Posts Tagged ‘mobile’

Why Android won’t worry RIM and Apple

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

My US colleagues are regulars on John C Dvorak’s excellent Cranky Geeks and a highlight of the show. I was recently intrigued to hear the opinion from Vulture West Coast (in Episode 232) that RIM was toast, and Android would triumph. Now, bearing in mind that I’ve been wrong about mobile more than I’ve been wrong about anything else – quite epically and unheroically wrong – I beg to differ.

Apple will continue to rule the roost, dictating terms and charging eye-watering prices to punters. The punters will continue to be delighted with Apple, and will clamour for more; while BlackBerry has an ace up its sleeve – probably the biggest mobile sensation of the year.

When the crystal ball lies

But first things first. It’s sometimes useful to revisit why you’ve been wrong, because it can tell you a lot about the future.

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Rescuing Nokia's Ovi: a plan

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Ovi means door in Finnish

It must be frustrating to sketch out a long-term technology roadmap in great depth, and see it come to fruition… only to goof on your own execution. But to do so repeatedly – as Nokia has – points to something seriously wrong.

Nokia spent more than a decade preparing for Tuesday this week, when it finally launched its own worldwide, all-phones application store. It correctly anticipated a software market for smartphones back in the mid-1990s, when it was choosing the technology to fulfill this vision.

That was just one of the bets that came good. Leafing through old copies of WiReD magazine from the dot.com era, filled with gushing praise for Enron, Global Crossing, and er, Zippies, I was struck by the quality of the foresight in a cover feature about Nokia. (Have a look for yourself.) WAP didn’t work out, but I was struck by particularly Leningrad Cowboy Mato Valtonen’s assessment that “mobile is the Internet with billing built in”.

“The managers responsible for putting together the Ovi Store should be put on Nokia’s naughty step – and left there for the Finnish winter”

And so Nokia has been encouraging users to download applications for users. My ancient 6310i wants me to download applications. Every Nokia since has wanted me to, too. Seven years ago, the first Series 60 phone (the 7650) put the Apps client on the top level menu, next to Contacts and Messaging.

The problem is today, it’s Apple and BlackBerry who have the thriving third party smartphone software markets. For six months, punters have been bombarded with iPhone ads showing what you can do with third-party apps. And yes, it’s like Palm all over again, but they’re very effective. So if Apple’s store is the model, then what on earth is Ovi?
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Apple and the Gentlemen from the Networks (or, why it pays to turn up Really, Really Late)

Friday, March 20th, 2009

the iPhoneThis week Apple threw the kitchen sink at its iPhone/Touch software stack, removing most of the most irritating nuisances at a stroke. It’s a stunning achievement.

So Apple now finds itself where everyone else in the mobile handset business wanted to be 15 years ago. Large companies full of clever people devoted years of planning and expenditure to fail to get here. If the iPhone continues to flourish (see below for the many obstacles en route) – then both rival manufacturers and the networks have to tear up some long established strategies.

For the established handset competition, if Apple takes the lucrative high end, that leaves them scrambling around for gimmicks in a cutthroat market that’s increasingly low margin. For the networks, they’ll need to find devices that people actually want – or pray that Apple drops its carrier exclusivity policy and partners with any network that wants to sell its gear.

So how did someone with no track record in a notoriously difficult business find itself walking away with the laurels? What can explain this paradox?

For Apple, coming late to the phone business has actually been a huge advantage. The success of the iPhone is down not just to great engineering, but profiting from several years of desperate and outright stupid behaviour by the mobile phone networks, who set the terms for the manufacturers. The received wisdom of the industry – that you had to know the wiles of the mobile networks to succeed – turned out to be completely mistaken. And to explain this we find another paradox, which looks like this.

The mobile phone business is actually the most “customer friendly” or “customer responsive” in the world. This might seem a strange thing to say. Have a read of Brendon McLean’s splendid rant from two years ago – Why we hate the modern mobile phone, for a summary of customer unfriendly business. But it’s true.

That’s because the customer isn’t you or me, or the billion and a half other phone users in the world. Phone manufacturers have only 800 customers, of which only around 200 really matter: these are the gentlemen from the networks.

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Rob Lewis on MusicStation

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

MusicStation, the service that aims to give unlimited mobile access to music worldwide for a small weekly fee, finally went live today.

