Telefónica may have ditched its free messaging app, but Orange has big plans for Libon

Telefónica(s tef) may have axed its Tu Me free messaging app, but that doesn’t mean other mobile carriers who have been dipping their toes into the so-called “over-the-top” space are pulling out.
Indeed, Orange(s oran) has just told me that its own free messaging app, Libon, may soon be integrated into the offerings of rival operators through some clever maneuvers. Here’s how a free app could lead to revenues for a traditional telco.

Going over

Over-the-top (OTT) apps such as WhatsApp and Skype(s msft) are eating the carriers’ lunch, using data service to replace operators’ lucrative voice-and-text services. With regulators set to ban outright throttling, the carriers are trying to fight back by offering new rival platforms that are similar to those third-party OTT rivals — even to the extent of letting anyone use it, regardless of their carrier.
There’s the slow-moving cross-carrier effort Joyn, which involves most major operators, and also certain operator-specific platforms: Telefónica had Tu Me, T-Mobile USA has Bobsled and Orange has Libon.
Here’s how Giles Corbett, head of the Libon platform, reacted to the news of Tu Me’s closure when I asked:

“It didn’t come as any big surprise when the announcement was made. We’d seen the signs for some time and I think they were down to some decisions Telefónica took a while ago… in terms of an offering there was simply no link or integration with anything any of the Telefónica carriers were doing.”

This is true, although Telefónica does also have a deeply integrated app called Tu Go — it extends the handset’s functionality to the desktop and tablet; it’s offered by Telefónica’s O2 brand; and it was for the benefit of this handy app’s development that Telefónica abandoned Tu Me.
Orange’s Libon, on the other hand, is both a straightforward free OTT app and something that can be integrated into a specific Orange operator’s strategy. Customers of Orange’s low-cost French carrier Sosh, for example, can select a cheap tariff that lets them make free international calls to landlines and mobiles through the Libon app. According to Corbett, similar deals will show up through Orange operators in Poland and Romania this fall, and in Slovakia, Belgium, Tunisia and Egypt by the end of the year.

Hedging bets

One thing that’s always bothered me about the carrier-specific platforms – aside from my general skepticism that operators can tempt users back from WhatsApp and Viber onto their own services – is the fact that they do pretty much what Joyn does. However, what Orange has done is to effectively bake the Joyn technology into Libon. It has one team covering both initiatives.
As I mentioned above, Joyn is spreading pretty slowly (Orange itself has gone live with Joyn in Spain and France and is aiming for half a dozen countries by the end of this year), but in a sense it doesn’t matter whether the broader initiative takes off or not. Libon’s dual nature – a potential Joyn front-end and a platform in its own right – has turned it into both a handy tool for use within the Orange group and a key to partnerships with other, non-Orange operators.
We won’t see this come to pass until next year at least, but here’s how Corbett described what Orange is working towards:

“We have now decided that Libon is open for business to work with other friendly operators. We’re in discussions with operators in Asia and the Middle East to help them roll out Sosh-like offerings and also with a view to later move to Joyn. Through this telco integration, Libon is actually big business for Orange.
“It may well be, if Joyn succeeds and takes off everywhere, that Libon becomes a front-end for Joyn. In countries where Joyn fails to take off, Libon provides services in its own right.”

Of course, these plans depend on those other carriers signing on the dotted line, but Orange has already done the legwork around building Libon, so it may prove a tempting offer. And if that works out, then Orange may just have found a way to profit from all this new-fangled OTT malarkey.