Sarin: Make mobile cheaper, easier

'Enormous' windfall up for grabs

BARCELONA, Spain -- The top executive at Vodafone issued a call to arms to fellow mobile carriers to make entertainment and Internet services cheaper and easier to use, lest such new service providers as Nokia, Google and Yahoo steal the business.

Speaking to journalists at the Mobile World Congress -- the world's largest annual cell phone industry confab -- Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin conceded that carriers have made their offerings too hard to use.

"That's the place we need to make the most amount of progress -- our job is for people not to see the complexity," he said.

Earlier, in a keynote address, he called on carriers to simplify pricing, noting that "we have lots of very complicated tariffs out there."

Sarin, whose $61 billion company has more than 250 million customers globally, said the mobile industry's future is tied to success in delivering mobile Internet services. He cautioned his fellow carriers, "If you get this wrong, the upside will still be enormous, but it won't be realized by us."

Flexing his muscles, he also warned new entrants including Google, Yahoo and Nokia -- a key handset supplier to Vodafone who now competes with them in services -- that "it's not as easy as people think it is to come into our very large industry."

Sarin said carriers have the expertise to reach what he said are now 3 billion cell phone users globally. It's that enormous market that has media, entertainment and advertising companies excited over the prospects for enormous growth on the "fourth screen."

Carriers' clunky services, combined with high and confusing pricing, has stymied progress and strained relations between the carriers and media firms. It's also led companies like Nokia, long satisfied to settle for the hardware business, to start competing with its own customers like Vodafone for service dollars.

On Monday, Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo described the handset giant's overarching services ambition, saying, "We are redefining the Internet itself." And such companies as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are equally eyeing the mobile services business.

Sarin said Vodafone will partner as well as compete with the entrants, but exactly how the partnerships work remain to be seen. As Cisco CEO John Chambers said in a keynote address following Sarin's, "Partnering is hard to do -- we try to protect what we got."

Sarin was skeptical about the chances that Vodafone will sell phones based on Google's Android operating system, which is built on the Linux operating system. He said he was concerned that an Android phone would tie users into a Google environment and that it would therefore be a "closed" system.

"There will be a Linux-based operating system out there," he said. "I don't know if it's Android. It will be one that's open."