You can’t beat the (mobile) phone company

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Telekom Austria CEO Boris Nemsic paid a visit to Fortune yesterday afternoon. He’s a straight-talking engineer, originally from Sarajevo, who sports the only display of Don-Johnson-in-Miami-Vice scruff that I’ve ever seen on the CEO of a major corporation. (For some reason he shaved it for the photo that accompanies his official bio above; here’s what it looks like.)

Telekom Austria runs the fixed-line network in Austria, and is also the country’s leading mobile service provider (T-Mobile is No. 2). It also has major mobile operations in Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia. And Nemsic had some interesting things about the continuing attempts by everyone from Nokia to Yahoo to Microsoft to Google to bypass wireless operators and horn in on the mobile market.

“They’re missing the crucial thing that the relationship to the customers is ours,” he said. That is, it’s the operators that send out the bills, sell phones in their stores, and take the calls when something goes wrong.

A few years back, Nokia made a big push for users of its phones to sign up for Club Nokia, through which they’d get updates on Nokia products, chances to win swell prices, and access to customer support. That effort mostly fizzled, but now Nokia is again looking for ways to bypass wireless operators and build its brand among customers.

“Now they feel powerful again,” Nemsic said, then chuckled and held up his own Nokia N73. “The phones are really good.”

Nokia, he continued, “will always try” to get around the operators’ close relationship with customers. “So will Microsoft and Google. BlackBerry is maybe the only one that succeeded with this. But the BlackBerry business model may have peaked: It’s not normal to have a monopoly on push mail, because push mail is not rocket science.”

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