Operators Must Prepare to Support New Content
By Eric Lin, Mon Aug 02 23:45:00 GMT 2004

Carriers and handset manufacturers need to agree on new standards for future phone personalization.

According to analysts at Ovum, the third wave is coming. This is not some cheesy science fiction scare, but the third wave of phone personalization. First there was physical phone personalization and monotone or 1-bit content -- monophonic ringtones and black and white "operator logos." During the second wave physical personalization in the form of interchangeable covers has died away as phone design itself became fashionable. However the personalization content market has grown significantly thanks to polyphonic ringtones and richer graphic capabilities.

The third wave of personalization is just starting to emerge with content like ringtunes, ringback tones and video ringers. As personalization technologies get richer, competition for personalization spending is diminishing -- fewer phones have interchangable faceplates or covers and no other devices beg for personalization among the younger subscribers like handsets do. With so little competition, it should be easy to make money from third wave personalization content, but it will require planning on the part of both carriers and manufacturers.

Ovum believes that the next generation of personalization is not just ringers, but entire content suites including ringtones, wallpaper and more. Theses could draw a premium price, but they also could cost the carriers a fortune if their hardware doesn't work with such bundles. Carriers need to be prepared with handsets that support future personalization content, even if that content isn't ready yet, to be sure that the largest possible population of subscribers have access to media when it becomes available. Carriers will not immediately see the financial benefits from this strategy, but they must think long term or Ovum suggest they may stand to lose more money in the long run.

The carriers also stand to lose money if they can't negotiate reasonable licensing fees with content owners, especially music publishers. If fees are too high for ringtunes or other emerging content, the operator's margin will decrease significantly or the content will be priced to high to sell. To keep licensing fees reasonable, carriers will need some form of DRM control on their handsets. If most handsets use OMA DRM, carriers need to make this clear to music companies to allay their fears.

A number of major carriers have recently come together to form the Open Mobile Terminal Platform Alliance. The founding members claim this organization is to develop standards for software and UI which it can then deliver to handset manufacturers. While I have previously implied carriers will use this alliance to bully manufacturers away from smartphone OS to more tightly controlled platforms, this organization could also be uniquely positioned to watch personalization trends, quickly develop standards (no matter how unlikely that sounds), and convince all parties involved from manufacturers to licensees that support for this content is critical.