Struggling to Avoid the 'Dumb Pipe Scenario'

Now is the time for carriers to figure out how to avoid what happened to most ISPs on the Internet, which became "dump pipes" simply providing the connection to services and content that consumers obtained from other providers. In the US Comcast might be an exception to that charge.

However, in mobile, with the advent of the iPhone and movement of the industry toward a similar model -- touchscreen devices with app stores -- the carrier is faced with becoming a marginal part of the mobile user experience over time. There's probably little they can do except to build experiences and tools that are genuinely valuable to users. Most of the carriers have apps store initiatives that are unlikely to rival the handset plays. We'll see. 

In the UK Vodafone has announced "Vodafone 360," which will roll out across its territories in Europe before the end of the year. It sounds very much like Motorola's "Motoblur" service. It seeks to bring contacts and social network updates together in a single interface. It will feature a "connected address book" (Vodafone People) at its core. There will be other apps and it also crosses over to the PC. All this will reportedly work across Vodafone handsets. From the company's release:

  • Vodafone 360 is a brand new set of internet services for the mobile and PC which gathers all of a customer’s friends, communities, entertainment and personal favourites (like music, games, photos and video) in one place
  • At its heart Vodafone 360 has the most personal address book available, bringing together all of the contacts from the mobile phone, social networks and other internet accounts. It works across a range of mobile phones, including the new, exclusive Vodafone 360 phones, and synchs automatically with the PC
  • Connected address book – Vodafone People, open to everyone on any network across over 100 popular mobile phones, automatically synchs all contacts from a customer’s phone, Facebook®, Windows Live Messenger™ and Google Talk™, and will soon also include Twitter, Hyves and studiVZ
  • New suite of internet services accessible on multiple handsets as well as PC or Mac, including a wide range of apps, games, music and mapping services

Well executed it could make Vodafone more relevant to end users. Poorly executed or overly complex and it will fail. But conceptually at least it's a good strategy -- inject a software layer between the handset/content and the user. A related strategy is providing a personalized start page or comparable way to organize content and sites that are frequently used by mobile subscribers. However all of this must be simple, intuitive and work well.

That's a tall order for carriers who are mostly not good at developing Internet-like best of breed user experiences.