As long ago as Napoleon, and perhaps most famously in our lifetimes during the Gulf War, certain armies have employed the tactic of systematically destroying infrastructure that could otherwise be used by the opposition. Often, this has included destroying roads, crops, water supplies, and electricity. In the latter example, it entailed the burning of oil fields.
Over the Top (OTT) players such as Google have been accused of similar scorched earth thinking, whereupon they deliberately and systematically drain the value from every element in the ecosystem, with the aim of reducing everything to commodity status, until nothing remains, save the end user and the advertisement. Operating System – commoditised. Search – commoditised. Maps & Navigation – commoditised. Office applications – commoditised. Even some attempt at the handset – commoditised. Basically, “if it gets in the way of the advertisement, burn it,” seems to be the theory.
Recent reports suggest the long awaited take off of mobile advertising – which admittedly has always been next year’s big thing – will hold huge value, with Google predicting earlier this year that mobile ads will eventually outpace those on the PC.
Whether by design or by accident, Apple has also engaged in scorched earth practices (e.g. iMessage and the associated decline in SMS revenues), although to be fair Apple has mainly focused on masterful exploitation of the cult status of its hardware. Both Apple and Google have, of course, fostered their own ecosystems to the point where former revenue streams have been stripped away from mobile operators.
However, before we become too comfortable in our disapproval, we do well to remember that in the eyes of many consumers, it is the OTT players who effectively invented the mobile internet. Technically, of course, they didn’t; it was the telco industry. But the fact remains that nobody out there knew there was a mobile internet until Apple turned up with the iPhone.
In addition we should note that although OTT gets all the press, there are other threats which may in the longer term result in a more damaging and insidious erosion of industry revenues. In 2011, the analyst, Dean Bubley, coined the phrase “Under the Floor” (UTF) players to describe the apparent creep of large system integrators such as Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks, into mobile networks, as they take over complete management of operator core networks, effectively displacing operators from their own core assets as they lose key expertise and domain knowledge in their effort to remain profitable, something which is increasingly difficult for them to do.
There are perhaps three areas to consider here. The first is that we have to accept that OTT Business models generally succeed. At least it seems that way. Outside of telecoms, Amazon has done an astonishing job of evolving from a niche book supplier to the first point of call for all manner of goods and … well the bookstore in my town closed down some time ago. Similarly Netflix, LoveFilm et al must take most of the credit/blame for a distinct lack of Blockbuster Stores on the High Street. In the telecoms world, the flurry of OTT players with their paradoxical “zero revenue business models” is rife. They don’t all stick, but some do. We have to accept that a kind of evolution is taking place.
Secondly, we need to know with certainty what our response to the OTT play is. A considerable amount of writing has taken place here that summarises the main responses to OTT such as Block, Partner, or Compete.
Thirdly, Telcos need to rethink what exactly are their core assets. In the eyes of the consumer, telcos no longer own the handset, or the branding; they do not own the content, they do not own the services and they do not own the apps. But that doesn’t mean the inevitable result has to be that they turn into the famously-hyped dumb bit pipe. Operator pipes are at the same time expensive, super smart, and incredibly valuable. It is these pipes, not only radio pipes and cables but also the chains of retail outlets, that still give operators an enviable lead in customer intimacy.
Customer intimacy in mobile telecoms means acting as the user’s mobile concierge of choice, utilising simple behavioural analytics (demographics and behaviour) and contextual data (location, time etc.) to offer users specific content and services they are most likely to value from the long tail of available services.
My colleague Michael Rodgers recently likened this situation to a shopping mall. In a mall, all the flashy stores are owned by OTT players and are packed with colourful, highly desirable (not to mention sometimes confusing) goods. But the route to the mall, the highway – and specifically the billboards and signage that lead users to different parts of the mall – this is the property of the mobile operator. This is the enabler for customer intimacy.
In conclusion, the value in this ecosystem will always be transitory and shifting. Even OTT players have to move continuously since any “safe space” they recently occupied is, in fact, never secure. The Financial Times recently reported that daily downloads of the top 200 Apps in Apple’s App Store are now falling month-on-month.
As an industry, we can chase moving targets and set up our own operating systems, app stores and services (we have tried all that) – or we can focus hard on becoming the end user’s dependable guide. I know which way I’d go.
Chris Goswami is director of product management at OpenWave