Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Dean Bubley: Mobile phones features: operators, users & subsidies

Dean Bubley comments at the Disruptive Wireless blog about a post by Keith over at TeleBusillis about "reclaiming analogue FM radio spectrum for digital uses," and whether "operator-subsidised mobile handsets should include features like FM radio." Bubley writes:

This is a central issue in the handset business at the moment. In many (but not all) countries, mobile phones are heavily linked to the operators' business models. Often they will be subsidised, customised & distributed by the carriers, especially in markets like the US and Japan (China and much of the rest of Asia is the opposite, however). Some will even be designed by the operator from the ground up, and manufactured by the ODMs.
He then points out that "the advent of the RAZR killed the idea that operators had "won" over manufacturers. In one swoop, Motorola proved that the "shiny thing" philosophy won over a large proportion of consumers. "Give me one of those.... or else I'll churn to an operator that will". Hardware is more valued than software, which in turn is more valued than services. Ouch." Bubley states:
The subsidy issue is a thorny one. Up to a point, I have some sympathy for the operators. Subsidising something like Bluetooth or WiFi that generates no revenue (or even helps cannibalise existing revenues) has got to hurt. Ditto subsidising something that generates costs like support calls, or higher returns (step forward smartphone OS's...). My view is that subsidising something gives the operator some moral authority to say how you use it. But not as much as some of the US operators, that cripple Bluetooth & otherwise act dictatorially over "their" phones.

The question is one of balance. How can an operator minimise subsidies, whilst not increasing churn (or, worse, persuading people to buy "vanilla" handsets not optimised/customised for any operator's value-add services). It's a problem that will only get worse, as Moore's Law & other technology scale economics mean that the average handset will bundle in more capabilities (memory, power, processor, display, software, connectivity....) faster than the operator can exploit.
Bubley concludes with:
operators may be handset vendors' main direct customers, but the end user often ain't stoopid. There's going to be an ever-greater bunch of stuff that phones can do, which doesn't generate revenue for the carriers. Sorry, but that's the real world. Black chrome on a razor's handle doesn't directly help Wilkinson Sword sell more blades, but it's still subsidised as part of the whole package, helping them compete against Gillette & minimise "churn" amongst the shaving population.