LAS VEGAS--Vodafone's CEO Arun Sarin shared a revelation during his keynote here at the CTIA trade show Wednesday.
"Something different is happening that will shape the future development of the industry and change who the successful companies are going to be and that's the mobile Internet," he said. "The mobile Internet is the new, new thing in the industry. And it is here for real and happening now."
My initial reaction to his deep insight was "Duh, isn't providing Internet access to cell phones the reason why you and the rest of the carriers have been spending billions of dollars to build 3G high-speed networks? So what's the big surprise?
And then it dawned on me. While 3G was expected to allow cell phone users to access Internet-based content, mobile operators envisioned a different kind of Internet than the one consumers have come to know on their PCs."
Instead of allowing people to surf the open Internet and find the content and applications they wanted, cell phone operators wanted a world where they would be in complete control of the content and where their customers would go on the Internet. They would strike deals with content providers and act as gatekeepers, providing access to content that they chose. And as such, they would be able to charge a premium, not only for accessing the network, but also for the content itself.
So instead of encouraging customers to use their mobile phones as an extension of their Internet experience at home, carriers initially pushed new services like mobile music downloading and mobile TV. But the reality is that consumers aren't downloading a lot of music over wireless networks, and they aren't yet watching much TV on their mobile phones.
If Apple's iPhone has taught the industry anything, it's that people do want to access the Internet on their phones. And they want it to have the same look and feel that they're used to on their PCs at home.
In the past six months, operators have seen the writing on the wall of their "walled gardens." They recognize that consumers want access to the real Internet. They don't want some stripped down version of the Web. And as a result they're adapting.
Verizon Wireless, traditionally the most closed cell phone operator in the industry, is a prime example. The company said in November that it will open its network to any device and any application to spur innovation. And by extension the company is beginning to tear down the walls that have separated its subscribers from the real Internet.
Many of these changes are occurring now because the traditional PC-based Internet has changed the way in which people communicate with each other. And let's face it, people buy a cell phone primarily to communicate, not to listen to music, take pictures, or watch TV.
"Customers want to communicate in new ways, like IM, social networking, and videos," Sarin said during his speech. "That doesn't mean they aren't making phone calls. But in the communications industry, we need to provide them with all of their communications needs."
But Sarin acknowledged that the industry is still struggling to give customers what they really want. And he called on device makers, carriers, and application developers to work together to ensure that customers get what they want.
"The first thing we must do is deliver a world-class user experience," he said. "(Customers) expect us to deliver a mobile Internet service that is familiar. They want services to be compelling. They want a good user interface. And they want us to design Internet services for the mobile world."
Sarin's recommendations are a tall order to fill. The mobile market is much more fragmented than the PC market was when the Internet first developed. The mobile market has dozens of operating systems and hundreds of handset models. But the quicker the industry can deliver a "world-class experience," the faster mobile operators will see their bottom lines grow as customers fill those 3G pipes.