Saturday, September 30, 2006
With the exception of one of my analyst peers, the panellists were WiFi network vendors (Trapeze, Strix, Symbol & Meru), so it was a little unbalanced without representation from a next-gen cellular FMC specialist like a picocell, PBX-integrated software switch or low-power cellular carrier point of view.
Nevertheless, even among the panel, there was a fair amount of realism concerning both the technology and business model around dual-mode handset solutions. Yes, they're happening, but while there was a bit of debate about just how difficult is was to get the phones "right" (power, user interface, SMS etc), there was broad agreement that it was still early days.
Limitations on existing deployed WLAN networks' voice capabilities are common, although apparently a high percentage of businesses now insist on voice "future-proofing" with things like 802.11e on new installations. Channels for selling & supporting corporate FMC solutions of any flavour are also slow to evolve. (Those of you in the corporate space may remember how long the last roundof convergence - voice & data on the LAN - took to reach the market, much of which reflected the lack of a reseller base with combined skillsets)
There was also a measure of agreement that there still seems to be little clear driver for dual-mode in the enterprise besides controlling price of calls - an area where the cellular operators can respond, albeit painfully for them.
Personally, my view is that this will happen slowly through 2007 and 2008, but I'm not expecting a sudden mass shift in corporates towards dual-mode handsets until at least 2009. In the meantime, many corporate telecoms managers will call in their cellular sales reps, perhaps with a Nokia E-series or similar sitting on the desk in front of them, to use as a pricing lever.
"Oh, hello Mr Vodafone/Orange/O2.... have you seen one of these? Clever, isn't it? Got WiFi in it, I understand........ [pregnant pause]...... sorry, what was that you said? 30% discount, did you say? And free on-net calls? A customised roaming plan for my employees? How very kind of you to offer. A pleasure doing business with you. See you again in 6 months' time"
Put simply, it's much easier to use a chunky dual-mode phone as weapon to hit people over the head with, rather than use it than to phone them.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Step forward Portuguese airline TAP to claim your prize. I salute your incompetence, your rude & unhelpful staff, and your corporate disrespect for customer service.
As a frequent traveller, I know that an occupational hazard is overbooking. Rightly or wrongly, it happens, and when it does, I grit my teeth & remember this is why flights are sometimes relatively cheap.
But what I cannot deal with is checking in, catching a flight to a hub, narrowly making the connection to the second flight as it is boarding..... and then finding that my seat (for which I already hold a boarding pass & had checked in for 4 hours earlier) has been given to someone else. The next flight to the same destination being the next morning, 12 hours later....
... and the fact that its aircrew aren't interested in helping ("Ask the ground staff about transfers when you arrive, it's not my job"), its ground staff are intransigent ("The flight is full") and its customer (dis)service personnel aren't empowered to make decisions and rudely deny they have European-law mandated compensation forms ("write in to the PR department") make it even worse.
In fact, the only time its objectionable employees roused themselves to action was when I tried to take a photo of them, to aid identification in my subsequent complaints, summoning a security guard who claimed it was "prohibited" and ordered me to delete the photo (not of a secure area, but a transfer desk) but was unable to provide any reason why. I wish I'd emailed it to myself straight away.
An airline that has a policy of bumping transfer passengers (there were at least 2 others with me, plus I heard the same occurred on an earlier flight), deserves to go out of business. Quite frankly, whoever the chancer was, who'd wangled a last-minute standby in seat 17D, should have been told to disembark and spend the night in a hotel instead of me.
So, I'm posting this in the hope that I contribute, in some small way, to the future downfall of the company & its acquisition by an airline that runs a business, not a bureaucracy.
My advice: don't travel by TAP, especially on a transit flight via Lisbon.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Symbian & Brew are mobile-only, Linux will get there eventually but isn't always open to developers, all the other mobile "on device application" clients don't have much of a PC story.
But almost every browser has Flash, and increasing number of handsets have Flash Lite (eg many Symbian devices, plus also an increasing number of featurephones).
Now add in James Enck's blog comments about Adobe's interest in VoIP
And now add in 2 million Flash designers who could do cool things with an underlying easy-to-extend VoIP/SIP/IMS platform on both PCs and phones.
And finally, remember how many of the problems around FMC and new mobile services relate to complexities in user interface design.
Only remaining question..... are they going to be operator-centric, or "developer-neutral"?
As usual, I am struck by the ostrich-like viewpoint of many legacy mobile operators in insisting that IMS will be at the core of users' future interactive/online usage. I've heard assorted pitches describing interoperability of different operators' presence servers, or a video-sharing interoperability trial run by the GSMA with 57 participants. All of these conspicuously fail to talk about interoperation with other IM/presence/SIP domains, apart from maybe a fluffy cloud marked "other providers" on a chart, linked in to the ever-dodgy IPX pseudo-Internet concept.
Now, I reckon there's probably close on a billion SIP or SIP-like end-points out there already - VoIP, Internet IM devices and clients and so forth. Some are PC-based, some mobile-based, some as dedicated phones or ATAs. Sure, some are proprietary, but why not work on gateways rather than ignore them? This isn't "other", this is "vast majority".
At the moment, the GSMA and IMS-oriented operators are a "coalition of the losers" in terms of SIP deployment. The idea that joining up lots of services, each with zero subscribers, will somehow oust Yahoo, Microsoft, Vonage, Cisco, Skype etc is risible. Last time I checked my calculator, 57 x zero = zero.
