A rash of announcements at 3GSM shows that mobile network operators are responding in very different ways to the threat posed by voice-over-IP software and Wifi/WiMax.
Vodafone’s plan, for the time being, is to ignore them. On Tuesday strategy director Alan Harper gave a resounding “no” to VoIP, for a few years at least, and was dismissive of Wifi, but several other big mobile operators are cleverly trying to turn a potential threat into a revenue-raising opportunity.
BT will sell a dual-mode phone from Motorola, the A910, but will limit the Wifi functionality to BT’s own wireless hotspots.
Christian Salbaing, managing director of Hutchison 3G Europe, was relaxed and cheerful about the prospect of Three customers using Skype; and not surprisingly too: he ruled out selling handsets that switch over to free wireless networks and after all, one has to pay for Skype to call non-Skype users.
Unsurprisingly, there’s little sign of any big operators going the whole hog by dual-mode handsets that also support any free or low-cost VoIP software. on Monday Nokia announced its first dual-mode mass market mobile phone, but shied away from elaborating which VoIP applications it would support, and admitted there were no customers lined up yet.
Nokia looks likely to work with Hutchison on its Skype handsets, but those won’t be dual-band.
Mobile operators such as Vodafone argue quality of service is a problem and it’s one that few could deny exists (after several tortuous Skype Out calls to Australia, the phrase “you get what you pay for” springs to my mind.) But as broadband takeup continues to grow, that problem will almost disappear - at least for some - or be increasingly outweighed by the advantages of feature-rich, cheap VoIP.
Onto other themes of the congress. It is the nature of things that there is always something faster on the horizon, and this year it’s HSDPA, which promises real broadband speeds rather than the 384kbit levels seen on 3G. For those who prefer their acronyms shorter, Moconews says that “4G” is the popular alternative, over the more quaint “Super 3G”.
Samsung, the first handset maker to make HSDPA phones, has a demonstration service at the show and T-mobile also did a demo on Tuesday.
Meanwhile Microsoft – a company with perhaps even bigger fish to fry than the telcos – demonstrated some of its new mobile applications, including push-updated syncing of messaging and other applications between smartphones and PCs using Windows Live software.
Despite my earlier schadenfraude about Microsoft demoes, this one went without a hitch and even ended with a genuinely funny video message from Richard Branson sending up the Steve Ballmer classic “I love this company!”
Demonstrations aside, 3GSM is a fairly restrained affair compared to its southern hemisphere equivalent, CommunicAsia: so-called “booth babes” are about as ostentatious as it gets. But today was punctuated by not only a bagpipe player, but a small choir singing “I Saw Her Standing There”, only with the words changed to promote memory-maker nVidia. I’ll spare you the lyrics.