There is a war the device manufacturers are waging against the carriers. A scary one for the mobile operators, in particular because they are attacked by Internet Portals as well, at the same time...
It all started with RIM. They took over the relationship with the customer. The carrier disappeared. The only thing that reminds me of AT&T on my BlackBerry is a plastic sticker on the front. Nothing else. While I am roaming around the world, the BlackBerry still works and I do not even remember which carrier I am using. My email is synced with the BlackBerry Internet Service, AT&T is just a pipe.
RIM was not a big problem for carriers. They could manage it. It was a niche in the enterprise, and a very lucrative one (BlackBerry users do not mind paying big bucks). Then RIM started moving into the consumer market... Now they have more BIS users than BES users (70-30 ratio), so more consumers than enterprises. They are eating in the carriers plate.
Still, the carriers can take it. RIM is a small threat. Still a niche.
What is scary is Nokia with Ovi, in particular in Europe and Asia. In some countries, they have 50% and more of market share. They are just coming in and taking over. The operators are fighting back, but some are tempted by the shortcut ("I can make some money fast, let's launch Nokia Messaging and we'll see what happens later") and will commit suicide. The smart ones are resisting and looking at alternatives (I know one...). They still can fight.
Overall, Nokia is a risk, a very big one. But it has not materialized yet. They have not proved they can create data services that people use. As of now, they are just a device manufacturers. They do not know how to deal with services. Exactly as the carriers. They are a scary player to deal with, but not right now right here.
Then there is Apple. Same game as above, but a lot worst. They know services. They own music, the app store, MobileMe and more. They have proven they can do it, with one billion apps downloaded.
On my iPhone, AT&T is not even a sticker. Not even a physical object... It is a bunch of pixels on the top left. So virtual it can disappear in a second.
Want some proof?
Check the leak about Verizon and Apple talking. Who do you think leaked the news? I have my ideas... They did not leak it to a technology magazine, they went all the way, to a consumer outlet like USA Today!
It just puts an enormous pressure on AT&T, who needs to renew the contract with Apple. Best way to get a good deal? Work with the competition and let everyone know it.
The sad story: AT&T needs Apple way more than Apple needs AT&T. The Verizon leak is a living proof. They can walk away when they want. Why?
Because Apple OWNS their customers. They own the AT&T consumers...
Guess what? They have already made AT&T a pipe...