AT&T's Christopher on how developers can benefit from wearables, sponsored data

AT&T David Christopher

David Christopher

with David Christopher, CMO of AT&T Mobility

As the chief marketing officer of AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), David Christopher does much more than just oversee promotions, pricing and advertising. He plays a key role in the company's developer community and is front-and-center at AT&T's annual Developer Summit, which took place earlier this month in Las Vegas.

Christopher talked with FierceDeveloper Editor in Chief Sue Marek about the company's latest marketing push that goes after T-Mobile US ( NYSE:TMUS) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ)  and how developers can benefit from some of the latest AT&T initiatives such as Sponsored Data--where partners can subsidize consumer data so that it doesn't count toward their data bucket.

FierceDeveloper: AT&T has been hosting this Developer Summit right before the Consumer Electronics Show for several years now. How are developers responding to it?

Christopher: We had over 600 developers for the hackathon. That's a 77 percent increase. Just the sophistication of the applications being created is off the charts. What these entrepreneurs can do in 24 to 36 hours is amazing. Our job is to give them the tools and unleash them. We are pleased with the momentum of our developer efforts.

We know we can't do it all. We can't possibly innovate at the speed of the market by ourselves. We have to embrace developers and open our networks and open our capabilities to developers. That is strategic for us.

FierceDeveloper: Do you think a developer-focused event pays off for AT&T? Many operators have scaled back their developer efforts.

Christopher: We started in 1996 and we are growing. Third parties rank us as having the best. We want developers and we want this to be their program. Giving them capabilities and tools, helping them on the technical side and business side is our objective.

If you look at this event vs. prior years, we are spending less time announcing devices and instead talking about platforms. The network is the center. The smartphone is the remote control of your life--represents our philosophy of smartphones running on our network. We will allow customers to control their home, their car, their wellness, their family, their business and their entertainment.

FierceDeveloper: We are seeing a trend where devices are less distinguishable. Would you agree? It seems hard for an OEM to make a device that is different from the competition. Is that why we are coming back to apps and the network?

Christopher: The network and the applications and the platforms are maturing and creating the perfect storm of capabilities. Ubiquitous, fast networks, open API platforms that foster entrepreneurs to create cool applications.

Platforms like Digital Life and U-verse were not available two years ago. That's exciting. The smartphone is the terminal for controlling these things.

But I think innovation goes in waves. You see right now with tablets and wearables and home automation and connected cars all being driven by open APIs is a really exciting time.

FierceDeveloper: Do you see the connected car as the smartphone of the future?

Christopher: The connected car is going to evolve and be a very fascinating platform. There's going to be safety and diagnostics, there's going to be entertainment. There will also be a lot of Big Data opportunities.

FierceDeveloper: In the marketing campaign that AT&T announced [AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega talked about it at the Dev Summit], AT&T is going after T-Mobile and Verizon and naming them. I thought you didn't like to do that. Why are you doing this now?

Christopher: It's a very competitive market now. Our network has never performed better. We have an outstanding smartphone portfolio. We have new mobile share capabilities out there. We want people to know what a great experience we have to offer. 

We are focused on what we bring to the market. We want to talk about our capabilities, our experience. We have a fast, best-in-class LTE network. We offer an incredible value with mobile share. Incredible value with Next--zero down for a new phone. We will never go away from that. We want to talk about our benefits.

FierceDeveloper: You also recently announced that you are going to pay ETFs specifically for T-Mobile customers. That is very specifically going after T-Mobile. That seems like a different tactic for you.

Christopher: It's a highly competitive market. That's a temporary promotion. We want customers to know the better experience they can have on our network. We are inviting them to come try it.

FierceDeveloper: Are ETFs the next battleground?  

Christopher: Our promotion is in two parts--trade-in your phone and go on AT&T Next and also a promotional offer to switch your line. These are short-term promotions, reflective of a promotional market.

FierceDeveloper: We are seeing people turn around practices that have been in place a long time in the wireless industry.

Christopher: When you step back, you have to approach the market like a portfolio. There are highly promotional messages and there are leadership messages. We want to be good at both.  

We didn't mention any marketing today. It was all innovation and leadership and where we are taking the networks and APIs.

FierceDeveloper: Sponsored data is something we have been waiting for. You announced it here. How will this impact developers?  

Christopher: It's early capabilities. We are leading in this space. It's an exciting capability for developers and content providers. The more that consumers digest their content is a good thing. By giving them this capability--if you are a movie studio and you want them to watch a certain movie trailer--it's good for the consumer and good for the movie studio.

FierceDeveloper: When will the big brands jump on this?

Christopher: We are talking to a lot of people about this. We are seeing a lot of great response to this. It will evolve. It's an important capability.

There are lots of things that are not entertainment focused but very practical and useful--like healthcare apps.    

FierceDeveloper:  Wearables are a very hot topic. But not all involve the wireless network. How do you view this market? Is there a business model for AT&T?

Christopher: We have a robust accessory business, and not all are cellular enabled. These are great complements to cell phones and tablets. A lot of wearables will be Bluetooth enabled. We will work with partners to 4G enable them and cellular enable them. But it's a new space. Things will evolve. We are happy with Bluetooth-enabled accessories. There are a lot of things that are a rich complement.

FierceDeveloper: Are these really better if they are wireless?

Christopher: The market will vote. Things that resonate with consumers will make it. Things that don't won't.

We think a lot of things are better if they are connected with ubiquitous wireless. Things that are Bluetooth now may evolve to wireless.  

FierceDeveloper: How can developers be involved in this area?

Christopher: I think all of these categories--the home, the car and wearables--are in their infancy and there will be years ahead of us in innovation.

The idea that the car can be enabled for safety and security and big data capabilities--it's fascinating. Using our network and our distribution will give developers a path to market. That's a big win.