Get the moving picture

Designers will profit from audio-visual trends in telecommunications, says Mike Exon. Who else can create dynamic branding for the big corporate players?

Source: Ofcom’s strategic review of Telecommunications Phase 2 (18/11/04)

In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless message over the Atlantic. One hundred years later and telecommunications have not only gone mobile, but are also going audio-visual. Enhanced moving images will soon be the new spoken word.

The fact that the future of telecoms is looking decidedly visual is exciting for the design sector, not just because of its pre-eminent understanding of integrating the image into communications, but also because design consultancies know how to conceive the future. Tie-ups between telecoms companies and branding groups are well cemented on the whole, but what’s interesting is that product designers and screen designers are now moving to the fore in this sector.

Telecoms groups like BT and O2 are facing up to the brave new world, with futuristic projects like Imagination’s Ker’ching (DW 18 November) and Oyster Partners’ on-line interface, both for BT’s retail operation. Then there is Lambie-Nairn’s brand guardianship of mobile brand O2, which is indicative of the enormous role screen specialists will play for the phone companies.

Lambie-Nairn executive creative director Gary Holt says telecoms technology has been converging, which spells a very different future for notions of identity.

‘The future of the identity is the pixel not the page, I can’t think of one brand that doesn’t manifest itself on the screen,’ he says.

When it comes to the future of handsets it is more and more about convergence, says Holt. It is becoming about designs that combine functionality and clearly involve audio-visual features.

‘There will be a point where the phone call I’m having with you will be free,’ he predicts. ‘It will be features like music, games and video content that will drive revenue for businesses in this sector. This will all become so normal it will just be second nature for us all,’ he adds.

Holt agrees that convergence around the screen will also create new rivalries. ‘A lot of people will be attacking this market. The MTVs and Apples of this world will certainly be looking at it. The challenge for designers is to create subliminal experiences through the screen, rather than just sticking up an ident. We did this for O2 using sequences of bubbles, not by putting a logotype on the screen of the handset.’

Changing technology has been transforming businesses since Marconi’s time, when the all-powerful electricity conglomerates like English Electric and later General Electric Company bought into the future technology lock, stock and barrel. Wireless Plastic Products (aka WPP) didn’t used to be a marketing conglomerate, after all. Could step change into TV be afoot in the telecoms sector?

Telecoms has become a murky place these days as technologies have fused. Businesses such as BT, Vodafone, O2 and Orange have inadvertently found themselves facing off against TV groups like NTL and Telewest, not to mention satellite behemoth Sky.

Now it would appear that the telcos – employers of some of the most significant design and marketing budgets in Britain – are committing to TV and video technologies too, not just through mobile handsets (3G) but through home video, for example.

Take BT, which dedicates £15m a year to marketing communications (including advertising) and runs four or five of the most substantial design rosters in the UK. Recent press reports have leaked news of a forthcoming video-on-demand service from the telecoms giant, which is codenamed Nevis.

According to the Financial Times, BT could stump up as much as £500m for video services next year, which would virtually amount to a full re-appraisal of its business model. It might have 20 million regular customers in the bag, but BT seems to realise that it certainly won’t be selling them phone lines in ten years’ time. Traditional telecommunications is such a ubiquitous service you can buy it from the corner shop, after all.

BT head of design David Mercer refuses to comment on the speculative reports, but confirms that product technology will play an increasingly important role for BT going forward.

Mercer’s concern is whether consultancies understand the pragmatics of just how mammoth organisations like BT evolve, not just commercially and technologically, but also bureaucratically.

Product designers will stand to benefit considerably if new-age communication devices and electronic entertainment products for home and pocket are produced for the mass market by the telecoms groups. And if reports are to be believed it’s not a question of if, but of when. The problem for the telcos now is deciding who they are, or more exactly, who they want to be for their customers in the future.

Ofcom Report

BT will not be broken up but given tougher regulations

business models of telcos being ‘eroded’ by switch to next generation networks

customer retail models still too ‘complex’

telecoms businesses quickly moving from voice call systems to Internet-based systems

competition in fixed-line market ‘remains fragile’

more customer product choice has also led to more ‘confusion’

Where next for telecoms?

• home video and screen content

• interactive TV

• handset technology

• high street and on-line retail

• broadband push

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