Ken Olewiler

MVNO: Hype or Hope?

It looks like the era of the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) has been ushered in. MVNOs — companies that buy network capacity from network operator to offer branded mobile subscriptions and value-added services - are proliferating rapidly. Beginning with the successful launch of European offerings such as Virgin and Transatel, and continuing in the United States with Boost Mobile and now Disney and ESPN Mobile, MVNOs are fast becoming a mainstay of the mobile space. At last count, there were approximately 200 planned or operational MVNOs worldwide. Which begs the question among UI professionals: How - and how much - will MVNOs impact the user experience? Here’s the way I see it.

A Change of UE View
I’m expecting the primary influence of MVNOs will be to spur a paradigm shift in how people think about the user experience and the interface design.

Traditionally, the core focus of mobile devices was communication - voice, messaging, e-mail, and so on. However, mobile devices have rapidly become much more than communication centers; in fact, the MVNO model has helped them evolve into personal connected devices that have the potential to provide not just calls, but key information and content for both pleasure and productivity.

This is a big transition, and one that will require interfaces to change to keep up. Today’s list-oriented navigation just won’t cut it; old-school UIs will have to give way to new ways of accessing data that allow users to make the most of a rich flow of content and information. For example, early-adopter ESPN shifted from a traditional navigation structure to an innovative slider navigation that allows users a much greater depth of interaction.

UI to Create Brand Growth and Extension
Premium brands are seeing MVNOs as a key opportunity to extend their products and messaging into channels that were once too cost-prohibitive to consider. Up until now, the consideration of custom-branded devices and interfaces was severely limited by the high development effort and support costs necessary to establish the technical and billing infrastructure. With the advent of MVNOs, the challenges to establish a custom device, service and billing infrastructure are significantly less, since the brands can leverage the well-established infrastructure of mobile operators.

And as MVNOs proliferate worldwide, brands can now differentiate themselves from the competition on the mobile device just as they do in the traditional marketplace. One way they’ll do this: tailor the user interface to the content to help deliver on the brand’s promise.

Customization and Diversity in Design
Since content providers are often focused on providing customization choices for consumers, it’s reasonable to believe that as premium, branded MVNOs continue to emerge, greater diversity in mobile interface design will become both a reality and a necessity. A proliferation of brands will drive the need for a more custom experience, and consumers interested in the brand focus are likely to demand more personalized experiences themselves.

This increasing influence of MVNOs may well open the eyes of the major telecommunications carriers to the value of better, more personalized mobile experiences. High up on most MVNOs’ wish lists is a live idle screen, which allows them to customize the screens and personalize them with their proprietary content. Whether it’s a crawling stock ticker, the latest weather, or Billboard’s Top 40, this pushed data flow represents a huge value-add to the MVNO model.

While this idea is somewhat constrained by the limits of technology today, emerging solutions may enable a more flexible presentation of information at all levels of the device.

And Speaking of Technology…
One of the chicken-and-egg conundrums of the mobile space is this: Does a demand for a more engaging interface drive technology, or does new technology spur better interfaces? With MVNOs in the picture, I think the former scenario gets more important. As MVNOs demand richer user experiences, the big operators will feel pressured to develop the technology that allows the creation of better user interfaces.

But there’s a flip side to this, which I like to call the “What if they gave a party and no one came?” issue. More features are great only if people use them. Plenty of carriers are high on the idea of bringing video entertainment to phones, but we don’t yet know whether the public will embrace watching “Crash” on a 2-inch screen. Even expanding data offerings can be a bit of a gamble, because many people think of their phone as just that - a phone. They don’t want (or use) it for much more than that. For every phone company, the key driver is data services across the network, and getting people to use those services is the big challenge.

Recent surveys by RBC Capital Markets, The Yankee Group, and Forrester suggest that the public is not enthralled with the idea of video or music delivered to their mobile phones. This may be due to the fact that it these features are seen as too expensive or frivolous, but it may also be due to the fact that a compelling user experience has yet to be created around these features.

Predicting the exact impact MVNOs will have is difficult, of course. There are plenty of questions, starting with the obvious: Will consumers really want a branded phone? There’s also the not-so-small consideration of consumers who want to partake of more than one brand. Should a content-branded phone allow the flexibility to host other brands and content, and if so, how would this work? And while increasingly refined technologies are allowing for a greater breadth of content type and customizable UIs, MVNOs are still limited by the existing technical constraints and infrastructures of the carriers providing the mobile services. Whether these premium brands will build the critical mass to influence key technical changes that can accommodate deeper customization remains to be seen.

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