Who runs your favorite mobile service?

This is a cross-post with my contribution at genmobilec.org

This might seem like a stupid question – after all, if you’re hooked on for example Twitter, your service is being run by Twitter. Right?

Wrong. It is in fact likely that the service is running on the benevolence and patience of venture capitalists and other investors who believe that somehow, someday, it will be profitable. Because right now, more often than not, Internet services aren’t profitable business.

Facebook was for long a loss-making enterprise; and they made some significant losses. It is only now that they might be reaching the break-even point. Twitter on the other hand is expecting their first revenue (i.e. any money coming in at all) this quarter. Of course, since most of these companies aren’t public, it’s difficult to know exactly their financials. However, it’s still a safe bet to say most are not even breaking even.

Now, turn the attention to mobile operators, who have been accustomed to very reliable sources of revenue (voice calls). They are now having to venture into uncertain territory in order to continue on the growth path and try to fight against the somewhat inevitable commoditization of their business.

In one sense, operators have had it too easy. SMS has in just 10 years become one of the most incredible money-printing machines any industry has seen. With SMS, the operators enjoy what can only be described as excellent (or absurd, depending on your point of view) margins. And the enabling equipment is a bargain; SMSCs often have RoI times measured in hours or days. Premium SMS has, on the other hand, enabled many successful mobile services despite the operator margins.

But there are limits to growth in SMS and voice calls, so operators are looking to data to capture that growth. It’s easy in theory – just get people to sign up for $10 or $20 or $30 per month data package and voilá, your ARPU is suddenly back on the growth track. In practise, however, it’s not so easy – mainly because people are often difficult in the sense that they need a reason to spend their hard-earned money 🙂 So the operators must be able to give a compelling reason for customers to sign up for a data package.

One interesting thing many operators are doing when searching for that reason, is turning to third party services. What’s more, they are turning to the above mentioned unprofitable Internet and mobile Internet services. Over the past few months, I’ve seen entire advertising campaigns by operators such as Elisa in Finland and Three in Australia that were focused on promoting just one service – Facebook, and mobile access to it. Riding on the popularity of Facebook, the operators want to sell you data plans and even devices.

This presents another interesting aspect; people have come to expect that Internet services are free. People have also come to expect that mobile services are not free, that you have to pay ludicrous amounts for simple things such as ringtones. But what happens when these worlds collide in the form of mobile Internet?

The jury is still out on this one, but really it all boils down to a simple question: what would you be willing to pay for?

Because contrary to what some people like to think, advertising will be unable to support all the services it’s now envisioned to support – at least in its current form. So how about Facebook or Twitter at $5/month? Would you subscribe?

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