3GSM World Congress: Operators Take A Second Bite At The Apple
By Carlo Longino, Tue Feb 24 10:45:00 GMT 2004

CEOs from two of the world's major operators told the crowd at 3GSM this morning that open standards and interoperability are key to the growth of the mobile market. Walled gardens are out, they say, and giving customers the widest possible choice of products and services is the way forward.

Arun Sarin of Vodafone and Rene Obermann of T-Mobile gave a vision for the industry that indicates they've definitely learned lessons since the first iteration of mobile content services over WAP a few years ago. They're insisting that interconnected networks built on common standards with intrinsic interoperability must be implemented for 3G to be a success.

"The challenge that we have in front of us is to make some of these new products and services that we've been talking about for three years come alive," Sarin said. "For our customers to be on the best network, the networks need to all be connected. We have to do it with standards so all our customers have a standard experience."

Too many products and services have been lost in a morass of overly technical and needlessly complex interfaces, Obermann added. "In many respects, this industry has left its customers behind with a lot of technocratic jargon and applications that are too complex to use. We, as an industry, need to focus on making things more usable and more user-friendly."

It's quite a philosophic shift from when carriers introduced WAP behind a boatload of acronyms, confusing setup and logins, and ungainly interfaces. Portals like T-Zones and Vodafone Live! have made certainly made things easier, but the way the execs are talking, it's just the first step.

But as the carriers have learned from their previous missteps, they're saying that the device vendors are playing the same tune as when WAP and GPRS launched: the networks are ready, but there aren't enough handsets yet available, both in range and in number. Both T-Mobile and Vodafone have live 3G networks in Europe, but neither has yet done a mass commercial launch with consumer handsets. Both CEOs said they expect to launch their 3G services with consumer handsets towards the end of the year.

Sarin also talked about Vodafone's recent unsuccessful flirtation with AT&T Wireless, saying that the company simply didn't want to pay as high a price for the carrier as Cingular. He said AT&T was a "strategic asset, but even the most strategic assets have a price, and you have to be disciplined about the price." He said French carrier SFR, which Vodafone owns along with Vivendi, remains a target, and the carrier is also looking to bulk up in Eastern Europe.

But Sarin reinforced that the carriers have moved on from their mistakes of several years ago. "If you look at our industry in the last 3 or 4 years, the big disconnect was what we were saying to the world,and between what we were saying we'd deliver and the lack of what we delievered," he said. "Our rhetoric was a few years ahead of our ability to deliver."