Follow Up: Cell Networks Fight To Be More Than Mere Data Pipelines

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As the AP notes, at last week's Mobile World Congress there was a good deal of attention delivered to a company called Pinger. This was partly due to the company stall's fortuitous location at the trade show, partly because it's a leading example of new-generation companies that offer their free or low-cost non-SMS messaging services to smartphone customers. International phone networks were also at the show, of course, and they were loudly complaining about Pinger and its ilk.

Telecom Italia's CEO Franco Bernabe is quoted in a thinly-veiled attack at these companies: The players "have based their innovation in the mobile domain, without a deep understanding of the complex technical environment of our industry" and that is causing more and more "problems to the overall service offered to the end user and driving additional investments for mobile operators."

So, let's get this straight: These firms are innovating on a long-established platform and because they're successful--thanks to offering cheap or zero-cost messaging to their clients--it's squashing the overall performance of your network and making you invest more money? Interesting argument.

It's not at all because you've failed to innovate yourself, and networks like yours around the world have ripped off consumers for years with vastly-inflated fees to send (and in some cases receive) SMSs? No, that would be silly.

What Franco and his fellow cell company CEOs are really afraid of isn't Pinger, of course. It's Apple and Facebook and Skype. The first two of these are changing how consumers use IMs on a vast scale, and enabling them as direct replacements for SMSs on smartphones--with Apple's iMessage business the most obvious attempt because it threads both SMS's and iMessages together seamlessly in a single app. Because these chat channels use data, rather than SMS's, they don't cost consumers SMS fees, and that's actually making the industry lose potential cash. Ultimately your cell phone network will be like your water company--a boring, necessary, but brand-irrelevant pipeline for a utility. Only flowing data, not water.

[Image: Flickr user ranjithsiji ]

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