TEN years ago it wouldn't have made sense. Why would cellular network operators end up competing with enterprise software vendors and service providers?
The fact that exactly this type of competition is under way is surprising to some, even in today's world. Cellular networks are increasingly utilitarian in mature markets, after all.
But the slicker players have realised that their role could be more diverse, and the returns experienced in 2009 have shown that they may not have very exciting futures unless they find new revenue streams.
The reason that they are well positioned for competition against enterprise technology vendors is because the cellphone has become so much more than just a phone. Not only has it replaced just about every other conceivable pocket-sized gadget, like cameras and MP3 players, but it is steadily becoming the centre of our computing universes.
At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week I encountered many new phones with 1GHz processing speeds and solid state hard drives with capacities of 32GB. You wouldn't have to go very far back in time to find desktop computers with less technical muscle.
I was also privy to a test by Ericsson that pushed LTE (Long Term Evolution - the leading 4G cellular technology) data throughput speeds to 1Gbps, roughly 250 times faster than the fastest ADSL connection available in South Africa.
And then there's cloud computing which enables massive and complex processing to be done by servers on the internet, allowing even a simple cellphone with a WAP browser to act as a portal onto really powerful applications.
Put that all together and only a fool would argue (and has) that the cellphone will not replace other computers to a large degree, and soon.
Back to the competition between cellular providers and technology vendors then.
It started with British cellular giant Vodafone and its Global Enterprise offering. Via this channel, Vodafone is offering managed mobile services for top 500 companies globally.
It makes perfect sense to deal with Vodafone and have it manage all your enterprise's mobile needs - including contracts, device management and provisioning, and other nitty gritty - instead of doing so yourself or relying on multiple third parties.
But now the company is starting to add additional managed services to its operations, slowly but surely gaining on the territory of other enterprise technology providers in the space.
In the future you could expect to get not only the cellphone, airtime and device management, but also email and other more sophisticated business applications in, for example, CRM and ERP, from Vodafone. It just makes sense.
Locally Telkom, MTN and Vodacom are beginning to tread on the toes of GijimaAST and other IT service providers, especially in the hosted services game where anyone with a datacentre is aiming for a slice of the sizeable pie emerging out of the downturn.
The operators that have astutely picked up on where things are going are gearing themselves to become the new business technology giants. It makes sense - the old guys modelled their businesses on those big clunky things on your desk. The next wave is inherently all about the powerful device in your pocket.
Their ability to compete in the space will depend, to a large degree, on how well they can run and leverage datacentres. This is something Telkom, MTN and Vodacom have good experience with and which makes it scary for other companies in the space that cannot combine their offerings with mobile connectivity solutions.