Telefónica has unveiled a mobile app for making voice calls and sending text messages using mobile data allowances.
The free download is named TU Me and will initially be available to iPhone users, with an Android version to follow.
As well as calls or texts, the app enables users to leave voice messages and share photos, with any communications stored in the cloud accessible via mobile or any device with an internet connection at a later date.
The app will be available in the UK as part of bundles from O2 – owned by Telefónica – in the next few months, but will remain available to any smartphone user on any network free of charge.
The launch comes at a time when mobile operators are feeling the pressure from free communication services such as Skype and FaceTime that enable users to bypass the network.
Many expressed concerns about the issue at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, but few had come up with options to combat the swarm of services being made available to their customers.
TU Me puts all your communications needs into one place, for free, and is a great way for people to stay in touch
Stephen Shurrock, chief commercial officer, Telefónica
Telefónica hopes users will take advantage of the similar capabilities TU Me offers while using their mobile data allowance, bringing them back onto its network and hopefully helping claw back some revenue.
For customers who don’t want to eat up their data allowances, the service can also be used over Wi-Fi.
“We’ve seen the growing popularity of communications apps on smartphones, but we believe we’ve gone one better with TU Me, using our knowledge and insights of how people use their devices,” said Stephen Shurrock, chief commercial officer at Telefónica.
“TU Me puts all your communications needs into one place, for free, and is a great way for people to stay in touch,” he said.
Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca, told Computer weekly the launch showed the “writing is on the wall” for traditional pay-per-minute calling.
“While voice calling and text messaging are still growing, the revenues and margins they bring are in decline. Nothing will stop this, so operators have to change their offer,” he said.
Competition from web apps
But will the operators be able to compete with the raft of more established apps out there that provide the same service?
Paolo Pescatore, director of apps and media at CCS Insight, said this was a long-term play, but “the chances of success are small”.
“People are already gravitating to services such as Skype and WhatsApp that they are accustomed to using on the web,” he said.
The chances of success are small. People are already gravitating to services such as Skype and WhatsApp on the web
Paolo Pescatore, director of apps and media, CCS Insight
Pescatore applauded Telefónica for attempting to compete with these services, but he said strong marketing investment was needed to raise awareness of the service and questioned whether users could be convinced to shift from a service they already use and are familiar with.
He also questioned whether it would be "too late" by the time TU Me is rolled out to every platform, not just iOS and Android handsets.
“The questions users will be asking are, 'is it free?', 'are my friends on it?' and, 'will it work for me?'. This is Telefonica’s challenge,” said Pescatore.