Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hard to be a dumb pipe, AT&T?

I have been saying for a while that the carriers need to move quickly to deliver mobile cloud services (in particular on the most important mobile user generated content), or they will become a pipe before they know it.

AT&T has been playing with the devil for a while. They have launched the iPhone with Apple, which clearly makes them a pipe (how can you tell the difference between the AT&T iPhone and any other carrier iPhone?), and have reaped short-term huge benefits from it. However, that should be a given when you sell your soul... The real problems start appearing after a while.

And when the problems start appearing, the walled garden moves up. Just to be teared down a few months later. It simply does not last. History has proven it.

Think about it: they stopped Skype over 3G, same for Sling. Today the news is that Apple blocked the approval of the Google Voice app on the App Store (after removing all the Google Voice-like apps yesterday).

Some are claiming it is Apple doing it. Yeah, right... Like Apple would stop Google. For what?

I have been a GrandCentral user for a while, now a happy Google Voice user. Google Voice is a spectacular service. I have way too many phones and I keep switching between them. Google Voice routes calls to any of my phones, and it routes SMSs too. So far, no problems with AT&T. It was only generating more revenues for them.

Then on July 15th they launched Google Voice apps for Android and BlackBerry. I use the app on my BB. The idea is that you can call someone from the app, over IP, completely bypassing the AT&T network. I can't say that feature works for me, but the other two do work well: I can listen to my Google Voice messages over IP (but I was able to do it before, but now it is more convenient) and I can send/receive SMSs for free (this is new).

That means I am not paying a dime to AT&T for texting anymore. Zero. Gone. It was a small amount of money, probably a few dollars a month (because I text only when I am in Europe ;-) But you multiply for every user they have and it piles up fast. A drop of a few dollars on ARPU per user would be a big hit. In particular, if the power users start adopting it.

If you add voice to texting, you can see the future. The carrier is a pipe for data. Voice is a data type (revenues: gone). SMS are a data type (revenues: gone). A data pipe... with no value-added services. It has to be hard to swallow, Mr. AT&T... Hey, you signed the pact with the devil, not me!

Om Malik has questioned why are people blaming AT&T over Apple. The argument is "if they did not prevent their BlackBerry users to download the app, then why would they prevent the iPhone users?". Because they can... Because Apple built a fortress around the App Store. You just need to click on a link in a website (Google) to download the BlackBerry app. There is no way for AT&T of stopping it, unless they lock the entire phone, which RIM will never allow (and it is too late, anyway). On the iPhone, you have to go through the App Store. The gate is controlled by Apple that has to listen to AT&T (for now).

Apple built a fortress, AT&T controls the gate. The combination is the worst possible... Openness is ages away.

How does this stop? When Apple pulls its trigger. When the exclusivity of AT&T in the US ends. When another carrier comes on board (or two). When the Apple Tablet comes out with Verizon. When the market opens up a bit. It will happen for sure in 2010, and it could even happen in 2009. It is not far away.

At that point, boom. Walled garden gone. Only the fortress will be there. Apple will still be able to control the gate and decide what goes in and out. AT&T will be just a dumb pipe with no say.

For now, they are still a dumb pipe with some power. Unless they decide to start creating value-added mobile cloud services, and go around Apple and every other device manufacturer. It is not too late, but the clock is ticking.