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Admittedly it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for the operators. The people who brought you WAP and walled gardens have consistently failed to develop new, interesting and useful services of their own, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming by Apple to where they are today. The smartphone market only became a mass market after there was a truly easy-to-use device - but also because data plans are now bundled with devices, and removed the "sticker shock" fear of high data bills. Apple arm-wrestled the operators into these deals, and set the standard - the smartphone user now taking out a contract expects a reasonable amount of data to be included in the price.

The networks complain about services dealing directly with the customer - but that's exactly what services do. How many operator-created services can you name that have captured the popular imagination? 3 is consistently the most innovative operator, but it's partnered (with Microsoft, Skype and Spotify) rather than developed its own services. And Orange Wednesdays doesn't count - it's not a service, it's a marketing promotion.

If operators fear that Google and Apple are sucking value out of the service layer, then they should develop their own. There's little point in trying to ape Facebook or Twitter. But there's plenty of opportunity for being an enabler to established business services that need some kind of voice or data communication - your bank, supermarket or insurance company for example. There are other gaps to be filled, such as such as backup. And it's astonishing that realtime group messaging is owned by Blackberry, with its BBM. Texts have been bundled for years now, so why allow a proprietary manufacturer to own what should be an open industry standard?

The role of the operator is much diminished, but it's still the best hope for Microsoft and other platform companies seeking to elbow Android aside. For now, the advantage for Microsoft is a negative one - they're not someone else. ®

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