The NXTcomm convention is under way at McCormick Place in Chicago. The exhibition floor is populated by all the right names, but it somehow doesn't seem quite as packed as an industry-leading event ought to be, especially once you get beyond the big name displays.
The conference and keynote sessions have at least attracted a high-profile line-up of speakers, headed this morning by AT&T's new Chairman and CEO, Randall Stephenson, and Cisco's John Chambers. Anyone attending CES in January could probably have afforded themselves a coffee break during Chambers' speech, 90% of which was given back in January
. Stephenson at least gave the fresh perspective of a man barely two weeks into a new job, although singling the iPhone as the most critical example of a new convergence era was hardly original, if not surprising given the scale of AT&T's bet on its Apple partnership.
I couldn't help wondering if Stephenson hadn't actually missed the point regarding news that 40% of registered interest in the iPhone came from non-AT&T customers. He suggested to the audience that this meant people wanted AT&T's service. Surely it means they want Apple, rather than AT&T? Once again, the question of who really has the customer relationship comes to the fore. I predict a honeymoon period for AT&T and Apple, followed by arguments and tears...
I am watching out at NXTcomm in particular for discussion of the OTT (Over The Top) threat to telcos' customer relationships, but perhaps I've come to the wrong place as most debates skilfully skirt this awkward question. AT&T's CTO Chris Rice agreed that OTTs have a place, and that content "will come from anywhere". He seemed keen to suggest that they would not be able to offer anywhere near the experience available from managed telco services, but avoided citing any specific examples of why this might be true. Qwest's Pieter Poll was more realistic in accepting that "carriers are going to have to work out how they participate" in the changing competitive environment. While naturally avoiding committing to any vision of a clear OTT threat to telcos, Poll at least accepted that "it will be very interesting to watch how relationships will change over time". Indeed it will, for analysts and other third parties - telcos that continue to convince themselves that OTT players are in a different business may not survive long enough to see just how those relationships evolve.