When loopt announced earlier this month that its friend-finding service is now available to Sprint mobile phone customers, Sprint was too busy branding itself with gloriously artsy TV commercials to notice that it had more important news to share.
According to loopt's press release – Sprint didn't even issue its own announcement -- loopt lets customers share and save their geographic locations, thereby answering what it calls the most common mobile question in the world: Where are you? Giving directions, finding appointments, or locating wayward kids might all be useful uses for the service.
But there's a nascent bright bulb buried in this news, and it was obscured by the glare of Sprint's branding.
There are many apps available on mobile phones, irrespective of carriers, and few people use more than a few of them. The ability to see a teeny-weeny map that notes if my friends are nearby could easily fall into that category of gee, that's sort of interesting but I'm not going to pay US$3/month for the privilege.
Think of what could come next, though.
Up to now, mobile carriers have focused exclusively on winning customers on the basis of services and, more often, pricing. Sure, each network cuts exclusive deals with hardware companies, like AT&T's recent launch of Apple's iPhone, but pretty much every service offers a lengthy menu of ultimately similar-looking devices.
Instead, companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint have elected to use branding and imagine in hopes of differentiating themselves from one another. If I recollect it right, Verizon is the network, AT&T is Your world. Delivered, and Sprint, with its obviously expensive, too-cool TV commercials and web design, is ahead.
Like I said, customer purchase decisions default to price. Mobile carriers stay mostly invisible after making the sale, other than when technical glitches require customers to wade through the barriers of customer service IVR, or those gibberish-rich monthly bills arrive. They're stunningly identical, save for the various ways they choose to waste money on disposable, irrelevant branding.
What if Sprint chose instead to use its customers as its differentiator?
Imagine each customer as a potential reviewer, analyst, recommender, or extended eyes and ears. Users might want to locate one another by geography in order to check traffic conditions, or maybe get tips on restaurant locations or wait times. A customer in a grocery store or Blockbuster could check for another one if a product was on the shelf.
Location might be by interest, so customers could ask one another for suggestions on food or hotels. Geography and interest could combine, so customers could discuss a concert they happened to attend, or track crowds at a museum show or lines at Disneyland.
Mobile carriers could develop specializations in various areas. One could strive to attract and maintain the best business services communities. Another might be the most kid-friendly or useful. Ratings and insights could be aggregated and improved, making one service truly different from another.
Customers would then select networks based on these qualities, which would sell new, additional services to them in support of their primary needs and interests. It sure would give those endless app menus a purpose.
I think loopt and other services like it represent only the start of such integration, such creation of communities out of carrier networks. I'm a little surprised that Sprint didn't even bother to mention it, although the news wasn't suited to YouTube sharing and the other useless endeavors that pass for viral branding these days.
You can bet that its latest, expensive branding campaign will run its course and disappear, only to be replaced by then next one, or surpassed in special effects, alternative music, or cryptic sloganeering by its competitors.
Perhaps the branding gurus at Sprint are even smarter than they let on? Maybe they're waiting…
...just like Sun used to say that the network is the computer, I wonder whether the bright bulbs at Sprint added loopt because the future for mobile is that the network is the community?