Smartphone revolution tests established players – page 2

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Major operators such as Vodafone are no less challenged by the rise of Apple and others. Vodafone's moves--I'm loathe to describe most of these as strategic--aim to hedge its position against competition for customer control and margin right across the value chain. Whereas the old enterprise-focused BlackBerry provided significant added-value for operators and did not pose a competitive challenge, in its expanded guise to consumers the BlackBerry ecosystem competes for the customer relationship and bottom line profits. Vodafone and Orange picking up iPhone distribution in the UK counters O2 on expiration of its iPhone exclusivity. Whereas this eliminates a competitive advantage for O2, it also puts Apple in an even stronger competitive position versus the operator market. Apple anticipates a fall in street prices with carrier competition in iPhones, but it does not expect its wholesale prices to fall. So far, Google's Android is predominantly with the T-Mobile with the HTC G1, but this OS is also set to diversify. For example, Vodafone's Verizon Wireless joint venture with Verizon is imminently expected to announce a Motorola "Droid" phone.

Vodafone and other carriers have numerous possibilities in smartphones. Focus is required. Vodafone has had a mixed relationship with Nokia for a decade or more. Club Nokia's mobile portal threatened to circumvent Vodafone and was crushed in order to preserve the regular handset trade. Club Nokia's reincarnation with Ovi was backed by Vodafone since 2007.

Vodafone's 360 initiative is an attempt to get back into the driving seat where its Live! portal has failed. It is promising sophisticated personal contacts management, social networking and an applications store. Its payment mechanism enables content and applications charges to appear on the phone bill. Vodafone plans to rollout 360 to Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain by yearend and into a further nine nations during 2010.

Vodafone has signed-up phone suppliers Samsung and Nokia with LiMo and Symbian OS respectively for 360. The attraction of LiMo's Linux is the pledge that this will never be used to circumvent the mobile operator with the independent service portals and applications stores that are strategically being pursued by Apple, RIM, Google and Nokia with Ovi.

A key potential competitive strength for 360 versus Apple, BlackBerry and Google is that Vodafone can allow developers deeper access into network capabilities with applications running on a variety of OSs. Similarly, Orange has opened up applications programming interfaces under its Orange partner Program.

Easier said than done. Most carriers groups are loosely structured federations: ownership and control is not absolute. It is difficult for Vodafone's corporate centre to impose a one-size-fits-all approach across many operating companies because local history and conditions differ significantly from nation to nation.

Carriers are disadvantaged by their limited scale. Even though Vodafone is a large group with 315 million proportionate subscribers worldwide, this is still less than a tenth the worldwide market of 4 billion subscribers addressed by Nokia and increasingly other smartphone and OS vendors. Scale attracts developers, helps amortize development and operational costs and build cool brands.

The Joint Innovation Lab initiative promotes creation of mobile applications and services with a global platform for developers. Widget compliant handsets from supporters LG, RIM, Samsung and Sharp will enable developers to create applications that can be rolled out to customers across JIL member companies China Mobile, Softbank, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone with a combined user base of more than 1 billion worldwide.

Many such alliances in IT and telecoms have failed over the years in their attempts to drive cohesion and scale. Alternatively, Ericsson is helping carriers by offering mobile internet, applications and messaging services including hosting to all comers on a white label basis. Carriers worldwide brand these as their own.

Vodafone's old anxieties about Nokia should be the least of its worries with so many new strategic challenges.

Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007.

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