At first sight, it seems unwise. Most mPortals so far are run by mobile operators, while BT has no direct access to a mobile network in France. However, the advantages mobile operators enjoy should diminish; independent providers will earn the majority of mPortal revenues by 2005. Genie France may eventually do well, if it can provide cutting edge content.
Last week, BT launched its Genie wireless portal in the French market. The portal, which aims to be a single point for customers to access online content via PC, WAP, PDAs and ultimately interactive TV, was launched despite BT not having a wireless operation in France. Usually, major mPortals have been run by mobile phone operators, who configure the WAP devices connected to their networks to access their own portal by default.
While Genie has been successful in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, with a total of 2.8 million users, these are all markets in which BT owns mobile networks. In France, all three existing networks have their own mPortals. Although BT has an interest in second operator SFR, its majority owner Vivendi has its own joint portal with Vodafone, Vizzavi. SFR's WAP phones default there, excluding Genie from the SFR network.
The short run doesn't look great for Genie France. For the next couple of years, consumers are likely to use the services pre-programmed into their mobile devices, rather than going to the effort of finding external content sites and reprogramming their handset.
However, the long-run signs might be better. Datamonitor estimates independent portals will generate 55% of mContent revenues by 2005. The main impetus will be technology advances such as speech navigation, which will make it easier for consumers to access independent content. Many of the successful independents will be niche portals, for example those aimed at gamers. However, there is still room for broader portals, especially until mobile use reaches critical mass.
What will make or break Genie in France is whether the company can offer compelling content. It's possible: Genie offers free services to its users, supports SMS, tries to create a 'lifestyle' brand and has agreements in place with popular content providers such as AOL and Yahoo. If these pay off, the site could build a substantial user base. Launching Genie in France may actually be one of BT's wiser moves.