F/MC Watch: MobileSTICK a Silver Lining for Mobile Operators

Last month, we reported on BridgePort Networks’ announcement about its readiness to bring its MobileSTICK fixed/mobile convergence solution to market. What we left untold in that story was the tectonic shift in relations between mobile carriers and Internet business entities—such as Yahoo and Google—that the little gizmo brings about.

To recap, MobileSTICK consists of a USB flash drive carrying the client portion of BridgePort’s convergence platform, a virtual SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, and CounterPath’s eyeBeam softphone—along with phone books, call history, messages, and all attendant user data. When a customer/subscriber is on line with the MobileSTICK activated, the SIM card registers with the system’s SIP registry and all telephony, incoming and outgoing, is automatically routed over the IP network.

Great: an ingenious and convenient way of implementing fixed/mobile convergence in the absence of readily available dual-mode phones. But there’s more to the story. To repeat the statement of BridgePort’s senior vice president of marketing and business development, Sanjay Jhawar, quoted in our earlier article: “We think the MobileSTICK proposition is unique in its own right and has some benefits all of its own that aren’t available even on the dual-mode phone solution.”

One key factor here is the authentication provided by the SIM card. It is strong, secure authentication, and, more importantly, it is associated with a phone number. When a MobileSTICK user is logged in to an IP connection, the mobile operator knows who the user is, and what his/her phone number is. And—there’s a simple, direct path back to that user.

Put another way, the mobile operator—and its customers—now has an authenticated presence on the Internet, and that’s worth something. Jhawar illustrates the point with the following hypothetical, based on the assumption that Google (or some other Web giant) is eventually going to launch a free communications system funded by advertising:

“Let’s say you’re an Orange, or a Vodaphone, and you’re trying to do a deal with Google,” Jhawar said. “Well, Google has most of the assets—all the advertisers, the name recognition, the users’ attention on the PC—which makes it a bit of a one-sided discussion.”

However with the MobileSTICK in the picture, that unbalanced equation changes. “The mobile operator can say ‘Well, I have millions of subscribers; MobileSTICK authenticates them, we know exactly who they are, I can bill them, we know what their phone numbers are; we can target them in terms of advertising.” This is a tangible asset, and makes the mobile operator a more equal potential partner, able to negotiate a better deal.

In Jawar’s words, “The mobile operators can have a more equal partnership because they’ve extended their domain into the PC.” Identities, once quite separate, blur. BridgePort’s roadmap for MobileSTICK gets into “federating presence with Internet domains,” according to Jhawar. For example, “It’s perfectly possible for us to make the Yahoo Messenger inbound phone number be the mobile number,” he pointed out. “This creates a deeper partnership and brings more assets into play.”

These subtle, theoretical, benefits for mobile carriers are accompanied by a clearer, more concrete one, Jhawar asserted: The mobile phone network—the communications system—is now, in a very real way, connected to the user’s PC—and all the content resources contained therein (think digital images, video).

To illustrate this point, Jhawar referred to a demonstration mounted by “adaptive communications” software vendor (and BridgePort partner) OpenWave Systems at the recent 3GSM conference. In it, visitors were invited to go to the BBC News website, drag an image from the home page to OpenWave’s Rich Mail application and generate a MS message to a mobile phone (lots of cool Ajax/Web 2.0 software integration going on here).

“You could see the operators’ eyes lighting up,” Jhawar said, “because there’s multiple millions of multimedia on the Web and multiple thousands on your PC, and with drag and drop you can generate a billable MobileSTICK message to another person.”

Cool, sure. But the crux of the matter is that those messages have the source address of the user’s mobile phone number. “When you drag an image from a photo album onto the softphone client and generate a MobileSTICK message to another user, that message comes from your mobile number,” he pointed out.

When the recipient hits Return Call, they’re calling your mobile phone, generating another call—more minutes—for the mobile operator. “You’re reinforcing this mobile identity, and messages stimulate voice calls and voice calls stimulate messages. It’s really that virtuous circle is the reason for them to do this; it’s not purely a defensive proposition [as the voice piece is].”

We’ll have to wait at least a bit see how attractive this silver lining will appear to mobile operators. According to Jhawar, action is already heating up. Although he wasn’t ready to name names, he asserted that “We have multiple partners that are ready to go to market at scale.” He promised more news soon.

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