Time for a snapshot
Take the two most popular brands in mobile - Nokia and Vodafone. If you have a Nokia handset on a Vodafone tariff, what do you say when someone asks you what phone you have? Most people, at least in this part of the world, tend to refer to 'their Nokia'.
This is interesting. Users - certainly mass market, consumer users - will often feel closer to hardware than services. Arguably they shouldn't. A device may be concrete (metaphorically) but a service relationship is ongoing, flexible, sometimes even intimate. And this direct-to-end-user association isn't just the product of the kind of campaigns companies such as Nokia and lately Samsung have been running.
If you're still with us here, the point is that this is actually positive for most of the companies exhibiting at this week's big trade show, the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes. Perhaps most disappointing has been the lack of mobile operators present. How nice it would have been, for example, to meet up with Hutchison to discuss the imminent launch of 3.
But not to worry. The good news is that vendors - from big equipment companies like Nokia, Nortel and Siemens to others such as Microsoft - realise that being close to their clients and end users is key. Key words this year were, steady your stomach now, 'partnership', 'openness' and 'ecosystem'.
Last year, there was much talk about how MMS would save mobile. That was folly, however interesting multimedia messaging of all types may end up. But it seems in the intervening 12 months all sorts of companies have sobered up. They're cautious, though still with belief in where mobile data especially is heading. They're now willing to put market growth first rather than tripping up a perceived opponent in the first hundred yards of the marathon.
It hasn't hogged headlines but companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, PalmSource and Symbian know that ease-of-use for end users will ultimately prove decisive. So rolling out a corporate 2,000 seat smart phone policy or allowing a phone to be connected via Bluetooth to a PDA out of the box are issues for them, not only service providers.
Microsoft, with the Windows Smartphone 2002-powered SPV on Orange's network, and PalmSource, with the Palm OS devices on AT&T Wireless' US network, will talk quietly about increased ARPU of 15 per cent, from users who have upgraded handsets. Ask quietly, and they may even say it's more. Meanwhile in the Far East, end users with phones from KTF in South Korea or KDDI in Japan are spending more by 20 odd per cent.
All this is also against the backdrop of better, more reliable devices. Sure, the big boys are making progress but from a US start-up such as Danger, with its satisfying 'hiptop' product category (used by T-Mobile and soon Orange), to a tiny newcomer such Windsor-based Red Communication, trying to re-jig the awful layout of letters on a phone keyboard, innovation is plentiful.
It isn't time to crack open any champagne but the industry is at last starting to fight clever in ongoing tough times.