afloat with triple play services. They are unable to grasp the concepts of billing inside the telecom's industry, and suddenly, a service oriented issue becomes a data warehousing issue for the billing department. Then the engineering who don't really understand the new technology (voice? I thought we were delivering video!) are becoming antagonistic, and over the course of things, the project dwells and dies a misserable death.

In any case, I agree with your words about the "slow-illness" of current carriers, in adopting fast to new niche markets. However, where the carriers will fail, the small service providers will succeed.

Thomas Howe said...

Hi Nir -
Yes, you are right - I didn't even think deeply about all of the cross-products that happen when service providers begin to deliver new applications. Another reason why there is this natural "ceiling" for the size that a carrier can be before it collapses under it's own weight.

A direct example from biology - the average height of a human being just so happens to be as tall as possible without a large risk that we we break our skulls if we tripped and fell. If we were eight feet tall, the chance for brain injury would be exponentially greater.

I think the only reason that carriers are as large as they are is because of their generic services. When generic services are no longer profitable, then the carriers will necessarily shrink... or they will break their skulls.

Excellent point, Nir.