Jarich: 2013 - Hope springs eternal across the mobile ecosystem

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Current Analysis Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

Even if you, your family, friends and co-workers managed to make it out of 2012 alive, it's been an undeniably tough year for telecom. In the world of devices, maps proved Apple fallible, Android fragmentation continued unabated and launch delays left many people writing off BlackBerry 10. At the same time, network vendor finances were largely lamentable to the extent that recent conversations have centered on who might leave the market and why a vendor like Samsung would ever think that this is a good time to aggressively engage the infrastructure space. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of scrambling for spectrum, service providers continued to get knocked around by OTTs and increasingly powerful device vendors. 

A year ago, if you'd suggested that 2012 would be a tougher year for telecom than 2011, I suspect you'd have gotten one of two responses. Some folks would have laughed it off and said, "not likely." Others would have asked for the nearest cliff they could throw themselves from. Still, it seems like this is what we got.

The bad news is that there's no assurance that 2013 will be any better. Heck, there's no assurance that the Mayans weren't right and everyone's CES and Mobile World Congress planning will be for naught; I, for one, will be cracking open a nice bottle of wine on the 21st, just in case it's my last chance (probably a Ladera Cabernet or Rockpile Zin…or both). The good news is that "hope" is a nearly infinite resource. Short of random or predictably uninventive predictions, then, here's some wishful thinking for the New Year.

·        Easier App Development. The virtual smartphone and tablet platform duopoly makes things easy on developers; they know they need to worry about iOS and Android…and not much else. That isn't comforting to operators looking to drive the success of a third (much less fourth or fifth) platform, and the platform makers looking to profit from their hard work and coding. Apps alone are not enough to turn a platform into a success (there's distribution, hardware, marketing, cool mascots, etc.). Still, having played around with Windows Phone 8 for the last week or so, I can say that the sometimes zombie-like live tiles (sort of alive, but sort of dead) don't bother me as much as the lack of a proper Twitter client or the United Airlines app. Any new platform will face similar issues and anything that can help developers will be welcome.

·        Service Innovation. Last week, I spent an hour or so with the folks at mobile packet core start-up Affirmed. Start-up EPC and 4G core efforts are nothing new (just ask Benu, Juniper or Tellabs) but Affirmed makes a good case for the value of their "cloudification" and service orchestration innovations. Still, as much as service differentiation based on variables as diverse as location, time of day, application policies or user tiers are compelling on paper, operators haven't proven too willing to massively experiment on this front. Affirmed would claim that technology has been a barrier; of course they would, that's start-up marketing 101. I'm not convinced. Policy vendors, after all, have spent a few years trying to push new service use cases. They've had some success, but not enough to suggest that every operator ready to innovate if only they had the products they needed. If the baby steps of shared data and zero-rating we saw in 2012 lead to more significant moves in 2013, the examples should help anyone--vendors and carriers, alike--trying to drive service innovations.

·        Return of the Dumb Pipe. I have a confession to make; I miss LightSquared. OK, I probably don't miss them as much as their PR machine that seemed to put out new partner announcements on a weekly basis, but I miss them nonetheless. Specifically, I miss the brazen attempt to build a mobile broadband network where monetization was simply built on access and capacity. Forget OTT competition. Forget concerns around net neutrality. LightSquared was planning to make money from bit pipe wholesaler. It hasn't been completely alone in this messaging (UK Broadband makes a compelling case for the value of the network), but it was never part of a particularly deep chorus and its departure didn't do much to endorse this thinking. OTT competition will continue to occupy operators in 2013. It would be nice if a contrarian view of network monetization got some play as well.

·        The Return of Video Thinking. Mobile World Congress circa 2011 was chock full of video optimization specialists reminding us that video was clogging up operator networks and would continue to be a drain on resources unless caching, pacing, transoding, transrating and policy tools were deployed. This year, the space was much quieter (though Allot's acquisitions of Ortiva and Oversi speak to much needed vendor consolidation). In part, you can attribute this to the fact that few operators still need to be convinced that video is the primary form of traffic running across their networks on a volume basis. In part, you've got some who think that LTE will solve their problems or direct data usage monetization simply means video will earn them more money. Regardless, if video will continue to be a real concern, it would be nice to see a renewed focus on new thinking to deal with it. Maybe it's broader experimentation around mobile DTV a la MetroPCS. Maybe it's time to dust off the idea of on-device caching during off-peak hours where the digital rights issues can be sorted out. Maybe it's forward movement on eMBMS, particularly if tied to operator concerns around capacity constraints at specific venues and events--you know, the places where video consumption is probably pretty predictable?  Of course, like so many promising technologies, devices will be the gating factor here.

·        Beyond 4G. Before catching up with Affirmed, I joined a few dozen other analysts at Nokia Siemens Networks' annual analyst conference. Beyond updating everyone on their impressive restructuring progress, they briefly mentioned work on "Beyond 4G" technologies. What comes after 4G is largely anyone's guess and few people (outside of ambitious Wi-Fi marketers) want to even use the term 5G. And yet, with LTE-A likely to start moving forward in 2013, vendors will need to begin painting a picture of "what's next." Sure, this will include components of near-term and longer-term 3GPP releases. Ideally, it would also include more disruptive visions of short-range optics, P2P architectures or even flux capacitors. Long-shot innovations might be positioned as non-viable or wishful thinking for those focused on the near-term, but they do keep things exciting!

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.