Mobile garden walls come tumbling down

Operators can't keep users locked in any more. They must embrace IP or embrace their destruction

In medieval times, walled gardens were all the rage. They offered protection and warmth, and nurture for precious plants away from the tough conditions outside.

Walled gardens are also very popular -- at least, very common -- in today's mobile market. By restricting customer access to servers, mobile operators profit from expensive voice calls, text and multimedia messages and Web access.

But if you confine yourself behind closed walls you can't see what's happening outside. Today, the mobile walled gardens stand in peril. Soon they will have gone, taking the less hardy operators with them.

IP changes everything. That's been known by the few for a long time, by most of us for a while. The mobile operators, though, still want to pretend otherwise. It's easy to see why. VoIP means an end to plump mobile voice tariffs. Next to web-based email, text messages look like a rip-off. Being able to upload photos to Flickr means not paying 50p to send a single multimedia message. That's an unpleasant truth if you're used to collecting that 50p.

So unpleasant, in fact, that many operators still have their fingers in their ears and their heads in the sand - which is no mean feat. Google is actually being lobbied by mobile firms who are unhappy that their customers are using Google Mobile Maps. A better approach is to compete on quality, by building a better search product than Google. If that's beyond them, then they should simply charge for network access and be delighted that Google is providing such great services for their customer base. Pretending it's not happening, that you can stop it or it's going away just means a braver operator will take your users away.

That's started. Earlier this month, we saw that 3 is taking the brave step of offering a flat-rate mobile broadband package, which includes free access to Skype. Although we don't know how much it will cost, 3 still deserves plaudits for recognising that it can't keep these services out and that it can still make a business from providing things that its customers want.

IT professionals and business people need to protect themselves from this. Talk to your mobile provider. Find out where they'll be in a year's time. If they're still planning on hiding behind their garden wall, then you need to get out before you get hit by the flying masonry. Let them get buried beneath the rubble: there are fresher pastures in the open air.

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