Year in review 2011: Mobile commerce and M2M become strategic for operators

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The news: The three main French operators, Bouygues, Orange and SFR, were the first to announce the launch of a joint m-payments service to enable their customers to purchase items online using their mobile phones.

The operators launched the new Buyster service in February, and said they had formed the venture so it could  become a leading player in the French m-commerce market. Unofficially, the JV was seen as an attempt to combat the growth of payment services provided by Ebay's PayPal and Google's Checkout.

In April, Telefónica indicated its intent by announcing that 12,500 of its employees across Europe would be involved in a large scale trial of NFC-based contactless services.

Perhaps worried about being left behind, the UK's three leading operators, Everything Everywhere, O2 and Vodafone, formed a JV to accelerate the uptake of mobile commerce. The three operators gave their vocal support to the "landmark event," which aimed to provide an open platform that banks, retailers and advertisers could use to deliver m-payment and m-advertising services to customers of the three operators. However, 3UK was conspicuously left out of the venture, dubbed Project Oscar.

In June, four Danish operators--TDC, Telenor, TeliaSonera and 3--jumped on the bandwagon by announcing the intent to launch an NFC-based m-payments service for their customers. Just days later France's second largest banking group, BPCE, mounted a challenge to mobile operators by saying it had partnered with Visa to test m-payments using a microSD-based NFC solution that was independent from the mobile operator.

In July, O2 UK said it was a "few months away" from launching a smartphone app to enable contactless payments via the JV recently formed by O2, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere. By December, nothing had appeared.

For the next few months, operators turned their attention to M2M as another potential revenue source.

Deutsche Telekom launched an M2M developer kit in July and unveiled an agreement with Intel that would see the two firms collaborate on M2M technologies. TeliaSonera in Sweden also joined the M2M alliance formed between France Telecom Orange and Deutsche Telekom to enable pan-European M2M roaming services.

The new CEO of Everything Everywhere, Olaf Swantee, also decided in September that M2M was strategic by announcing a propriety M2M platform developed in partnership with Transatel. Everything Everywhere said this move, using its France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom links, would enable it to compete against Vodafone for international business.

To be fair  Vodafone had announced several months earlier that it had agreed with technology giant Bosch to integrate their respective M2M platforms.

By August m-payments were back with Germany's three major operators, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica O2 and Vodafone agreeing to overhaul the current Mpass agreement by creating a JV to operate the payment system - set for a relaunch in January. In October, 3UK had become so enraged by not being included in the UK m-commerce JV that it formally called upon the European Commission to block the venture as being anti-competitive. The company claimed that the proposed m-payments and m-marketing service was "dressed as a collaborative effort" but was an endeavour to restrict open competition.

To end the year, Telefónica's new Digital division said it would help O2 subsidiaries introduce NFC-based mobile wallet services across Europe over the next few months.

Why it was significant: The unresolved worry of becoming "data utility providers" has led European operators to push forward with an array of new initiatives and joint ventures during 2011. Many of these moves necessitated partnering with rivals or working in areas far removed from their traditional telecom comfort zones. Regardless of this, 2011 has been a milestone for activity within the mobile commerce and M2M sectors. However, while this push into providing new mobile services by operators should be applauded, there appears to be slightly more JVs, partnerships and strategic agreements than are needed by the consumer. In all likelihood, common underlying platform for m-commerce and M2M is vital for widespread uptake, not a plethora of narrow proprietary systems designed to control the market.