The fear that's eating the mobile world

The mobile phone industry fears the internet and distrusts its users. That's as wrong as wrong can get

In the movie Soylent Green, the plot revolves around a huge, unpalatable secret — the staple food of the future is ground-up humans. The same is true of tomorrow's internet: from Google's mile-deep data mining to the rainforest cacophony of MySpace, the magic comes from marketing people back to themselves. The winners are those who establish the strongest and most intimate relationships with their users.

At 3GSM in Barcelona this week, though, this message was still not getting across. There was talk of content deals and cross-network alliances, of new handsets and services, but the old telco mindset was still uppermost. Users are there to be locked in, kept quiet and milked dry. The forthcoming IMS revolution, where handsets become true mobile IP terminals, is seen with suspicion, a disruptive influence to be deployed with bad grace and neutralised as far as possible.

This is a fatal way of thinking. The network operators have one of the greatest treasure troves in the new world, a billion people who have made mobile telephony part of their daily lives. A billion people generating data about locations, calling habits, usage models — and when IMS enters the equation, the same again but for online. In this world, very cheap access coupled with extreme openness are huge advantages — for corporate IT as well as consumers.

Yet that is the model the operators fear most, and it shows in their every aspect. Customers feel abused and ignored, only staying with their network because they know it's just as bad elsewhere. Far more than IP, this is the real threat to the industry, and the pressure that will drive them away the moment they get the choice.

A revolution in thinking is hugely overdue, if the operators wish to survive and prosper. The users are not the enemy, nor are they passive consumers of content. They are the principle driving force in what Yochai Benkler calls the Wealth of Networks. The mobile companies have a unique place in the generating and handling of that wealth — for now.

If they don't make the change, it will be made for them, exactly as the closed online systems of the 1980s were driven to extinction. Whether this will happen with a new network model — WiMax, 4G, mesh — or when someone smart enough gets their hands on the controls at an operator, nobody knows. But it will happen, and soon. Time to wake up and smell the Soylent.