Carrier Speed vs. Valley Speed

Last week, I participated in the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco. It was a very impressive event. My favorite session was probably the keynote panel on day 2 with Walt Mossberg (The Wall Street Journal) moderating (sort of), John Donovan (AT&T), Kevin Lynch (Adobe), Michael Abbott (Palm), and Vint Cerf (Google). It was a great demonstration of “Big Bell Dogma” vs. Internet innovation.

My panel was the “Fireside chat: Future of the carrier deck.” Again, I think the contrasts in perspective and approach were pretty apparent.

For my intro, I explained that I think there are three fundamental truths that shape how we’re thinking about the deck and app stores:

  1. Customers just want to do what they want to do, when they want and where they want. We need to let that happen.
  2. App developers just want to get their great ideas to market as fast as
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    possible. Carriers can’t figure out what will succeed and what won’t, we need to let the market decide.

  3. However, mobile operators still hold a unique place in the ecosystem. We can take steps that create value for customers and developers.

With those truths in mind, we’re focused on what one of my teammates (Brian Huey) phrased as “Do you want innovation to happen at carrier speed or valley speed?” We want it to happen at valley speed, which means that the carriers need to stop being a chokepoint and instead focus on how to add value without slowing down the process of bringing innovation to market. We don’t add value by trying to determine which apps are worthy of appearing in our “stores.” We do add some value by allowing customers to choose to pay for apps and content through their wireless bill. We do add some value by helping with marketing so that customers don’t have to wade through an endless supply of similar apps. We really add value when we open up our assets (network, location, etc.) so that developers can expand their creative limits.

Carriers are great at operating network assets, and we manage an existing relationship with the end customer. We aren’t great at writing consumer software or developing consumer-facing interfaces. In those areas, we need to get out of the way and let the highly capable players (startups and established players) who specialize in those areas to do what they’re great at. (Needless to say, not all carriers share this perspective.)

In the spirit of getting out of the way, the week before OMS, at our developers conference Sprint announced three pretty significant changes in how we view the carrier deck and app stores:

  1. We don’t believe that carriers are the best at operating app stores. Since Palm’s App Catalog and the Android Market are both well designed app stores, we’ve never included our carrier deck on the Palm Pre (and soon Pixi) nor on any of the Android devices we’ve launched – and we never will. However, as Microsoft’s Windows Marketplace and RIM’s Blackberry App World are establishing similar credibility, we will be removing our deck from Windows Mobile and Blackberry devices. There’s no need to confuse customers with multiple ways to get apps and there’s no need to force developers to submit to multiple stores.
  2. Similarly, feature phone users (those that don’t have a smartphone like Android, Palm, or Blackberry) still need an easy way to find, buy, and download apps and content. This is where the carrier deck still makes sense. But we don’t believe that the carrier is the best to run this app store, nor
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    to figure out where it can go in the future. So, we are issuing an RFP to outsource the operation of our deck to someone who specializes in app stores, can do it faster and better for developers and customers, and can take it all to the next level.

  3. We also know that there are already lots of applications out there that haven’t bothered fighting through the gauntlet of carrier approvals. Instead, they’re distributing their apps through independent mobile app stores. Probably the best of these (at least the most successful) is GetJar. At our developer conference we also announced that we’re opening up our deck so that when our customers search in our deck, they’ll also be able to find and download everything that’s in GetJar.

I’d love to hear what you think? Is Sprint heading in the right direction, or should carriers continue to insert themselves more in the process? Please leave your comments below.

6 Responses to “Carrier Speed vs. Valley Speed”

  1. The carriers also need to recognize, accept, and not fight the smartphone equivalents to GetJar.

    Things such as “WebOS Quick Install” for the Palm Pre and Pixi devices, which allow installation of third party apps, and the third party apps (and tweaks) themselves need to be recognized and accepted by the carriers, and ways found to “play nicely with others.”

    Smartphones are, after all, tiny computers that make phone calls in their spare time. Whether carriers like it or not, the owner/operators of those tiny computers WILL play with them and put applications on them that the manufacturer and carrier never imagined.

    My Palm Pre has a number of “tweaks” and unofficial third party applications running that make it a much better device for my particular uses than it was “out of the box.”

    Thanks for listening! :o)

  2. Jon Spinney says:

    Hi Russ. Yes, you’re absolutely headed in the right direction. I’ve always thought ‘thus-far’ modes of distribution and discovery needed alternatives to better support both developers and subscribers/users, and it sounds like Sprint agrees. At the same time, I also think carriers are best at managing networks and billing relationship with subscribers. I tend to think these billing relationships in this new era of choice also present newer opportunities for carriers to harvest valuable subscriber behavior data, and described this in a post recently – Curious what your thoughts are about this, and if by offloading services through new distribution methods, you limit your ability to know what subscribers are doing. Or, is who, when, and where enough subscriber intelligence to become a smarter carrier?


  3. Russ – I wholeheartedly agree with this vision. In fact, I have commented on this on my own blog.

  4. […] the event, McGuire outlined some of what he shared at the event on his personal blog. Read up on McGuire’s thoughts about the carrier deck and application stores and share your […]

  5. […] McGuire summarized Sprint’s approach in his blog by starting that Sprint’s goal is to enable innovation to happen more rapidly and, as such […]

  6. Zetta Bodon says:

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