Orange phones will clean your teeth too
You can't accuse Hans Snook of not having vision
One thing Orange has got is style. Weaving in and out of clapped-out 2CVs at the Vinopolis wine museum, we ascend the stairs and enter the world of Orange - drapes, back-lit boards, vast pics of kids and lovely looking female helpers.
Which was presumably the intention since the company's CEO Hans Snook was here to explain to us a wholly different brave new world - OrangeWorld. We had arrived expecting to ask him what the hell he was doing spending £95 million on virtual news tart Ananova, but were instead treated to a rolling compendium of what Orange phones will be capable of in the future. Such was the scale of ideas that in the Q&A session at the end, the first question we thought of was: Is there anything that Orange phones won't be able to do?
Hans Snook is one of the world's finest CEOs. He paints a vision of the future, he tells us how he'll do it and then he delivers. Had it been anyone else telling us we will run our car, money, health, travel, entertainment and quite literally our bath through a mobile phone, we would have laughed them off stage. But the leather jacketed, calm and open Hans is so quietly certain that you have the horrible feeling he'll prove your scepticism wrong.
So what is this man's "bright future"?
He, unsurprisingly, thinks wire-free communication is to become the norm not only for voice but also data transmission. Everything in the world from cars to fridges will also be tied in and remote-controllable (the old Barbie-dolls-connected-to-the-Internet philosophy). What does this equate to? One common experience and one global brand. And of course that brand is orange (although the projected company logos were more yellow-coloured).
Partnerships and acquisitions, acquisitions and partnerships will produce a whole range of anywhere-anytime services. In no particular order, they are: Orange Travel, Orange Health, Orange Home, Orange Car, Orange Bank, Orange Entertainment and Orange Mall (all trademarked of course). If you think this list was long, you should have sat through the explanation of each of them - a good percentage of the UK's IT journalists currently have a sore arse from sitting on hard wooden chairs.
And to think we were concerned when Orange bought Ananova and cut call prices. Can this gigantic dream possibly be realised? Hans seems to think so. And don't forget this is the man who secured his autonomy when France Telecom bought Orange off Vodafone and who will now drag the mobile side of France Telecom under his control and then refloat with it sometime soon, producing even more sacks of cash. France Telecom were noticeably absent at the conference.
He wants Orange to be the main conduit for MP3s and has told the music industry as much. He wants to set up an Orange Internet bank. He wants it to work as a credit agency. He wants people to get their news, films and games through Orange. He wants doctors to talk to patients through Orange. He wants cars to talk to their owners through Orange. It just goes on and on.
And what is the method to this madness? Our old friend Ananova, recent acquisition Wildfire and a quarter stake in NewsTakes (£95 million, £95 million and £4.2 million respectively). Ananova is the face, Wildfire the portal and NewsTakes the delivery system. The answer to the 95 million-pound question is Ananova's spider technology. We don't know how well or efficiently it can trawl the Net but it's reasonable to assume it is above average.
Wildfire is a voice recognition company ("Hello Wildfire". "Hello. You currently have one email, one fax and one voice message..." - you know the thing). This will tie in with Ananova, which supplies the content - although if you had millions of people walking round the UK muttering "wildfire" all day, it may quickly become the most hated word in the English dictionary. NewsTakes says it can deliver any information to any device anywhere. A bold claim indeed.
Orange will encourage such enormous take-up by slashing call prices and moving to a transaction-based business model ie. companies give it a slice of the money moving over the network and end users pay less, causing greater take-up and so on. Hans happily informed us that since Orange's network is so much larger than its competitors, it will "cost substantially less and take substantially less time" to build the services for upcoming 3G phones. It will be "an expansion, not a change of architecture". He is also talking to cable companies, satellite firms and fixed line telcos about sharing networks for wholesale prices.
And that is the grand plan.
Other interesting snippets included Hans calling WAP primitive and dismissing the Japanese equivalent, iMode. "The Japanese market is unique. Plus, iMode needs something in the handset and hence Nokia and everyone else will have to be persuaded to change their phone and then sell them at a lower cost." But everything has a silver lining for Hans at the moment. The awareness that iMode is creating will make people look for next-generation services and Orange is the only one that is supplying them now.
Orange is also setting up a £300 million "cyber investment fund" where it will help new technology and startups and just take a weeny bit of their shares in return. It has also set up a brainstorming centre - which it calls an Imaginarium - in London, with others due next to MIT in Massachusetts, Silicon Valley and Singapore. But this is all the intangible PR puff.
What we have here is an extremely talented CEO with a ludicrously big vision and money to burn. Not forgetting a strong brand. In the past, Orange has frequently led the way leaving competitors to rush around behind it. Is it still leading? Has it got it right again? Or has it gone a bit too far this time? God only knows. And possibly Hans Snook.
Walking down the stairs to Southwark tube after the conference, our mobile phone rang. It was a message from One2One. "We are delighted to inform you that from 3 July, you will not longer be charged the £1 monthly charge for text messaging. This is just one..." etc, etc. We're afraid you're gonna have to do better than that, we thought as the escalator pulled us down into the bowels of London. ®