Operators' attempts to become "platform" players, offering a buffet of digital services to business customers, have not ranked among their finest efforts. But Japan's NTT is optimistic that a new approach, developed in partnership with European consulting firm BearingPoint, will make the difference as 5G and other whizzy technologies arrive on the scene.
It is an intriguing set-up. NTT Comware, the systems integrator part of NTT, has already started to support a new cloud-based software platform called Infonova, provided by BearingPoint's strangely named BearingPoint//Beyond unit (the forward slashes are not typos). NTT's other subsidiaries -- of which there are many -- will then be able to jump on this platform with their own partners, sales channels and customers. At first, NTT is targeting business customers in Japan. If that works out, it will start to think about its overseas audience.
NTT executives are clearly chuffed with their new Infonova platform. It allows them to manage services, customer relationships, contracts, catalogs and orders and could become the foundation for new business opportunities. But what really sets it apart from the competition are four qualities, according to Fuminori Kaseda, an executive manager at NTT Comware.
First, it is genuinely "cloud-native," he says, unlike other products that boast this label. That makes it more lightweight, versatile and effective than alternatives. Similarly, it is based on open APIs (application programming interfaces), something operators increasingly prioritize as they adapt their networks to emerging customer needs. As with the cloud-native features, these interfaces should allow NTT to introduce and update services more easily. In theory, an operator could assemble products and tools based on open APIs rather like a child building her own Lego house from different sets.
The third attraction is that Infonova already has a track record with global players, says Kaseda. Some big-name Infonova clients include the UK's BT and the Telekom Austria Group, now majority owned by Latin American telecom giant América Móvil. Finally, NTT wanted a platform that would suit a so-called "B2B2x" strategy, whereby operators are the first and crucial link in a chain that passes through their major business customers and ends with other users.
For Comware, the starting point was a recognition that NTT's subsidiaries were not coordinating their activities on business support systems (so-called BSS). "Step zero was how to unify that," says Kaseda. What's more, these existing BSS tools do not allow them to bundle products or launch new services as quickly as NTT would like. "The next step is to enable customers to do new things fast."
NTT is not, however, about to jettison any other BSS products. For the time being, Infonova will function alongside these existing tools under the stewardship of Comware. "The benefits of cost reduction have been considered, but there is no clear roadmap laid out to reduce or replace existing systems," says Kaseda. "Right now, it will sit on top and serve new opportunities. Let's see what happens to legacy systems."
Those might start to vanish as NTT works through its checklist of items. "There are maybe ten, 15 or 20 projects and the idea is that this is a journey with different priorities driving it," says Angus Ward, the CEO of BearingPoint//Beyond. "There is a catalog of new things to do, but the priorities will shift over time to do replacement as well."
Such a replacement could become more feasible once Comware staff are fully up to speed with Infonova. One of BearingPoint's jobs will involve training the systems integrator's employees. "The focus is to get them self-sufficient," says Ward. "It is important for Comware to be confident and be able to build systems themselves. You are talking about onboarding maybe hundreds of partners and that is very different from the old B2B world."
For all the excitement, Comware's revenue expectations are modest, to say the least. It is targeting an extra 1 billion Japanese yen annually by 2025 from sales to Japanese customers outside the NTT group. At $9.2 million, based on today's exchange rate, this will make not a jot of real difference to the overall business, which generated $109.4 billion in its last fiscal year, and 2025 is the distant future where the technology world is concerned.
The target does raise questions about the extent to which Infonova will be used, although it seems likely that NTT's other subsidiaries are expecting additional revenues on top of this JPY1 billion. Keeping quiet about those targets should at least avoid any digital disappointment.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading