As MWC unfolds, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of the thrust of the event and also some feedback from operators on their specific take-aways. The picture isn’t simple, but it’s interesting!
Microsoft has said more about its Phone 7 plans, no doubt to take some pressure off new partner Nokia. The new software will have multi-tasking and perhaps most interestingly a link to Microsoft Live and the SkyDrive cloud service. The question with these latter two capabilities is less whether they’d be there (they’re clearly accessible via IE, and IE9 is a coming feature for Phone 7) but whether they’d be more integrated with Phone 7 or simply browser-accessible. If, for example, Phone 7 used SkyDrive as an extension to local storage it might be a big thing. If it doesn’t, then Microsoft is putting itself at competitive risk by suggesting that kind of integration would be a good idea.
At MWC, both Microsoft and Nokia are playing to carriers, and the sense of the message is that “We understand developers”. The problem is that it’s not necessarily true that phone development success translates to operator success. If there are no features in the network, only in the phone, then the operator isn’t doing anything but pushing bits and we’ve reinvented disintermediation. A cloud angle might help, but only if Microsoft doesn’t try to steal the feature hosting for itself.
Apple seems likely to be heading in that same direction. The WSJ reports they’re planning to drop the fixed fee for MobileMe, and I’m hearing that they have a plan to make the basic service free and to then incorporate basic “locker” storage for iTunes and App Store items, as well as to make storage online available seamlessly as an extension of the iOS device storage and to offer cloud services/features as a kind of “URL Store” like Android/Google proposes for Chrome. How much you can trust rumor is always difficult, but it seems pretty likely that we’re going to see some major developments this year, though probably not revealed during the rest of the show.
Moving on, the dynamic between mobility and behavior is something I’ve talked about for years now. Tablets, as I’ve noted, change that dynamic because the specific features of the tablet play to a specific set of applications. That’s particularly true if you consider the previous appliance set consisted of mobile phones (including smartphones) at one end and wireless laptops or netbooks on the other. Nobody (meaning no significant market quantity of people) keys stuff into laptops while mobile, and nobody (same qualifier) watches feature films on smartphones. Tablets can do feature films and also can be used as a realistic input device for enterprise applications—the device may not be ideal for either but it’s much more serviceable than the alternative.
What the tablet explosion does to operators is to stress their mobile infrastructure planning. A simple example illustrates the issues. If we presume that the ideal tablet is iPad-sized, then it’s clearly a device that would be used primarily while stationary—the “migratory user” model rather than the mobile user. If we presume that a smaller 7-inch size is ideal, then the device could be used in a much larger set of locations and by users who were moving about more often. These two presumptions would empower WiFi or femtocells on in the first case, but less so in the second. I like Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio in large part because it addresses (embraces, even) this uncertainty. But it’s also true that operators lose any ability to decide on WiFi versus femtos if tablet vendors offer low-cost WiFi models; consumers jump on them and WiFi wins. But tablet-only issues also count; should tablet players try to differentiate their platform (as HTC seems to be doing) or rely on a standard Android like Honeycomb to get the most developer support and avoid fragmentation?
This uncertainty spills over into both infrastructure and services. Nobody will buy tablets to make a voice call, so what’s the mission of voice on tablets? Is it likely people will want phones and tablets because there will be times when they want only calling or simple data apps, and others where they want to sit and consume video or collaborate? Will they be more interested in basic entertainment or enterprise-related apps? Is social networking a driver, and if so how do tablets facilitate social network use versus smartphones?
Operators think that vendors are starting to see the operators’ side of the issue, but they’re not yet convinced that vendor strategies align fully with their own. Thus, they’re still looking for somebody to help them face up to the increased tension in the mobile space, and they’re not finding it at MWC, or likely elsewhere, in the near term.