Carriers Get Black Marks on Teamwork

DUBLIN -- Management World -- Wireless operators are slowly opening up to working with third parties, but they're still quite difficult to do business with, say several of their key partners.

Executives from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Voxygen, a company whose business is working with the operators, all gave them tough grades when it came to being a partner.

"Operators treat partners like vendors," said Google Director for Global Android Partnerships John Lagerling, noting that it's not the best dynamic for a sustainable relationship.

That it's in the operators' best interest to partner is a statement that's been reiterated by a number of companies here. And, while these three companies acknowledge that operators are getting better, they concede that it's been slow going.

For one thing, most of the big ones have spent the last few years building up, and talking up, their innovation centers, in which developers are given access to their Long Term Evolution (LTE) network and core application programming interfaces (APIs). (See Tekelec Plays Mediator for Operators & Apps, Why LTE? It's All in the Apps, Says Verizon and AT&T Defends Carrier Incubators.)

APIs that let developers access and build for the network were one big way in which the companies wanted to see improvements from the operators. Eric Troup, CTO of worldwide communications and media at Microsoft, suggested that carriers need to work on making these APIs as simple as possible, so developers can quickly take apps across devices.

"Us in the TM Forum, we tend to make our APIs like standards," he said. "We need to keep them simple, so the developer doesn't need to know a lot about the network."

What's more, part of being a good partner means also embracing players they might not want to hook up with, namely over-the-top apps. Voxygen helps operators build their own apps or integrate services like Skype into their network and on their home screen. As for why an operator might want to do this, CEO Dean Elwood aptly pointed out: "If your business is being commoditized, marginalized, bastardized, you might as well do it yourself."

Most operators have realized they need to do this, but they're stuck in old telco ways. Elwood said that their payment terms are difficult, their sales cycles are long and their RFQ (request for quotation) process is very complex.

To the operators' credit, working with big brands like Microsoft and Google hasn't been a walk in the park, either. The Android maker updates its APIs every six months, so partners have to frequently brace for a software update to all their smartphones on the market. That strains both the operators and the OEMs, Lagerling admitted. But, here again, the operators' long cycle for acceptance of new software slows down updates, adds to fragmentation in the market and ticks off consumers. (See Google Compels Operators to Ease Fragmentation.)

"Put the user in focus. When all else fails and you're looking at who gets the most value, put the user first and that brings up the answer," Lagerling advised.

But, it was Voxygen's Elwood who summed up the general vibe of the panel best: "We like it when telcos become a little less like a telco to work with," he said. "That's what we need."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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