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Is Orange Really Innovating?

Ray Le Maistre

Orange (NYSE: FTE) has unveiled a menu of what it is calling "major innovations" for its domestic customers as it seeks to keep pace with its domestic telco and Web-based rivals.

Like all other traditional telecom operators, Orange is under pressure from its traditional rivals -- most notably Iliad (Euronext: ILD) (best known for its Free brand) in recent times -- and Web services players that regard anyone and everyone connected to the Internet as potential users of their over-the-top (OTT) applications. (See Euronews: FT's Q1 Suffers Free Fall and Euronews: Iliad's Clogging Our Network, Says FT.)

But what exactly passes for "major innovations" at a Tier 1 telco such as Orange? It's a mixed bag that's for sure: If a startup took the majority of these "innovations" to investors or analysts, they'd likely be shown the door before the end of their presentation.

But "innovation" means something different in telco-land: It usually means 'doing something we haven't done before.'

Even by that criterion, some of these new services don't cut it.

But we'll use that interpretation of "innovation" to take a look at what Orange is lining up for its French customers, starting with the services that don't really register on the innovation scale:

  • Mobile broadband -- Orange is expanding the number of cities to four (adding Lyon, Lille and Nantes to Marseille) where 4G services are available, initially for enterprise users and then consumers (from February 2013).

  • Fixed broadband -- Fiber-to-the-home services with downstream speeds of up to 200 Mbit/s. A good addition to the broadband roster, but, again, is this really innovative or just something they haven't done before?

  • Cloud storage -- The Orange Cloud digital storage service provides up to 50GB of digital space for each customer (and double that capacity for 4G customers and fiber broadband customers with a Livebox Play set-top box). Offering online storage is commonplace these days, but Orange at least makes a concession by noting that connectivity to the service for 4G users does not count against their data usage package.

  • NFC capabilities for mobile users -- Orange is very keen on near-field communications (NFC). That enthusiasm is not rubbing off. This is another service enhancement that doesn't come with an innovation tag these days.

    While those services will attract customer uptake, they're not really pushing any boundaries. The following offers, though, are more deserving of the "innovation" label.

  • Multi-functional set-top boxes -- The new Livebox Play set-tops do sound interesting, with an embedded 3D Blu-Ray player, two Wi-Fi connections, a remote control with a joystick and keyboard and the ability to split the TV screen in two, one half of which can be used to access social media feeds. This is more about enhanced functionality than just speeds and feeds and certainly pushes the boundaries of what is usually on offer from a telco (as long as it works… ), so this at least moves the needle on the innovation gauge.

  • RCS capabilities -- Using the 'joyn' brand being pushed by the GSM Association (GSMA) , Orange is already offering rich communication services (RCS)-enabled applications, such as video communications and content sharing, in Spain and is now preparing to offer them in Belgium, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and France. While these applications wouldn't cause much of a stir in the Internet world, this is a leap forward for telcos as they require the complex deployment of provisioning and management tools involving various Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) systems that enable Web services functionality that's tied to identifiable user accounts and policy rules. The danger is that the complexity will stifle service development, but it at least represents a step in the right direction and involves a new, non-traditional approach to service creation and delivery.

  • Libon -- A smartphone app (for iOS only currently, Android soon) that can be used by anyone on any network to set up free HD voice calls and swap instant messages with other Libon users. This certainly counts as innovation in the telco world because it has the potential to be used extensively by people who will never engage with Orange as a paying customer -- that's a scenario that historically hasn't interested the likes of Orange, which have always looked for a direct return-on-investment from their R&D efforts. Now, though, like Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF)'s Digital division, Orange is showing signs of thinking more like a Web services player and that's to its credit. In true telco fashion, though, there is a Premium version that comes with a tariff of £1.99 (US$3.19) per month. (See Orange Finds Its Web Services Voice.)

  • Facebook partnership -- Orange has been working with Facebook to "introduce more communication tools into social networks, with a first public teleconference service coming in summer 2013." This service is being referred to as 'Party Call,' and, as Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch found out, will route group calls over the telco's voice network rather than using a packet voice protocol over the public Internet. That's an interesting approach and an innovative mix of social and telco platforms.

    The standout development there is the development with Facebook, though we'll have to wait another six months or so to see how that plays out.

    Six months is a very long time in this market, though. During that time, what else will be developed for Facebook-based voice communications by Web-savvy startups building from Facebook APIs? And what might be available from the WebRTC development community? (See TEF Digital's TokBox Does Video Chat for iOS and OTT Services Provide New Opportunities for SDP Vendors.)

    Orange appears to be moving faster, but it may not be fast enough.

    — Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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    Gabriel Brown
    Gabriel Brown,
    User Rank: Light Sabre
    12/5/2012 | 5:16:47 PM
    re: Is Orange Really Innovating?

    Two things on the list that stand-out to me are:

    1/ the zero-rating of the cloud storage on LTE -- is that for real? That could be attractive to users, and help Orange make some money.

    2/ the Libon app is supposedly compatible with Joyn/RCS. That could be interesting as it's a way to grow the Joyn user-base more rapidly. I'd expect Telefonica's TuMe to end up being Joyn compatible too, although I don’t think they've said that yet.

    Edit: Orange also, so I read, offers free Wikipedia in Middle East & Africa. A different kind of innovation, but interesting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/jan/24/orange-wikipedia-mobile-devices-free

    User Rank: Light Beer
    12/5/2012 | 5:16:38 PM
    re: Is Orange Really Innovating?

    "..shown the door before the end of the meeting" ... that was funny but below the belt.

    User Rank: Light Beer
    12/5/2012 | 5:16:37 PM
    re: Is Orange Really Innovating?

    "that was funny but below the belt"

    Then my job here is done...  :-)

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