Carrier Evolution

The communications and technology businesses have gotten to be a confusing place lately. It is harder to tell “what business” many contestants are in.

Google, arguably a software company, now will build and market a line of consumer electronics products, in some cases co-branded with third party suppliers. That causes some amount of channel conflict with licensees of the Android mobile operating system.

Apple, though a hardware firm, increasingly relies on software products to sell its hardware. Amazon, a retailer, also makes its own tablets.

Mobile service providers are trying to create their own app stores and payment systems, creating ad exchanges and may start to create their own over the top apps as well.

Beyond those examples, it is not possible to predict how much more the contestants will in the future change their current roles within the hardware, software or services parts of the communications business, or what new businesses they might decide to enter.

Like the Nexus One, a Google-branded smart phone that Google tried to sell direct, without mobile service provider cooperation, Google plans to try again to sell tablet devices direct to end users.

Some future Android tablets are expected to be Google co-branded, though Google will not be manufacturing those devices, while Google will separately produce a line of its own, as well.

The bigger questions, longer term, do not revolve on the specific roles within ecosystems, though. The larger questions center on where value lies, how “value” could change, and what is needed to cause such changes.

Best Buy, for example, is moving away from the “big box” business model as online competitors continue to chip away at the formerly-successful business model.

Some might argue the only long-term model is the “Apple Store,” where the object is to showcase merchandise and explain, educate or demonstrate its use, not “sell” it.

But there are other implications for mobile commerce, and therefore for mobile services providers, app providers and device suppliers, as well. If fewer retailers are selling products, and fewer customers are “buying” in many retail settings, what does that mean for all the effort going into mobile payment terminals, applications and systems? Will the mobile device assume an important new role as a device to show the product catalog?

Will the mobile increasingly become the checkout terminal? At a broader level, how might the “shopping experience” change?

Beyond that, what is “broken” about the commerce, shopping, payment or marketing experience? Unless something is broken, there is no “fix.” And if past experience with technology provides any clues, those proposed remedies need to provide a consumer experience that is about 10 times better than the current process.

Once upon a time, text messaging was an exclusive feature provided by a mobile device. And though instant messaging services and apps are viewed by some as substitute produces, text messaging has remained a largely “mobile” feature. There are notable exceptions offered by Pinger and Google Voice, for example.

Now Comcast is offering text messaging features associated with a home phone number. Customers of the “Xfinity Voice Unlimited Nationwide” plan get free text messaging from the Xfinity Mobile app for Apple and Android-powered smart phones, iPads and iPod touch devices, as well as the ability to receive transcribed voicemail messages that can be read instantly. The features also can be used from the Xfinity Connect website.

Text messaging also is available online via the Xfinity Connect web portal, which provides quick and easy access to email, voicemail, Twitter and Facebook, as well as Contacts, Calendar and DVR management.

Text messages can be sent to anyone, anywhere in the country, as well as more than three dozen countries including China, Brazil, Canada and, soon, Mexico, all for free as part of Xfinity Voice. Even more countries will be added in the future, Comcast says.

For a fixed network service provider, the text messaging features blurs the distinction between fixed and mobile service. In a general sense, that is an example of “fixed mobile convergence” that is a fixture of enterprise unified communications systems.

The Comcast move represents an extension into the consumer market, as Pinger and Google Voice have done. Comcast’s move also illustrates another aspect of how competition between apps and services occurs. Typically, over the top communications apps gain favor with business and consumer users because they offer either “no incremental cost” or “much cheaper” use of features those users have had to “pay for” in the past.

In this case, Comcast has slightly different expectations. Comcast does not expect that people will stop using their mobiles. But the new feature makes the fixed network communications service more valuable, and more “like” mobile service in one important way.

What remains to be seen, as with all such innovations, is the value end users will perceive, and the extent of use. At the margin, the new feature could be valuable to some users on text messaging plans that have usage limits a user frequently approaches or exceeds.

For some, the visual voicemail feature will probably have more utility.

We are likely to see many more such implementations in the future, especially as fixed network voice suppliers work to remain relevant in a market where mobile has become the preferred way most people “use voice.”

The ability to use an existing Sprint phone number as a Google Voice number, with unified voice mail, is not a “full” implementation of unified communications. but it offers a feature that always has been a main attraction of unified communications and fixed-mobile convergence.

The point is that any proposed new processes and experiences will involve some amount of end user behavior change. So the pain of enduring the present state of things has to be greater than the pain of adopting the new solutions. It is not yet clear any of those preconditions exist.

The point is that roles with the mobile services, mobile devices, mobile apps and mobile marketing ecosystems will change in coming years. What remains unsettled is the precise nature of the changes. And the keys to success will hinge on how much new value can be created, no matter which changes are contemplated by ecosystem participants.

Little value will be created, and scant success achieved, unless the end user value provided any proposed innovations supply an order of magnitude more value, compared to the existing ways of doing things. That’s a high hurdle.