Rumors are swirling that Research in Motion is ready to put an end to its relentless downward spiral in the smartphone market and sell off the handset business. The Sunday Times reported that RIM is considering the move after having hired JP Morgan and RBC Capital to help it consider strategic options. RIM is denying the story, by the way -- and insists that it has a turnaround strategy, not a surrender strategy. For reasons that are not altogether clear because they are not attributed even to unnamed sources, Facebook and Amazon are possible buyers.
Because who wouldn’t want to buy a BlackBerry at this point?
True or not, the rumor is only worth raising because of the persistent stories around both Amazon and Facebook working on their own phone devices.
Because who wouldn’t want a Facebook phone? Will it be a sky blue rectangle with a white F brand on the back so that the whole phone looks like an app icon? Would an Amazon device just have that big smile-like swirl that identifies the torrent of incoming boxes to my home?
I have just four letters for the brand acolytes within Facebook and Amazon who may be thinking that the world really needs one of their phones: MVNO. Anyone who has been in the mobile field long enough to recall when we called it “wireless” will recall the mid-2000s explosion of interest around this hot, hot category. Everyone was planning to release their own phones and service plans by leasing the existing mobile networks already built by Sprint, Verizon and AT&T (then Cingular). A Walmart phone was supposed to be coming "any day now," for a year or so. At one time I had a list somewhere of scores of MVNOs that had been announced.
The MVNO craze did in fact result in some bad misfires. Somewhere in my basement boxes I still have an Amp’d phone. It was a mobile network dedicated to video, rich game downloads and exclusive mobile programming. Ahead of its time? Well, the content may have been, but the carrier model wasn’t. By the way, I also have a Google G1 first-gen Android device, probably in the same box.
Perhaps the most memorable MVNO crash-and-burn was ESPN Mobile. Believing that it its audience represented one of the most mobile-hungry segments, ESPN had a branded phone, with its own special interface that featured ESPN and other partnered media. The platform was among the first mobile content systems to experiment with personalization. It seemed like a smart idea at the time, at least insofar as the plan focused on a lucrative niche that had intense content needs.
But, wait -- no one really wants an ESPN phone. The fact of the matter is that no matter how big a single content or commerce brand may feel to the digerati and the brand’s internal marketing folks, ordinary people are way more sensible. Even the most dedicated Facebook user, Amazon book junkie (that would be me) and even ESPN user understands what a small sliver of their mindshare and heart-share these brands occupy. Identifying such brands with something as personal, multifunctional and ever-present as our cell phone feels a bit creepy, really.
But I have a box in my basement that is always hungry for more.