The success of the venture, from British start-up Omnifone, will tell us a lot about whether punters are prepared to pay for digital music, rather than scoop it up for free. MusicStation is a Rhapsody-like service customised for mobiles: there are no extra data charges over the £1.99 weekly subscription, which goes on your mobile bill, and “file sharing” is encouraged – at least with other MusicStation users.

Omnifone has signed up the big four labels, made inroads into the indie sector, and has 30 carriers around the world. Today sees Norwegian-based Telenor, with 80 million subscribers, push MusicStation out first.

Founder and CEO Rob Lewis said the aim was simply giving people a service they can’t do legitimately today:

“Customers are forced to do this illegally now. We’re trying to give very easy access that’s intuitive, doesn’t need credit cards or wires, so they can discover and recommend music among themselves,” he said. “And artists get paid.”
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Why we hate the modern mobile phone

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

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Brendon McLean wrote to me with such a succinct summary of mobile phone angst, I invited him to elaborate. Read the result, How the mobile phone biz lost the plot, here.

Can Big Telco do Perestroika?

Friday, March 30th, 2007

While the CTIA Wireless jamboree took place in Florida this week, European telcos were drawn in a huddle in London at one of the most intriguing events of the telecoms calendar.

The theme at STL’s twice-yearly Telco 2.0 Brainstorm is familiar: “How to making money in an IP-based world”. But it has an added piquancy now.

And there’s plenty at stake. The part of AT&T formerly known as Cingular, the cellular division, makes more revenue than Google and Intel combined each quarter. But as with all mobile network operators, it’s been made from a large, vertically integrated operation, and a fiercely-protected, closed network. The rise of the Internet Protocol stack (IP) changes all that.

IP evangelists can be pretty scathing: IP will destroy the Soviet model; their “Net heads” will triumph over “Bell heads”. At stake, they say, is a battle which pits innovation versus atrophy. Unlike the open internet, telecomms provide a barrier to fledgling service providers or application developers. There’s no common API, and the service companies need to beg permission.

But there are other ways of looking at it.

Mobile telephony – at least in Europe and Asia – is the most successful application of technology since the combustion engine. It’s affordable to the poorest, but it feeds the id of the wealthiest fashion victims. Take up is almost 100 per cent – while internet adoption is stubbornly stalled at around 60 to 70 per cent of the Western population, and is seen as little more than a platform for games in much of the world. While mobile operators take a tax from almost all of us, very few of us (outside the US, at least) seem to resent this. And it’s perceived as reliable. Rich or poor, drunk or sober – when you push a button, the call gets through. When you send a message, you know it gets delivered. Imagine if that simplicity and efficiency was applied to your local tax rebate bureaucracy – or the financial services industry. And mobile telephony gets cheaper and better every year.

Yet this success story is under direct attack from a very American model of how business should work. This is a model which values abstractions over outcome.

To give you an example of what I mean, this week, I heard more than one person seriously endorse the idea that mobile phones should have two ‘send buttons’ (that’s the green button ‘call’ on every handset) so we could engage in “dynamic differential pricing”. This would delight American economists, but I found myself thinking how I could explain this innovation to a new user down the pub.
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Pot, dial kettle: Closed Skype wants open networks

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

eBay’s proprietary VoIP service Skype wants the Federal Communications Commission to change its rules on how cellular networks operate.

It’s demanding that the US regulator extend a 1968 legal decision, which permitted any device to be attached to the AT&T network, to apply to mobile operators. It also wants a new industry body to decide the standards for the networks, and ensure they comply: effectively bypassing the 3GPP (http://www.3gpp.org/), 3GPP2 (http://www.3gpp2.org/) and IETF standards bodies.

“After you”, the operators may well say.

For Skype is a closed system itself, using a proprietary signalling protocol, in contrast to the open SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) family of industry standards. In addition, the Skype client is closed proprietary software – in contrast to the software libre WengoPhone (http://www.openwengo.org/) project, and in contrast to much of the core infrastructure used by VoIP service providers, which is often based on Asterisk (http://www.asterisk.org/), which is available under GPL.

But is the claim justified?
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Unlimited mobile music for £1.99 a week

Monday, February 12th, 2007

In what may prove to be the most far-reaching digital music launch since iTunes, Omnifone today took the wraps off its MusicStation service.

