What happened to the superbands?

How times have changed since the ’60s, when The Beatles were gods and music on the move was a transistor radio in the pocket. John, Paul, George and Ringo formed the first of the superbands and they were epically famous for a reason.

Back then vinyl sales dictated the number one record and Top of the Pops was the only channel for exposure. But in today’s all-IP world the consumer is spoilt by choice, with millions of bands vying for attention through a myriad of channels. What’s popular today might not be tomorrow, and the problem the telecoms industry faces is how to keep up with not just the next big thing, but all the next big things after it.

At a recent roundtable attended by telecoms.com, a handful of industry players discussed the need to find a way to create, manage and deliver services that can keep pace with the fleeting desires of today’s consumer. Although carriers are just now coming around to the realisation that in this new ‘services industry’ they can no longer dictate the change, their inherently cautious nature is proving to be something of a hindrance.

The bright side is that the industry seems agreed that everyone wants services that are easy and quick to connect to. The solution however, will involve collaboration on an industry wide scale.

David King, CTO of IT services specialist LogicaCMG, said the biggest problem his company encounters, “Is how to get PC content onto mobile platforms X, Y, and Z.” Because of the diverse nature of the handset environment, content providers and carriers have a real headache just getting services and applications into the hands of users.

Microsoft, as a software company, has a close relationship with the developer community and Michael Weening, director of Microsoft’s communications and media sector, agrees with King’s point. “Developers need to take their applications from the package world to the cloud,” he said, referring to the fact that the growth of the mobile web has changed the game for content providers as well as operators.

One of the major sticking points in this vision is that there is no channel for viral recommendations to spread on the mobile platform at present. There is no way for users to discover content through word of mouth. As Ian Shepherd, consumer director at Vodafone, pointed out, “The capabilities of the devices out there are greater than anyone actually uses. Users simply don’t have the time or the inclination to customise their devices. We need to make it easier to customise the device, via the UI for example.”

Shepherd’s comment may seem atypical, given that the operator community has not historically made it easy for users to ‘do their own thing’. But it is indicative of a noticeable trend and Shepherd makes no bones about the fact that the garden walls around the operator portal are finally coming down, even if it is to be replaced by a picket fence. “Customers just want to do their own thing, such as viewing content they’ve pre-recorded over mobile TV for example,” he said. “They should be allowed to create their own environment, not be spoon fed.”

This is the core message that the industry wants to broadcast, but the implementation is easier said than done. Florian Seiche, European VP of sales and marketing for Taiwanese handset maker HTC, acknowledged that UI is often a limiting factor in customisation. “But we are focused on supporting operator centric services,” he said, “and we agree that the mobile needs to be personal but not intrusive.”

LogicaCMG’s King highlighted the importance of the interface and the power of the end user community in this vision. “User generated environments [such as personally customised handset profiles and applications] are just as important as User Generated Content (UGC) itself and can be attractive to other users,” he said. King envisions a platform where users could recommend a handset set-up for others, based on what they have found to be useful. An operator that allows users to easily join and leave and switch between different applications would be a significant draw for consumers in the same way that UK broadcaster Sky makes more from having an attractive Electronic Program Guide (EPG) than from content itself. “Companies that make it easy to churn between services will be king, by allowing users to take their portable data with them,” said King.

Intriguingly, King foresees the need for a business aggregation layer, created through a restructuring of the telecoms market to be more like the content world. He anticipates the introduction of a new kind of aggregator that specialises in sorting out the deals between content and services firms and operators.

The relationship between the operator and the end user would also have to change – extending beyond the initial shop transaction. In this services industry, the operators would handle all the subscriptions to user services and applications, tacking the charges onto the customer’s mobile phone bill. It’s a new business model for operators that works in the same way that cinemas make more from popcorn than from ticket sales.

But Shepherd is quick to point out that trust is essential to develop this relationship. “The user’s own data, such as the address book, is their most valuable content, and as we move from the walled garden to the open internet we need to get the customers to trust the operator,” he said.

But trust might be one of the easiest elements to acquire. The breathtaking growth of social networking and widgets on the desktop has proven that users are happy to plug their personal details and passwords into new applications in a cavalier fashion, and history has shown that trends that occur now are likely to be similar to those in the future. In the end, it comes down to the framework itself. As Microsoft’s Weening said, “We can’t predict the next killer application but we need to be flexible enough to deploy it quickly.”

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