Cherry, The Mobile Operator That Doesn't Care Whether You're On Wi-Fi Or Not

The chances of me being genuinely amazed at something I see a Belgian tech company achieve are rather slim. But occasionally, it happens. Last week I went to local entrepreneur meetup BetaGroup and saw five startups pitch their stuff to the 200-person audience.

The last one to get its five minutes of fame was Cherry, a new mobile operator that promised to “revolutionize the telecom world”. Needless to say, I was as curious as I was skeptical.

Then the company’s CEO got up on stage, introduced himself, took out his Nokia smartphone, called some random guy in the audience and had him call him back on his phone afterwards. Projecting his mobile phone screen on a bigger screen for everyone to see, he demonstrated how he didn’t need to launch an application and just browsed his contact list to call the other person. Standard functionality, sure, but the cool part of it was the fact that the phone was lacking the presence of a SIM card, which is supposed to identify you as a subscriber of a telephony service.

I was intrigued. By now you’ll have guessed that the calling was done over Wi-Fi, which I suppose isn’t really unique even if it made me wonder how they did it without launching a third-party app like Skype. Looking to learn more, I went to their official coming-out event the evening after, when they presented the newly founded company to a host of local geeks in more detail, giving them the chance to beta-test the service for a couple of weeks to iron out bugs before launching publicly.

Here’s how it works: Cherry – which is essentially an MVNO – pre-installs software (so yes, in the demo there was actually an application running in the background) on smartphones which it will sell as a packaged product, starting with a Symbian version for Nokia E-Series phones and expanding to other platforms later. Once activated, Cherry lets you call your contacts either over Wi-Fi or the GSM network when you insert a SIM card. Take out the card, and you can only call over a wireless Internet connection.

The funky part? Cherry automatically switches you from one to the other. This process, called a handover, can seriously cut into your current calling and roaming costs when you’re a frequent traveler or on the road often, and it doesn’t even require you to change numbers. You could easily dial your office number from your home over Wi-Fi, leave the house and have the software automatically have Cherry switch you over to a carrier’s cellular network once you’re out of range. There’s no interruption of service during the handover, which means you won’t even notice – until you receive your bill, since it’s obviously cheaper to call over Wi-Fi than the GSM network. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this automatic handover is a quite unique value proposition.

I did a short interview with Cherry CEO Bernard Noël De Burlin and Telco Service Manager aka mobile guru Davy Van De Moere after the event (apologies for the abrupt ending, my Flip’s batteries ran out of juice).

And just in case you don’t have a couple of minutes to watch the video, let me save you the trouble of asking: support for iPhone and Android are on the top of their list and a Windows Mobile-compatible version should be available soon.

(Full disclosure: the company gave me a Nokia E51 and free calling minutes so I could try out the service under normal circumstances on a daily basis. I need to return or pay for the phone end of August 2009.)