Another year, another iPhone. The usual enthusiasm definitely ensued this week as Mac enthusiasts predicted, the media converged and Apple delivered the latest updates to its popular smartphone.
Given that the new iPhone 3G S is rated at up to 7.2Mbps, you'd think Telstra would be all over it as a potential show pony for Next G's purported high-speed performance.
Australia's mobile carriers, predictably, converged on the enthusiasm for the launch, launching pre-registration sites and loudly trumpeting their readiness to put the new iPhone 3G S into our hot little hands when it becomes locally available on 26 June.
Correction: Optus and Vodafone have announced their plans for the 3G S, which even gets a mention on Optus' main page. Telstra, on the other hand, seems to have missed the announcement completely; its iPhone page remains unchanged and its home page continues to trumpet the Next G compatible handsets it offers from other makers. It is, in short, business as usual at Telstra.
I've previously taken Telstra to task for its antipathy towards the iPhone, which has been an unmitigated success all over the world by wrapping all the features you know and love in smartphones (and, in the new iPhone 3.0 software, including conspicuously-absent things like cut-and-paste and MMS) into a gorgeous, easy-to-use interface that solves many of the problems that made early smartphones such as the touch-and-go proposition. It is not perfect, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say the iPhone is setting the pace for mobile innovation.
Given that the new iPhone 3G S is rated at up to 7.2Mbps, you'd think Telstra would be all over it as a potential show pony for Next G's purported high-speed performance. Yet the iPhone seems to have barely registered on the radar of Telstra, which as recently as a few weeks ago was still playing its own hand in the user interface stakes. That hand is the basis of TelstraOne, a new branding and software development exercise in which Telstra has partnered with Victorian start-up SurfKitchen to take over the home screens of many of its mobile phones using the company's SurfKit foundation.
The basic premise of TelstraOne — sorry, it's technically called the TelstraOne Experience, perhaps in a nod to the late Mr Hendrix? — is that each phone gets the same standard Telstra icons — for Mobile Foxtel, email, Sensis properties such as the Yellow and White Pages, and so on. The goal is to unite Telstra's various online smartphone-compatible services under a single banner that's easy to reach.
TelstraOne users can also mix and match their own widgets for things like Facebook and Twitter from a Telstra-maintained selection. It's kind of like the iPhone's App Store, just without most of the apps. Your personal mobile home page is stored on a central server, so if you switch from one Telstra phone to another, your heavily customised mobile phone environment goes with you.
Telstra's mobile executives were talking up the TelstraOne concept at its launch a few weeks ago, and there is certainly some appeal in the idea of simplifying user interfaces. They also like TelstraOne because its various modules can be mixed and matched to reflect the various customer personalities that have been identified in Telstra's targeted marketing strategies.
The interface seemed like a way for Telstra to solve the issue I pointed out at the iPhone 3G's local launch last year — that the iPhone presented a major problem for Telstra because it didn't tie in with Telstra's various content services. TelstraOne, of course, does exactly this, and could easily spearhead the company's efforts to develop One Interface To Rule Them All. Just consider Telstra's plans to work with SurfKitchen to port it to other platforms other than the Sony Ericsson W705 and Motorola MOTOSURF A3100 devices demoed at the launch.
Which other platforms? "Symbian", a Telstra mobile bigwig explained. "And, of course, Windows Mobile. And, to be honest, you could roll it out on other devices: bigger-format PDAs, for example, or anything you might look at."
Bigger-format PDAs? What is this, 2002? And wasn't the MOTOSURF already running Windows Mobile?
"You're not mentioning the iPhone," I interjected, because he was clearly working hard not to mention the iPhone. The response: "We'd be happy to roll it out over the iPhone, but I think Mr Jobs has probably decided he's already got the best thing in the world so far."
What about developing a TelstraOne-like application that could be delivered onto the iPhones of Telstra customers over the App Store? Surely, I asked, it couldn't be that hard to get the big T onto the home screens of the iPhones that Telstra sells, even if Apple would never-not-in-a-billion-years let Telstra stamp its logo on the physical phone itself?
"It's not something we've actually explored," he said, with an expression that suggested he'd bitten into a clove hidden somewhere deep in his entree. He quickly turned to someone else whose question took the conversation to a more comfortable place.
Just in case you missed that: for all its billions and its dominance of Australia's mobile market, Telstra has apparently not even considered how it might deliver its content to iPhone customers.
Which explains why there was no iPhone support for Telstra's Beijing Olympics coverage. Or why Mobile Foxtel doesn't work on the iPhone. Or why Telstra seems more than happy to let Optus and Vodafone lap up the country's iPhone-using customers (and their voracious appetites for mobile data). This is somewhat surprising for a company that regularly touts the capabilities of its core mobile network.
The iPhone wasn't the only seemingly verboten mobile platform; Research In Motion's BlackBerry OS wasn't mentioned, nor was the new Google Android, onto which there would seem to be no philosophical obstacles, at least, against the introduction of a new front-end to Telstra's emerging media empire.
Telstra's continued cold shoulder to the iPhone confirms that the company is only interested in those mobile devices on which it can own the interface completely.
Telstra's continued cold shoulder to the iPhone confirms that the company is only interested in those mobile devices on which it can own the interface completely. It's a strategy consistent with Telstra's long history of branding and interface control, and may well continue to pay off in the short term; after all, for all the flash and glamour around the iPhone and its ilk, smartphones are still a relatively niche product that only recently passed into double-digit portion of the overall mobiles market (largely thanks to increased awareness of the iPhone).
In the long term, however, does Telstra really believe this is sustainable? Because with all due respect to Sony Ericsson (whose slider-phone W705 I have enjoyed playing with) and Motorola (whose A3100, not so much), conventional phones have really reached a plateau of sorts; all the innovation these days is in the smartphone space.
It seems hard to conceive of Telstra capitalising upon its mobile market dominance without at least trying to extend its content strategy onto the market-leading iPhone and BlackBerry. Android-based phones would seem to be a particularly appealing target, since Google has not tried to dominate the interface as Apple does, and Telstra wants to. Telstra needs to get its head out of the sand and figure out how to use the current enthusiasm over smartphones to its advantage — so by the time the iPhone 4G debuts next year, it doesn't look like it has been caught out sleeping.
What do you think? Is it more important to have a consistent, carrier-owned interface or to give customers access to the latest-and-greatest features? Can Telstra ever reconcile its mobile strategy with Apple's?
Also, on a more general level, this is my 100th Full Duplex column since I took up the mantle in 2007; it seems as good a time as any to request feedback, good and bad, and requests for particular topics you'd like to hear more (or less) about as I look towards the second century.