Carriers can't rock and roll

6 October 2009 by Steve Blum
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AT&T’s Rob Hyatt and Verizon’s Ed Ruth spoke today about the music business at the Mobile Entertainment conference at the CTIA show in San Diego. Neither were upbeat about their success to date, and both seemed to be waiting for something to happen. They seemed to define that something as “innovation” in the market place, but what they really seemed to want are innovations that allow them to keep music downloads and streaming within their walled gardens.

Hyatt said that AT&T’s executives don’t find the business case for music to be compelling. While Ruth paid lip service to openness, or rather Verizon’s version of openness, he made it clear that Verizon intends to own the app and download stores on its network, and keep content revenue moving through their existing customer billing relationships.

More than anything, they seemed puzzled by the way the music industry itself works and the relationship that consumers have with it. A telling moment was when Ruth talked about their devices and download stores being on a par with Apple’s products and iTunes store. The point that he seemed to be trying to make was that it’s just a matter of time before they start eating into the iTunes market share.

Others attribute Apple’s dominance to its understanding of the app store ecosystem. It’s the combination of a developer community, the blessing and support of a major mobile carrier, compelling content and a pleasant, easily grasped user experience.

Apple is the application and content provider that has gone the furthest in busting out of the mobile carriers’ preferred business model. Money is more evenly divided amongst the players — developers, content owners, retail and carrier. More generous cash flow is an incentive for developers to put the iPhone at the top of the priority list, which means more applications are released for it, and more quickly. In turn, more apps lead to greater consumer interest, which translates into more sales. More sales means more money, and the cycle reinforces itself.

Meanwhile, the carriers wait for (there’s that word again) innovation. The content owners have to be innovative enough to accept the mobile carrier’s business model, and consumers have to be innovative enough to just do what they’re told. Success is just a matter of time. Could be a very long time.