The service gives mobile phone users access to the big four labels’ music catalogs on-demand for £1.99 (€2.99) a week, using a player that runs on mid-range feature phones and GPRS or EDGE networks, as well as high-end 3G phones – which Omnifone reckons gives it access to 70 per cent of the world’s phone users. Indie content will follow, it’s expected, as the indies are in the process of setting up their one-stop licensing arm Merlin, announced earlier this month.

As well as signing up the major four labels – UMG, Sony-BMG, Warner Music and EMI – Omnifone has inked deals with 23 network operators across the globe for MusicStation. The first of these rollouts – Telenor in Scandinavia and Vodafone’s Vodacom in South Africa – are confirmed for launch in Q2, with many of the others following in Q3.

In addition to the mobile-only service, a PC and Mac version of the MusicStation client will be available as part of a premium service costing £2.99 (€3.99) a week. With each plan, there will be no data charges.

Users will be able to receive share playlists, create personalized charts, and receive information about artists, concerts and promotions in the MusicStation player.

Omnifone, then offers a full-on challenge not only to Apple’s iTunes, but quite probably to MySpace too.

“Selling music is a legacy business,” CEO Rob Lewis told us. Lewis believes per-unit pricing is dead and the winners will be companies who offer the best subscription services.

He also believes MusicStation’s willingness to partner with carriers casts the Apple’s iPhone announce in a new light. Cingular agreed to Apple’s terms and disabled over-the-air music downloads to the iPhone – granting Apple exclusivity over acquiring content for the device, which must either be ripped from a CD or else be purchased through Apple’s own iTunes store. Verizon had balked at similar terms.

“iPhone is not good for operators,” Lewis said. “MusicStation is an all you can eat iTunes you can access from the bus, or anywhere.”

Partnering with the operators also gives Omnifone a global roll-out that PC-based companies can only envy, another contrast with Apple’s country-by-country exclusive world tour. Apple launched the US version of the iTunes store in spring 2003, with the UK following in summer of 2004, and Japan more than two years after the original launch. Lewis notes that in each market, 50 per cent of the catalog is local, something ignored by rivals.

So you can see why networks are keen on the start-up: all the music is sent over the networks directly to the phone. But what does it do for us?
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The mobile web: 2.0 into one doesn't go

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Hoping some Californian magic pixie dust might fall upon the sleepy world of telephony, the Symbian Smartphone Show organisers devoted an afternoon of presentations to the topic of “Social Media”. Would Web 2.0 make it to the phone?

It had a bit of your Dad at the Disco about it, and even Symbian’s no-nonsense research VP, David Wood, had been caught up in the excitement.

In his briefing notes, David posited that “in Web 2.0, the network itself has intelligence, rather than just being a bit-pipe for pre-cooked information”. When previously rational people start to attribute agency and purpose to inanimate objects, it’s a warning sign – as my lampshade reminded me this morning.

In the end, we didn’t get the culture clash we expected, and by the end of the afternoon it seemed apparent that the mobile world needed “Web 2.0″ quite a lot less than the Californian web cultists needed to go mobile.

And as the clock-ticked towards 5pm – hometime! – a rare consensus appeared to emerge: network integrity and security should not be compromised by script kiddies who’d just discovered the CPAN Perl archive; most ‘user generated content’ wasn’t going to interest anyone; a blanket of pervasive HSDPA-speed 3G beats looking for an insecure Wi-Fi hotspot; and PCs were dumb, because you didn’t have them with you, and they didn’t know where they were.

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Whatever happened to… the smartphone?

Friday, July 21st, 2006

At one time, the future of mobiles looked simple. The smartphone was a new kind of gadget that was subsuming the pager, the camera, the PDA, the Walkman, and almost every other iece of technology you could carry – and offering it in volume at an irresistible price. Often free. Over time, every phone would become a smartphone.

Expectations were sky high.

A few years ago an American business consultant and author published a very silly book called ‘Smart Mobs‘ – which even predicted that phone-toting nerds would be at the vanguard of social upheaval.

But something funny happened on the way to this digital nirvana. Perhaps the signs were there from the start: ‘Smart Mobs‘ couldn’t find a UK publisher. A website of the same name continues, however, apparently staffed by volunteers, and making its ghostly way across the web like a latter day Marie Celeste. Alas the site still has a category called “How To Recognize The Future When It Lands On You.

And earlier this year the best known smartphone blogger hung up his pen.

So what went wrong?

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