Emergence of global mobile operators?

Will widgets (software applications) allow the emergence of truly global mobile operators? Last week Vodafone and China Mobile (600 million subscribers together) joined with Softbank to launch the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL). Their focus is on improving mobile’s user interface, and in particular enable different widgets and applications to run smoothly on different handset platforms and operating systems across different mobile operators.

Behind JIL’s widgets project something more profound is taking place. Remember that the world’s two largest mobile phone operators entered into a strategic alliance in 2000 (sealed by Vodafone’s USD 2.5 billion acquisition of 2% of China Mobile). They have been collaborating on a number of projects over the years – more recently they jointly backed LTE, preparing the ground for 4G. At stake this time is no less than the development of a universal software specification.

So is this the signal that the two operators are finally coming out of the woods and prepared to use their huge subscriber base to drive the future of the mobile industry? For sure, cooperation will be useful to speed the roll-out of mobile internet services. It will also allow them to better face the upcoming battle with Google and Yahoo  – who are also keen to occupy the mobile space. It is also interesting for China Mobile – and China in general – since it will be one of the first attempt to approach standardization in a bottom-up fashion - from the market – rather than top-down – from the government. We may be witnessing China Mobile’s first steps into becoming a global mobile operator…