Uh-oh! The carriers want to manage your smartphones

A perpetual fear of being merely 'dumb' pipes has telcos looking for ways to offer services. But can they really deliver?

The cellular carriers are in a bind -- and have been for more than a decade. The value of phone calls has steadily declined, so they want new ways to make money. Right now, the rise of smartphones and the iPad means they can now charge $15 to $30 more per month for the required data plans that come with such devices. The fear is that the value -- and the revenues -- of data will follow the same commoditization downward arc.

For years the carriers have been looking for other ways to offer lucrative, high-margin services to help them break out of the "dumb pipe" business of selling raw capacity (that is, voice and data plans) and become "smart" businesses. For the 12 years I've been covering this industry, it's been all talk -- the carriers remained dumb pipes. But they're still trying to figure out how to "add value" to the "relationship," so you can expect to see carrier come-ons for mobile device management, mobile application management, mobile security (antivirus and antimalware), and technical support.

[ Learn about consumerization of IT in person March 4-6, 2012, at IDG's CITE conference in San Francisco. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's 29-page "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

In fact, AT&T made several such announcements this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. But in a sigificant shift, two of its three efforts are carrier-agnostic -- suggesting that at least one dumb pipe is getting smarter. I normally suggest you run, not walk, away from such carrier-based offerings, but that advice warrants another look now.

The reasons to stay away from carriers
Why have I advised historically that should you run away? There are several reasons.

First, it's doubtful the carriers can deliver on what they will promise. Carriers have been historically highly dysfunctional organizations, with severe siloes that ensure nothing new can happen effectively. Typically, the various divisions won't work together outside their individual boxes. Every few years they reorganize themselves, but that seems to be the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What you see in practice are carriers relabeling someone else's technology, then selling it to you. So why bother with the carrier? They're hoping the brand name impresses you, while the usually small actual provider may scare you away as unproven. But since they're relying on that unknown vendor, you should either trust it as the carrier does or distrust both it and the carrier that chose it. Either way, you don't need the carrier in the middle.

Plus, the carrier's arrangement with the provider is usually exclusive to devices on the carrier's network. There was a time when enterprises would choose a national carrier, then provision employees the approved devices on that chosen carrier. But that time is gone. These days, the norm is choice: bring your own (BYOD) or employee choice from a variety of approved devices and carriers.

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