Vodafone, apps, and dumb pipes in the sky

Vodafone have got a problem. On the one hand, they’re one of the world’s largest mobile networks, with however many billions of subscribers. On the other, they’re just another network as far as many of their customers are concerned.

One of their responses is Vodafone360:

Vodafone 360 is a new internet service for your mobile, PC and Mac. It brings your phone, email, chat and social network contacts together in one place. Communicate with your friends, see their status updates, share your photos and favourite places – from your phone, PC or Mac.

As part of the launch, Voda are running roadshows aimed at their nascent development community and brought the latest one to Sheffield yesterday in partnership with Screen Yorkshire. (No, I can’t work out the connection between Screen Yorkshire and mobile apps either, but it was good of SY to cough up for the coffee and biscuits.)

I went along to have a look, and I might have been a bit rude in the backchannel. It’s not that I think Vodafone are doing a bad job - it’s just that I think it’s impossible for them to do a good one.

Voda’s first problem is that Apple have pretty much eaten their lunch as far as mobile application mindshare is concerned. There’s a reason why you don’t hear Tesco shouting about their new app for the Samsung H1 - it’s because they’re busy building apps for the iPhone. That might change, it might not - but there’s a hell of a mountain to climb right now.

The other problem that Voda have got is that the core 360 offering is simply a mashup of access to largely existing services. It’s a single consolidated address book, a single view of various social networks, maps, basic photo sharing, a music store, a web portal and an app store.

The fundamental issue for the networks is that the richer the devices and online experiences become, the more commoditised the network services get. If all I’m interested in accessing while I’m mobile is Facebook and Twitter, then I really don’t care about the network so long as it’s fast and reliable.

I’m a classic case in point - I use an iPhone, and switched from O2 to Orange because of the flakiness of the O2 network. I have no loyalty to Orange whatsoever - all my content is on the device, which can be ported from network to network as I see fit. If and when Orange start to piss me off through cost or reliability, I’ll move - and there’s really not an awful lot they can do about short of lock me in with contracts.

What Voda are attempting to do is interpose themself between me and the services I want to interact with. What 360 doesn’t seem to be about is “hey, come and use this cool new social network brought to you by Vodafone”. The only network in town is Facebook - there’s really no point in even trying to complete with it - so all Voda can do is try to graft on a funky access layer.

This all looks and smells something like the “walled gardens” that the network operators built of old. Rather than allowing unfettered access to all that the web could offer, chosen bits were carefully selected and presented to customers in a bounded environment. And rather than allowing access to “open” services like Twitter and Facebook and email, interaction had to take place within the confines of the operator’s webmail service.

The obvious problem with this is that the web moves far, far faster than any network product manager can, and customers vote with their feet when they find that they can’t go where they want. Once the first network caved and allowed access to the whole of the web, the others had to fall into line. And any value that might have existed in the walled garden was instantly lost. Back to being a dumb pipe again.

Ultimately, I can’t see a way that Vodafone - or any other network - can stem this tide. They’re doomed to become ISPs in the sky. For all that the likes of Talk Talk and BT and Virgin would like to think that they’ve got customer loyalty for their ISP services, they really know deep down that internet connectivity is commoditised and it’s the other services, such as bundled phone lines, that create the loyalty.

[As a sidenote, I’m an exception to this - I’m a Zen customer because they’re a) reasonably priced; b) technically knowledgeable and c) sensible about things like Phorm and deep packet inspection. But I’m a geek, and I’m one of an incredibly small market. And even I’ve got my limits - if Virgin ever get around to running fibre past my front door, I’d be sorely tempted.]

One possible way of reacting would be to do a reverse Apple - offer some compelling devices that are exclusive to Vodafone only. The difficulty there is that Voda don’t have a device business, so they’re dependent on the OEM market. OEM manufacturers are unlikely to be interested in serving a single network only because it’s not a big enough market - unless they’re Apple, in which case they have the networks’ collective cojones in a vice and can extract revenues for the privilege of supplying the hardware.

And in any case, building those compelling devices is really, really, really hard - as Nokia are finding as their market share dwindles.

Overall, I can’t fault Vodafone for trying to do something about this. It’s just that I’m not sure that there’s anything they can do - mobile bandwidth is destined to become a commodity like fixed bandwidth has regardless of how hard they try to stem the tide. And it’s going to take them and their brand with it.