Grounded cellcos need to grasp the cloud

Mobile operators must be the only people in the business world not interested in the cloud.

It's a mystery why. Cloud services - or "network-based services" as they used to be known - are cellcos' best bet for regaining the initiative from the smartphone guys.

I was thinking this recently as I spent several hours transferring my address book from my PC to a well-known internet brand because it can sync them with my mobile phone.

A tiresome task - but surely my mobile service provider could have done that. And maybe it does, in which case they should be shouting it from the rooftop. I'm not aware of any cellco in Asia does it.

Take it from me, if you're hosting my contact book, I'm locked in.

Even the smartest mobile devices are limited in their functionality and screen real estate, so added network-based functionality becomes critical.

Phones are also vulnerable to being lost or stolen. Contacts are just one part; how about backing up my photos, my texts, emails and documents?

I keep getting calls from my operator offering to insure my device for HK$520 ($67) a year. No one calls me about offering something much more useful, which would be to back up my data.

Apple charges $99 a year for its MobileMe address book and backup service. Telcos could charge less than half that for the same service.

That's just the beginning. You'd think telcos would know that the address book is the launching point for any communication. Hosting a database of thousands of contacts is a big win in itself. You can build an online business around that, not least in the essential area of social media sites.

But while the cloud offers cellcos the chance of an end-run around the handset firms, customer care is one area where it can work in partnership with them.

Telcos run some of the most sophisticated customer service systems of any business. Long-suffering customers might scoff, but telecom operators are certainly way ahead of, say, software firms, whose idea of customer care is a disclaimer before a user download.


Google learnt this last month when it decided to sell its new Nexus One phone directly to customers. The reason for that is clear enough; Google doesn't want to share the end-user with anyone else. After that debacle Google must decide whether it builds its own customer care platform or works with a partner that has one.

Smartphones are complex and increasingly new customers are going to need help. Apple has indeed been fortunate in that cellcos are willing to share their service revenues while bearing the brunt of the customer care; operators should be billing their partners for providing that service.

Telcos keep missing these opportunities and the reason they do is because of the way they think about their business. They're too focused on networks and technologies. How much senior management time is taken up with talking about HSPA, LTE and network operations?

Over the years they've ridden fresh waves of technology - from voice to text to mobile broadband - and today they're still expecting some big new concept to turn up that will ward off the dreaded "dumb pipe".

The concept operators really need to embrace is the customer. That doesn't mean reading the results of a focus group. It means a business culture of spending 24/7 in the customers' shoes and seeing the world that they see.

Telecom operators in the 21st century are still structured around their engineering operations just as they were in the 20th century. It's time to offload those networks and start focusing creatively on the customer.