"It is possible this will be their last chance to see if they can play more of a role," said Pamela Clark-Dickson, an analyst at London's Informa Telecoms & Media research group. "The user experience is key, and if they don't get it right people won't use it."
The GSMA didn't say how operators will charge for Joyn — and how much. The carriers face an uphill battle denting the popularity of the free messaging services. WhatsApp chief executive officer Jan Koum told the mobile congress that its users are now sending more than 2 billion messages per day, up from 1 billion in October. The much smaller Pinger saw its users send 2 billion messages in January, up from 1.7 billion in December, Sipher said.
And he says the mobile operators should stay away from free messaging because "they aren't good at it and haven't done applications."
"The carriers should be smart, reliable pipes" providing Internet data access like utilities give reliable water and electricity, he said. "They need to focus on being good network operators."
Obermann said carriers are at a crucial point at which they must "develop our own, innovative product suites" through cooperation with the smaller messaging companies.
"The smart pipe will be one of the areas where (telecommunications companies) will show their innovation," he said.
His company's venture capital division, T-Venture, took a stake in Pinger last week just before the MWC conference began, announcing it would provide $7.5 million in venture capital to help Pinger grow internationally, especially in Europe.
For Sipher, it's a sign that some operators realize they need to work with messaging startups instead of against them.
"We're saying to the telecoms that we're here, we're big, and we're playing," Sipher said. "When's the last time a carrier introduced a successful application? That would be SMS and that's almost 15 years ago."
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