The Mobile Operators' Desktop Play
Does a WebRTC-enabled soft client represent the next horizon for service providers hoping to sell OTT services?
Mobile is hot. Mobile is sexy. Mobile operators are the behemoths of the service provider world. So why would mobile operators want to have a desktop play?
I'll answer that question in a bit. It comes out of the sessions I've attended today at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco. I've spent my time with the Oracle Communications division, which is focused heavily on delivering software to support mobile operators' networks. Within this year, Oracle bought Acme Packet and Tekelec, the former in part and the latter entirely for their offerings to the service providers, especially mobile operators. The attendees at OpenWorld's Communications sessions have primarily been representatives of mobile operators.
And yet this matters a great deal to enterprises too, for lots of reasons. Most obvious is that the mobile operators are your partners in delivering enterprise communications to your end users, whether you are in love with that idea or not. Some enterprise organizations might even be moved to consider going all-mobile, as Michael Finneran recently discussed here. So how the mobile operators create and deliver services will have a major impact on the enterprise.
But there are other factors having to do with the operators' own business models and business challenges--chief among them, their desire not to become "dumb pipes", or whatever the wireless equivalent of a pipe is. The villain in the "dumb pipe" scenario is the OTT (over-the-top) players, who provide the applications that customers download onto their smartphones, which provides the real value and monetization opportunity.
Mobile operators want to become OTT players themselves, and have been wrestling for several years with how to do it. The pat answer has been to roll out their own in-house OTT applications to compete with the existing OTTs. Genband, the SBC and cloud-communications-platform vendor, positioned its recent acquisition of OTT application vendor fring as completing its roster of offerings to service providers wanting to deliver in-house OTT applications. Genband's pitch is that they'll white-label their cloud communications infrastructure to the SP, off which the SP delivers the service.
But here at OpenWorld, Oracle is making another pitch to mobile operators, in connection with its just-announced WebRTC session controller. The idea is that, by using WebRTC, the mobile operator can essentially position its service as a OTT on other providers' networks when its subscribers are roaming out of the operator's service area.
The basic idea, as Oracle officials explained it here, is: Let's say you're a U.S.-based subscriber of Sprint or AT&T or whoever, and you're traveling abroad. Your mobile "phone" would exist in its regular, current state, and also as a WebRTC-enabled soft client. So when you travel out of your SP's territory, you use this client, which looks to you just like your mobile phone's interface, but runs as an OTT service on some other mobile operator's network. No international roaming costs for you; a stickier service and hopefully some incremental revenue for your home mobile operator.
To me, the question--as with the idea of SP in-house OTT apps--is whether the mobile operators will actually embrace this vision. It reminds me of the way things were supposed to work when the U.S. landline marketplace was deregulated--regional Bell companies were supposed to invade each others' territories and become, functionally, CLECs in those areas. Somehow, in the end, they all looked at each other, shrugged, and stuck to their home bases. Nobody was willing to make the first move in attacking their competitors' core revenue stream--knowing full well that if they did, they could expect the same treatment in return.
But even if this kind of competition doesn't happen among mobile operators, I do think we're going to be seeing a convergence of mobile and landline services. In concept, the enterprise communications vendors are already there, with their UC clients that are designed to run on mobiles or desktops alike. But, as Michael Finneran continually reminds us, those UC clients aren't catching on for mobile. Users seem to have decided--at least to date--that they aren't interested in using work clients on their mobiles.
So does that mean users won't want a single interface from their mobile provider either? Maybe it'll be different. The mobile providers have achieved their advantage by being the ones who drive user preferences in mobile communications interfaces. So if they can provide a compelling reason for users to adopt these interfaces, they might be able to change users' behaviors and preferences, in a way that the UC vendors haven't, yet.