For a long time, it was pretty easy to poke holes in (and fun of) Hutchison’s 3G operator, 3. From the way Hutch MD Canning Fok conducted interviews, to its bone-headed insistence that video calls would lead users in droves to 3G, to its later shift to attract user by slashing the cost of the most 2G application of all — voice calls. The defining moment, really, was when their UK COO said that people that want open internet access on their mobile phones must be “nuts”.
All that stuff colored my judgment of the company. They’ve gone and done some cool stuff (at least in the UK) since, like their user-generated video service, SeeMeTV, which has proven quite popular, as has Kink Kommunity, their social-networking service, and they also offer free access to Windows Live Messenger, SMS revenue losses be damned. But there’s still some rough spots, in particular a lack of open internet access — so perhaps although that COO left, his influence remains.
But now I’m feeling really conflicted after checking out their X-Series services, which were announced today. In short, they’ve put together a bunch of internet services (Skype, Sling, Orb, Windows Live Messenger, Google, eBay, Yahoo) and will give them to their users for a flat fee. They haven’t announced pricing details, but when you read something like this from an operator, you can’t help but get your hopes up:
Why should you pay per minute, per message, per click, per megabit? In the real world, you buy your PC, pay for broadband and that’s it. Our principle is simple – X-Series customers will only pay a flat access fee on top of their basic subscription and then what’s free to use on the internet should be free to use on mobile broadband (subject to fair usage and international roaming conditions, of course).
I’m not really sure what to say about that, since rarely do operators speak so sensibly. Dean Bubley, who’s just as cynical about operators as I am, calls this “beautiful heresy”, since 3 is embracing all those things that other operators view as nightmares: flat-rate data, free IM, placeshifting of media from other content sources, and so on. They’re adding value in optimizing them for their customers, and should be able to justify a premium price over flat-rate data plans like T-Mobile’s £7.50 per month Web’n’Walk offering. Operators worry all the time about becoming dumb pipes that provide only connectivity; 3 is illustrating how they can be a smart pipe.
One further note, that’s a bit of an aside, really: the Skype client isn’t really VoIP — they’re using iSkoot, as I suspected back in August. But it doesn’t matter: 3’s implementation still delivers most of the benefits of Skype, like free Skype-to-Skype calls and presence information.