Free support for smartphones tipped to end

As mobile phones get 'smarter', operators will no longer have the resources to offer free support, and that is likely to mean increased costs for IT departments

Smartphone users could soon face customer support charges from network operators, according to a smartphone support roundtable of communications experts in London on Wednesday.

As mobile phones become more complex and are slowly assimilated into the corporate infrastructure, costs associated with managing users' handsets and solving technical difficulties begin to mount up. Currently, if a mobile phone user experiences a technical problem, they automatically contact their network operator, rather than the IT department, even if they are running a corporate application; this is a very short-term solution and will have to change in the very near future, said the panellists.

Dean Bubley, ex-Datamonitor analyst and founder of consulting firm Disruptive Analysis, said that because mobile phones have evolved from being completely reliable, single-use devices into complicated multi-functional devices, network operators would not find it financially viable to continue offering free customer support. "If they receive one support call per customer per year, their margin is gone -- the more complex the devices and services get, the worse the problem will get," he said.

Bubley estimates that when an enterprise gives its employees a laptop, each costs around £3,000 per year to manage, while PDAs cost between £500 and £1,000 per year, which is around the same as a smartphone.

If mobile operators continue offering free support for mobile devices, they would pick up the cost for no reason, Bubley said: "Where is the upside to the mobile operator in explaining to you how to use Bluetooth? They will draw a line under supporting anything for free if it does not have a revenue implication."

Andrew Wyatt, vice president of strategic marketing at phone management software firm Intuwave, agreed. He said that most network operators are hoping to generate around 25 percent of their revenue from non-voice services over the next three years. He said that in 2002, they only managed around 15 percent, of which 99.5 percent was generated by SMS. Wyatt believes that charging for support is an obvious way for the operators to increase revenue.

A Vodafone spokeswoman said the company would not comment on its customer support strategy because it was "privileged information".

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