Telefónica and Microsoft team-up to own connected ecosystem

Every telco is attempting to figure out how to survive in the newly-defined digital world and Telefónica’s approach looks to be one of the most interesting attempts yet.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Telefónica CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete was joined on stage by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to preach the promise of its ‘fourth platform’ and the power of digital assistant ‘Aura’ as a play to capture the fortunes of tomorrow’s digital ecosystem. Many are attempting to realise the glories of the connected economy, but this approach, leaning on the ‘gated community’ lessons of the OTTs looks to be one of the most encouraging yet.

“We decided cognitive intelligence was an amazing new opportunity,” said Alvarez-Pallete. “It is a new wave of interaction with our customers.”

The idea, which has been in the making for the last two years, is a relatively simple one on the surface. Build an effective digital assistant (tick), an intuitive interface (tick), a network designed for intelligence (tick) and open all this up to third parties (the next tick). It is remarkably similar to the ‘gated community’ model which has been championed by the likes of Facebook.

Although there are services and products which will be designed by Telefónica, there are more intelligent ways to monetize the consumer. The digital assistant and ‘Movistar Living App’ help Telefónica own the relationship with the consumer, but by opening the gates of this cultivated community Telefónica can monetize the relationships and (in-directly) the services which are build on top of its own intelligent network.

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However, for this idea to work the services have to be captivating and innovative. Telefonica must give customers a reason to use ‘Aura’ and the ‘Movistar Living App’ as the focal point of their own connected world. Effectively, Telefonica will have to go head-to-head with the likes of AWS and Google who are also trying to own this relationship with their own digital assistants. This is where Microsoft will be able to help.

Under Nadella, Microsoft has been reborn as a new company. After a brief fall from grace, the now cloud-defined business is fast becoming one of the most innovative players in the market, and part of this is built on its own AI platform and cognitive intelligence offerings. If Telefonica is going to go toe-to-toe with some very innovative players and own the connected ecosystem, the power of Azure (machine learning research, speech recognition etc.) will be critical to this success.

Another crucially important factor to success here will be earning, and maintaining, customer trust. Facebook succeeded so forcefully in the first few years because no-one questioned the data-sharing business model. Perhaps this was because no-one could understand these concepts, but the world has changed. Privacy is a priority for consumers, and Telefonica will have to prove it is serious about keeping personal information safe and managing the relationships with third-parties responsibly. Without this trust, Telefonica’s drive towards evolution with fail and the business will be nothing more than a dumb pipe.

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What is worth noting is that the strategy is off to the best possible start. Aura has been launched in six different countries, across 30 channels and has developed more than 1000 different usecases. By the end of 2019, these numbers will have improved to 9, 50 and 1500 respectively. The ambition and the growth potential is certainly there.

Owning the ecosystem which is fast developing behind the connected economy, including the smart home, is an opportunity which looked to be lost for the telcos. With the likes of AWS and Google seemingly wrestling control away with their own smart speakers and integrated personal assistants, it might have been a case of another missed opportunity due to inaction. Telefonica is looking to right this wrong however.