Mobile operators' software challenge

You can't accuse SK Telecom of lacking ambition. It's laid out $900 million for an assault on the global apps platform market. 

The Korean cellco is building out apps development and handset platforms that can support multiple OSes, and CEO Jung Man-won has warned Google, Apple and Nokia that they're in its crosshairs. 

Steve Jobs won't be shaking in his boots yet, but Jung's team clearly see where the value in telecom lies.

It ain't in voice, it certainly ain't in data, and it's definitely not in hardware any more. These days the mobile game is all about software, apps and services.

Recognizing that is the easy part. Nokia did that three years and several reorgs ago and it's getting severely beaten up by Apple and Android. Microsoft is the world's biggest software organization and its market share is a rounding error. 

SKT has some of the right building blocks, though. Its Nate service was one of the pioneering mobile web offerings. Based in a tech-savvy country, one of the most wired places in the world, it has a smart base of users and a large apps development community to draw on. 

"Telecoms now can't differentiate their services for customers only with their network technologies," Jung said. "That is why we're planning to build a business model by creating an eco-system. We will move onto providing service platforms to grab the opportunities lying ahead."

Its minor problem is language-cultural. Stuff that South Koreans like might not necessarily be popular elsewhere in the world, although the popularity of Korean games and films suggests that divide isn't exactly unbridgeable. 

The bigger cultural divide is not between Korea and the world but telcos and software and apps guys. 

For one thing, software and apps firms tend to be small and focused solely on apps and content for the mobile user.

Mobile operators have two or three competencies. Apart from their declining role as network builders and managers, they are complex systems running big IT back-offices to support their mobile web operations and customers. Perhaps most of all, a cellco is a large-scale retail and marketing firm.

In any case, it's a long way from software platforms, where the key is to be able to attract and retain developer partners. Theoretically, it's not hard to find some smart software guys to set up a dedicated unit. The problem is that non-core teams in large companies get swallowed up in the constant battles for resources and mindshare, especially if they don't see early success.

Breaking out

Typically, telcos are approaching the problem with a typical whole-of-industry approach, namely WAC (Wholesale Applications Community); effectively an industry apps development environment for operators.

It's worth a try. The idea of a notionally single set of industry standards at least is attractive to developers.

But the WAC environment has got to appeal ahead of the already commercially successful platforms like Apple, Android, RIM and Symbian, and emerging ones like HP's WebOS and MeeGo.

And while WAC's membership numbers speak of wide industry support, it also suggests a slow, consensual decision-making process.  No wonder SKT has decided to set up its own platform; better to swing for the fences surely than wait for your business value to be consumed by third-party apps guys. 

Perhaps WAC will provide a broad framework inside which cellcos can build out their own platforms. We'll see.

Every mobile operator needs to consider how it takes the software challenge, but they need to cross a massive business chasm. Cellcos' record of innovation and business transformation doesn't inspire confidence.  Step carefully.