Orange Vallée’s Giles Corbett on OTT carrier services

Most people who follow the telecoms industry are aware of just how disruptive Over the Top (OTT) services can potentially be for carriers; whether Skype, WhatsApp, Netflix or any of the other myriad of options available for use now and in the future.

Giles Corbett, a man with a wide-experience in the mobile industry, was asked by the head of Orange Vallée – an exciting Skunkworks team at the operator – to advise, innovate, and implement a strategy to stay ahead of the OTT threat.

On their very first project, VoiceFeed, Corbett says: “It was to demonstrate we could take something as integrated with a network as voicemail and say ‘you know what? It’s rubbish and we’re just going to reinvent it’ ... and that’s what we did.”

He continues: “We created a voicemail service we could go and run on any network in the world – with or without the carrier’s approval. We actually launched in the US where Orange has absolutely nothing. This was a way to demonstrate to the committee what the OTT world was all about.”

It was very impressive in the way Corbett helped Orange understand the reasons why the network has to adapt, or risk being overrun by consumer-built OTT services which utilise provider’s core services.

Corbett talks about the user’s perspective: “VoiceFeed, from the consumer’s perspective, was a complete reinvention of voicemail. It started with an obvious insight, the person who calls me the most is my wife – yet each time the vocal message she receives is generic.”

He continues: “Why when my wife calls can’t she get something just for her? Why can’t she get something that tells her how much I love her and how much I hate the fact I can’t answer the phone right now, and how much I can’t wait to see her.”

Once again it was impressive the way Giles and his team solved what now seems a very obvious issue - in a very innovative way. Most people see voicemail as a necessary hindrance; yet with a bit of modernisation and personalisation - it can become both informative and less frustrating.

Going beyond the manual recording facility, Groups can be created along with ‘Voice Tags’ which tells the greeting system to automatically take, for example, a first name from your address book; so it could say: “Hi [First Name] I’ll be available for interview after Wednesday”.

Whilst quite obviously far more advanced, VoiceFeed had similarities to Apple’s Visual Voicemail built into iOS which is found on (some) supported operators. I wanted Corbett's thoughts on whether there was a danger of operating dystems - including Android and Windows Phone – baking similar functionality right in and utilising their user base to become a threat to OTT service developers.

Corbett explains: “Of all the operators in the UK, the only one which supported Visual Voicemail was O2. We had more of our VoiceFeed users from O2 than any other network. These guys had discovered Visual Voicemail, they understood it, and they wanted more.”

On experience with Apple he states: “In fact we were in Cupertino not long ago, they were saying ‘You can’t show this to the product guys, you’ll just embarrass them too much’ - simply for the fact they hadn’t latched on to the fact of doing this.”

Finally, on initial concept and development Corbett notes: “When you are really focused on something; you can really amaze people. Each time I had a new idea or feature and thought ‘But Google or Facebook or Apple could do it?’ I wouldn’t actually do anything at all...

... Instead I say, bring it on.”

Corbett has had plenty of background in mobile; CEO of game development firm In-Fusio, implementing the world’s first GSM WAP portal with Vivendi, and advisor for BBC Mobile. Through all this experience, I wanted to know the benefits of launching a service alongside an operator.

He says: “If we did this as an OTT such as WhatsApp there is no way you could bill users’ $5/month for anything; by combining telco marketing with an OTT approach and innovation, we can.”

A lot of people criticize whether an operator has room to truly innovate; a lot due to not wanting to take risks which could potentially harm their brand. Corbett's latest project ‘Libon’ was developed under the subsidiary Orange Vallée; but independent of its parent under the name of “Life is better on”.

I asked why Orange wanted the project so secretive, and whether it was for the best.

Corbett explains: “It was the type of innovation that the rest of the organisation could not touch with a barge pole. It wasn’t disruptive in the sense of ‘oh yeah, users are going to find this cool’ it was disruptive in the sense this will risk fundamentally undermining the existing business model.”

He continues: “When it came to the branding of the service itself, indeed, there was the question why do we call it ‘Libon’ rather than ‘Orange Communicator’? The reason was two-fold. Part of it was, I’m sure, a perception of the brand. This thing was yet unproven, it’s called Libon, if it screws up it doesn’t really matter.”

The second reason was even more interesting: “We need something we can rollout across the entire Orange footprint and iterate the entire time. We release a new version of Libon – on average – every three weeks. If we called this ‘Orange Communicator’ we’d have every product manager saying they need to review this version before you can release the next. That would have killed our speed.”

It was made clear Corbett and his team has helped prove to Orange the need to pay-attention to OTT services, I wanted to know if he thinks it’s now an integral part of the operator’s strategy.

“I think one thing that’s absolutely clear is that Orange now understands the seriousness of the threat of OTTs," he notes. "You could argue that whether we did Libon or not they would have reached that conclusion, but by doing Libon we actually enabled them to understand the nature of the threat earlier – which really helped protect their userbase.”

In market position, although I pushed Corbett for whether he thinks Orange is well-positioned as an innovative, adaptable network compared to rivals; all he would say is: “I’m doing my utmost best to make sure they are.”

Corbett made me share his passion for what he and his team have in the pipeline for Libon at the end of this year – even though he didn’t reveal their plans – just the pure enthusiasm was contagious. He’d only say: “The reason it’s so exciting is we will enable people to use Libon to communicate and chat with any of their contacts, wherever they are, whatever service they are on. It’s beautiful.”

The team will be releasing a beta version in the next few weeks - so watch this space.

What do you think about the future of carrier-driven OTT services such as Libon?

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