Verizon, AT&T court startups to keep innovation alive and thriving


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It's not surprising that innovative solutions are difficult to find amid the big Tier 1 wireless operators, which are laser focused on making sure their networks are running smoothly.  However, companies like AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) realize that innovation is necessary if they want to continue to thrive, especially now that their networks are all migrating to LTE and differentiation among operators is becoming more difficult to communicate to consumers.

That's why big operators such as Verizon and AT&T are actively pursuing startups and working with them to help their ideas become a reality. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, both operators' efforts to incubate startups was evident. For AT&T, the company's annual Developer Summit serves as a way to showcase its network of developers and help them figure out ways to make their apps successful.

Likewise, Verizon Wireless also uses CES as a forum for showcasing its solution partners via its booth on the show floor. I recently talked with Gopal Rajagopalan, executive director, new business ventures at Verizon Wireless, about what Verizon is doing to help app developers. "Many of these concepts are great, but they could be better when they leverage our assets," Rajagopalan said. "We constantly scout for innovation solutions," he noted,  adding that the company hosts different types of Innovation Days with the specific goal of attracting startups to join its umbrella of solutions. Rajagopalan added that location-based app firm Glympse, which recently joined Ford's AppLink ecosystem to offer its voice-enabled location sharing app via the Ford platform, was actually an early member of Verizon's innovation program. "We brought them into Innovation Days way before any other folks knew about them," he said.

Of course, Verizon does have bigger goals than just fostering innovation. One example of the way Verizon can use apps to further its business objectives is to tie them to the company's Precision Market Insight Group, which Verizon announced last year. Precision Market Insight collects information on millions of subscribers to help advertisers identify desired demographics. The program is offered as an opt-in option to its customers, and one of the first efforts is Verizon Selects, which analyzes mobile data activity to determine whether a customer fits within the audience profile the operator or its third-party marketer partners are trying to reach.

Rajagopalan gave an example of one application, called Nant, that could be used in conjunction with Precision Market Insight. Nant makes a sensory browser that recognizes objects that you can touch and feel and see. Verizon is collaborating with Nant to develop a solution where a consumer can go into a retail store, use the Nant browser to identify an object, such as a TV, and link to Precision Market Insight so that the maker of the TV can find out more information about the consumer and tailor its TV offer to that person. "They will know what type of person I am and with my consent, they could sense what I want and what I have been shopping for," Rajagopalan said. "This gives [the brand] the opportunity to close the transaction."

Frankly, this scenario reminds me a little of the high-pressure sales person that approaches you the minute you walk into a store and keeps pestering you with different types of products until you finally make a purchase and leave the store. Of course, in this scenario, I could always opt-out of the process.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting example of where mobile innovation is heading and the critical role that developers are playing in making these scenarios become a reality.--Sue