Mobile strategy: SNAFU

10 December 2008

For the past two-and-a-half days, my mobile phone has been in clear sight of a basestation but for most of that time, been unable to connect to the network. There's nothing wrong with the phone. It can find the Cingular basestation at Isla Vista, just outside Santa Barbara, California. The basetation won't let it log on. That's because I have a T-Mobile contract. Move to the top of the hill, and the phone finds the local T-Mobile basestation.

It turns out that the two companies have a roaming agreement but it doesn't operate where the companies' coverage overlaps. Welcome to the bizarre world of mobile comms where a combination of greed and stupidity means these companies would rather lose money than possibly contribute to their competitor's top line.

You can explain a lot about mobile comms using examples like this. For years, they have operated a beggar-my-neighbour attitude that is only overcome through absolute necessity or regulation. In the early part of this decade, we could guarantee stories about mobile stupidity more or less every week as they tried to push multimedia messaging (MMS) as the supposed high-profit alternative to SMS.

Rather than see some of that precious money disappear into the pockets of competitors, they locked MMS to their own networks. You can argue whether Metcalfe's Law should be an exponential, a linear or a log relationship but there is plenty of evidence to say that if you are in the communications business letting more people communicate gets you more users, and potentially more money. Eventually, they came, partially, to their senses and opened up MMS access.

As a journalist, the way the mobile operators work can make life easier. The minute I realised that operators like Vodafone favoured Limo over Android, I could discount it as a serious player in the future of handset operating systems. It went a long way to explaining why, unlike the Open Handset Alliance and Apple, Limo has done bugger all to encourage developers to create applications for it. Software vendors who venture too close to the operators become tinged with the scent of failure because they do the daft things the operators demand while those who mostly ignore the operators get the money and support.

Now, Vodafone, possibly seeing Limo turning into a trainwreck, has become smitten with Android. Oh yeah, Limo is still "favoured" but that's the kind of favouritism the Linux-oriented consortium could do without. But Vodafone hung back from Android because it feared the power that Google might wield, like Apple, if it gained a toe-hold in the phone business. So, the company put more faith in a platform with little realistic chance of shipping anytime soon with a decent clutch of applications than one it could have made money from supplying today. That's the mobile industry I know and know.