Openet celebrates its 20th Birthday this year so we took the opportunity to catch up with CEO Niall Norton to talk about what the next 20 (well, five to 10) years hold. And, let’s face, reminisce a little.
Disruptive.Asia: Good morning Niall, and Happy Birthday! How does it feel?
Niall Norton: Thank you very much, it is certainly an interesting time. I think the speed of change right now is extraordinary, for vendors as well as operators. If you think about it, 3G and 4G meant that operators were competing in a similar way (and they got used to doing business in a similar way) but in the last five, maybe even three, years we have been trying to innovate not just on the technology, but the value proposition itself – and the business models.
We have been trying to work out how we engage now and in the future and that certainly keeps the cobwebs out of the head.
We have been reminiscing too. 20 years ago, the Global Billing Association – you were keen supporters – was in its heyday. We had 150 vendor members, so there were at least 50 more who were not members. Three or four years later there were possibly 20. That must have been a baptism of fire, as a time to launch a business. We didn’t even know what a smartphone would look like.
It was very different, that is for sure. In 2000, there was no prepaid, at least not in Western markets and billing systems were about volumes of records and real-time balances, designed to protect operators against credit exposure. At that time, we were beginning to think about how to enrich records because we knew that people would be using their phones for email and the like.
I remember endless discussions at the end of the 90s about Billing for Content, which has taken a while to catch on. The best quote, from a US operator was his summary – ‘We need things that bill for stuff’.
Exactly, then 3G came along, which allowed these services to be delivered well, records had to be richer. Real-time volumes sky rocketed and, for us, it was a validation of some of the tech bets that we had taken. In fact, in those few years we went from doing six million a year to 45 million.
Then we consolidated with 4G and of course things like policy got to centre stage. At this point it was incremental innovation because the business models were basically the same. The challenge for marketing at that point was to be flexible enough because operators needed to do away with hardened GUIs, and we needed to push the features and benefits of software and minimise hardware.
In 2016/2017, it became more complicated. We started looking at 5G and NFE, SDN and Opensource. Business models – how revenue would be generated – would have to change radically. The stock market was adding pressure by saying, ‘you have connectivity but you do not own AirBnb, Uber or Netflix. They are making the money and yet you have borrowed billions of dollars for 5G. So you have to fix this’.
Operators needed to get more offers out, quickly. At the same time there was a good deal of vendor uncertainty with Huawei and so on, which meant there was a real pause in the industry.
They needed to look at the world differently. They needed to change process and culture, as well as cost structures and skill sets and that took a number of years. These changes were beginning to come through in 2019. What is interesting is looking at the few operators who went for a Big Bang approach to become B-B-X overnight – many failed, for cultural reasons.
The last couple of years has changed so much we feel like a start up again, which is good for the soul and meant we had to ramp up our energy and curiosity. We had to innovate constantly. Again. And now we are feeling the joy of being alive because we did that!
The future is very bright. Operators will succeed and more than the fibre guys did. The wireless world embraces change better and will be better at it.
But on our 20th Birthday, we are still questioning our value proposition. It is a constant mental challenge for us, as we ask what business our customers are going to be in. One change has been becoming friends with Salesforce and companies like that.
5G is now being rolled out and one of the topics that we hear about is 5G opening up the enterprise market for operators? Do you think we might see more vertical marketing of 5G in the coming months – 5G in Engineering, 5G in Education etc.?
I think that is possible. The hype around the potentially wonderful experience of 5G in a stadium, for example, no-one cares – for now. I think what will make 5G take off is the more mundane but more important issues it can address. 5G can allow your buildings to use less electricity, or route a city’s traffic better, or garner political will for smart hospitals. Those are important, even if they are about being effective rather than exciting. Cool gaming will follow but it won’t lead.
What about MWC this year, what are the things that you think we will see?
I think there will be an emphasis on the digitally engaged operator and on operators supporting a B-B-X model, where they embrace a wider community, a business partner model and an ecosystem provider. They will major on being an enterprise supporter, a private network provider, as well as some industrial IoT applications. There is also a shift towards the ‘I don’t need a billing system’ idea. A shift towards, ‘I need AI, community chat rooms, Salesforce CRM systems to support our emerging business needs’.
But let’s face it there will still be drones flying around because, well, people love flying drones.
What about the next 5 years? We get 5G right or are we looking forward to 6G?
So, in 2021 5G will light up and there will be the start of a big cycle of innovation. Lots of operators will become service bureaux. They will have to realise that having 10,000 service providers using your platform is a better bet than owning several. The days of wanting to own media companies is basically over.
There will be quiet revolution, kick-started by healthcare, then possibly financial services and then cool consumer stuff will follow.
What is critical is that we need 5G done well. If we can do that, it will be a big catalyst for the so called 4th industrial revolution. Healthcare will be big, and green issues and efficiencies will be key. Security will be a big driver too, the fear sale about having to have 10,000 different passwords and so on. This can be fixed.
And in the next few years presumably there will be no keyboards.
I think that will be one of the things that disappears quickly – and quietly. A keyboard will just be less of a ‘thing’. I am not sure I will be talking to my oven but I talk to my Google device, while I am cooking, to play what my son calls ‘old man’s music’. That kind of ‘faux’ AI will become more engaging over the next two to three years.
One of things that has worked for us is that we have avoided consolidation and the inertia and restructuring that comes with it and so we have concentrated on constant forward thinking and this has helped us get customers such as AT&T, Vodafone, NTT, O2 and many more.
So the big question for us on our birthday is ‘can we still articulate our value proposition to our partners and customers?’ The answer has certainly been yes in the last year or so.
There has been some talk recently about a tech bubble not just forming but bursting – do you see that?
I think there is some truth in it but I think it is a result of creative disruption rather than anything else. There are start-ups who are two years’ old that will fall by the wayside (and, in truth, ‘walk my dog’ robots were never going to catch on) but there will be more, a lot more, that take their place and these will be funded by the people who let the older ones go.
The big guys have some difficult decisions to make too. I think people like Cisco are being very smart and positioning themselves as inventing the future. Let’s hope others follow suit.
Niall, thank you for taking the time to catch up, it has been a pleasure – and Happy Birthday again!
It was good to talk to you and let’s talk in the next 20 years.