Monday, March 30, 2009

Blurring the Boundaries - Dell as an MVNO

Jason Lackey

Stacey Higgenbotham over at Gigaom wrote about Dell Getting into the Carrier Game today, an event which although happening in Japan is of some interest to the global market not only because of the size of the players, both Dell and DoCoMo being big names in the industry, but also because of the blurring of the boundaries of the traditional roles of the network operator and the device maker.

In the past the network operator was, from the subscriber's perspective, the source of all things. Service was provided by the operator and this included not only basic voice/data/connectivity but also applications that used connectivity. Devices, particularly in the CDMA world, but also to a lesser extent in the GSM world, were always provided by the operator and supported by the operator. If you had a problem, you called AT&T or whoever your operator was, not Nokia or HTC or whoever made your device.

Nokia, ahead of the curve, was one of the first manufacturers to offer over-the-air updates, FOTA, for its devices. While custom ROMs specific to particular operators were available, they were available thru Nokia.

Apple is another example of breaking the mold, where the iPhone is supported not through normal operator support channels (in many cases) but rather support is handled by Apple.

Dell's deal, which sounds kind of similar to Sprint's Kindle deal (where Sprint provides ongoing data connectivity for Kindle) marks a bit of a departure for device makers, although again it is possible to say that Nokia was again ahead of the curve with the providing of services in the form of Ovi. True, Ovi does not include any sort of data connectivity (I suspect they would like to run over a dumb pipe) but it does offer navigation, games, sync/backup and other services which have traditionally been the responsibility of the operator.

In the end, these are likely to be exciting times for both consumers and the industry. Any time of disruption, either from technological advance or external factors such as the global economic cratering event, also tends to be a time of innovation and advance. The wiping of the dinosaurs by a massive comet strike 60 some odd million years ago was traumatic, to be sure, particularly for the dinosaurs, but it opened up the door for the rise of the mammals, who had until then largely be relegated to playing the role of skanky little protorats.

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