Thoughts on big trends in technology, media, politics, and society. Oh, and kind of a diary except more public.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Service Providers Can't Own All Apps, But Can't Just be Pipe

The service provider, whether Telco, Cable MSO, or wireless carrier (satellite is challenged in this) MUST strive to deliver THE unifying interfaces for people’s various services and apps.

The genie's out of the bottle on app proliferation and diversity. The 35K+ apps in the iPhone App Store has forever changed the game. No one service provider, or software company -- not even Microsoft, no entertainment company even a Disney, can ever keep pace with what such organic app development eco-systems can create. But now the consumer is overwhelmed with applications that aren't connected or brought together very well. It's actually pretty chaotic, leading to a new consumer need for aggregation. What has happened for apps, has also happened for digital media. I can have digital video through xbox live, itunes, the service providers' on-demand offerings, netflix, etc. But none of these organizes assets you get from the other sources. More confusion for the consumer, another need somebody is going to meet.

"Interface” in this case isn’t just UI but it’s the place where the customer goes all the time, because she trusts the protection around that aggregation point – software, hardware drivers, online support, performance optimization, customer care if necessary, truck roll if necessary, “good housekeeping” seal of approval/warranty – to be better than what other portals or service providers can offer.

If the service provider delivers that, and the pipe capabilities "tuned" for such an aggregation point, it can remain in a position where it charges consumers and businesses fair value per month. If not, the pipes will become very commoditized and interchangeable with others’ offerings.

I’m glad to see many service providers advocating not just Triple Play bundles, but integrated, cross-platform services. Like Comcast doing Universal Caller ID, where an incoming phone call triggers alerts on the phone, the PC and the TV. Or Comcast's SmartZone, where in the email app you can also find call logs and voicemail (which you can listen to inline on your PC), a network address book synchronized with Outlook and smartphone contacts, and just released a calendar that will also be synchronizable.

But I worry that towards any Preferred Aggregator/Organizer role for service providers, the competition is the Portals and Social Net leaders, and they move much faster than Internet Service Providers especially the big ones. None of the service providers are moving fast enough on things like:

-- making set-top box guides something customers don’t detest, mostly by adding better search and recommendation engines, and some kind of better archiving/indexing policies and tools

-- creating a software load for bringing all of their content/apps to Game Consoles, Roku, AppleTV, etc. (essentially anything that vies with the STB for control of TV via HDMI; "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em")

-- expanding their email/portal offerings so they're open to anyone who wants them (not just high-speed subscribers) and opening up interfaces so these offerings can be one-stop-shops for all messages, posts, alerts, reminders, etc. whether Comcast’s, or Google’s or Facebook’s or Yahoo’s or others.

Service providers are all answering analyst, investor and press questions about the threat to video revenues from Over-the-Top sites like YouTube and Hulu and iTunes. To me, in and of themselves, such video sites aren't killer. But if they add communications and social sharing capabilities faster than service providers can use their advantages of being in Video, Voice, and High-Speed Data businesses -- the portals and social net players can't yet claim this and are perhaps 2-3 years away from such capabilities, then the old fear of service providers becoming "dumb pipes" could come to pass.