Telefónica: one for all, or all for one?

There is an interesting parallel between today’s announcement that Telefónica is launching an app-based rich communications play—TU Me—and the unveiling two weeks ago of its O2UK arm’s mobile wallet offering.

Both of these services are accessible to anyone who has a compatible smartphone (iOS for TU Me, with Android on its way, and iOS, Android and RIM for the mobile wallet). As such they represent Telefónica’s first moves to establish over the top relationships with its competitors’ customers—relationships which it will doubtless look to consolidate down the line.

But what really stands out about the announcements is that, in both situations, Telefónica is simultaneously leading collaborative efforts along similar lines with the very companies on which it is attempting to steal a march by being quick to market.

In the UK, project Oscar is a proposed joint venture between O2, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere to create a combination mobile wallet/mobile advertising offering that would enjoy 90 per cent penetration in the market. Oscar is currently being poked and prodded by the EC competition authorities and, although O2’s MD for mobile money recently suggested the EC’s analysis was more of a formality than a fundamental obstacle, the Commission won’t offer up its findings until the end of August.

Meanwhile TU Me looks a lot like an app-based version of what Telefónica, Vodafone, Orange, TIM and T-Mobile announced they would be collaborating on at a network level at MWC this year. The Joyn RCSe initiative aims to replicate in the network the kind of services that OTT players have made popular in app and browser formats. Led by GSMA, Joyn aims to exploit the traditional operator strengths of reach and interoperability.

With both its wallet and TU Me programmes, Telefónica is essentially betting against a successful outcome for the two collaborations. And for all the talk of ‘co-opetition’ I wouldn’t mind placing a bet of my own that Telefónica’s solo efforts don’t sit too well with the other operators involved in Oscar and Joyn.

After all, while Vodafone, Orange et al are still thrashing out the details of projects that are supposed to work to everyone’s benefit, Telefónica’s trying to flog its services to their customers. The fact of the matter is that the longer Oscar and Joyn take to get to the market, the better chance Telefónica has of sowing success for O2 Wallet and TU Me. And if that success starts to materialise, how motivated is Telefónica going to be to put its back into the joint efforts and welcome its competitors to the party?

The Spanish incumbent has emerged as arguably the most dynamic of the big global players in its approach to services and verticals. A high profile reorganisation has structured the company very clearly to innovate in these areas. The creation of Telefónica Digital late last year has given the firm the resources to tun these kind of projects around and fast, while the startup mentality of the unit allows some innovations to fail. Not all operators are going to be able to do this, and not all of them are going to put the same kind of effort into it as Telefónica.

You’ve got to wonder, though, whether Telefónica’s peers are going to start questioning how much of the work that goes into their collaborations is helping the Spanish firm get ahead of them as it goes it alone in precisely the same markets. Joyn and Oscar might be predicated on the notion of One for All—but Telefónica seems more interested in keeping it All for One.

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