Interestingly, I'm starting to see representatives of the operators' R&D departments start to talk a bit more sense. One speaker from a major carrier's lab talked about peer-to-peer SIP and the competition between "service" and "application". Another talked about lessons from Web 2.0, and how SIP could enable monetisation of "the long tail" of potential IMS/SIP applications, and foster the type of "perpetual beta" model seen on the web.
Just a pity that this dose of reality hasn't made it through to some of the IMS architecture and business development guys.....
I'll be pushing people to discuss this at next week's IMS Services Forum in London
Monday, September 25, 2006
....most relied on 3G, and assumed they'd be easily able to exploit it on an (almost) ubiquitous basis.
I don't think that assumption bears closer scrutiny:
- 3G outdoor coverage is getting better, but is still hardly ubiquitous. Many operators' rollout schedules are determined by the strict terms of their spectrum licence - and some are complying with the letter, but not the spirit of the law. So yes, notionally, there is "coverage"... but whether it will support real-world applications is another matter. How much capacity is actually available, either at the air interface, or the backhaul to the rest of the network?
- Backhaul, more generally, is an issue. Even in the well-engineered & genuinely aggresive bits of operator 3G-land, it's not uncommon to have a total backhaul availability of 4-6Mbit/s - not great if you've got lots of concurrent users in a confined area.
- Indoor 3G coverage is somewhere between patchy and non-existent. Until other operators start copying DoCoMo's great idea & citing in-building systems in their financial reports & KPIs, don't expect to sell applications people mostly tend to use at home, in the office, or in many retail or transportation environments. (Amusing side-note - one of the mobile TV trials found that the most popular place to watch was in the loo.... which is fine, until you realise it's at least 2 walls away from outdoor coverage)
- Just because someone has a 3G phone, don't assume they actually connect to a 3G network. I've written before about the (proactive on my part) struggle I had to get a 3G SIM to replace my 2G one. And recently, I switched off 3G on my main phone because of a network glitch, locking it to 2G. After 2 days, I realised I'd forgotten to switch back - I remembered when I saw the power meter hadn't moved. So I've left it on 2G most of the time, and my battery now lasts 3x longer between charges. On balance, losing always-on 3G services seems a small price to pay.
- Much of the world relies on prepay billing (between 50-80% of subscribers in most European countries, for example). This % rises among key target groups like teenagers. There are not many 3G prepay deals around, nor many 3G MVNOs. (Generally 3G phones are expensive & hence subsidised - but not many operators like to subsidise prepay phones as they risk them being "unlocked" and used with competitors' services). I certainly don't think I've seen 3G SIMs being sold separately anywhere - imagine the confusion that would ensue in those markets where people routinely buy phone+SIM separately, often from non-mobile specialist shops.
- Because most 3G phones are sold through operator-controlled channels, many have customised software stacks. As a 3rd-party application vendor, you cannot assume all Nokia XXXX or Motorola YYYY handsets have the same capabilities & functions. Some may be locked to 3rd-party applications, others may have custom music / video / security software. Sure, some high-end devices are sold "vanilla", but these are rare.
- Roaming. A separate set of nightmares I'm not going to expand on here - but I'm sure you get the idea.
None of the above will be fixed quickly. Indoor coverage, in particular, will still be lousy 5 years hence, in most countries.
Consequently, most 3G services will also need to work in 2.5G coverage. And in order to give a good user experience, you really ought to warn the customer to expect slower service, more latency and so on - especially if it flips to 2.5G in the middle of doing something. When my mobile video suddenly drops in quality, or my download slows (assuming handover works OK) - what did I get charged? Did something pop up on screen to keep me posted on what happened? Did the application recognise the shift and change streaming speed or codec?
Bottom line - do lots of testing, in lots of real-world places, and see if you'd be happy with the overall user experience working across both 3G and 2.5G....
Friday, September 22, 2006
My understanding is that the implementation of SIP on phones at present is haphazard, with performance (and conformance) highly variable. While there are some moves to harmonise this, it seems likely that this will pose problems for developers in the short term. This may give some operators a respite from the threat of competitive 3rd party applications exploiting "Naked SIP" - but may also hamper their own efforts to deploy new applications in advance of "full IMS" becoming a reality.
It's also driving a number of the competitive mobile app guys to use their own proprietary protocols instead, rather than SIP. Obviously Skype is the most apparent, but I've met others in the Mobile VoIP space that are also going that route. (This also has the benefit of avoiding any nonsense with operators' SIP proxies or SBCs playing silly games with external SIP sessions, I guess). Some others use their own SIP stack within their applications, irrespective of whether there's another one in the OS.
Bottom line is that "it's not that easy" (is it ever?) to develop SIP-based applications or services that will work across a broad range of phones.
Now, the other market where this occurs is Java, where there has been huge fragmentation in the implementation of J2ME on phones - different extensions, different access to the underlying phone capabilities, different performance and so on. There's already a cottage industry of companies like Tira Wireless that offer porting solutions, taking a lot of the work out of customising device-specific variants of software. Others do testing, or other tools to help.
It strikes me that there are quite a few opportunities for doing the same with SIP. At the very least, a company with a database or a simulation tool of different phones' SIP implementation would be valuable. A porting tool would be more difficult given the range of OS's, but it ought to be possible to go part of the way.
Obviously, it would be best to get a standard way of doing handset SIP - but I suspect that this is likely to be operator-centric if and when it occurs. In the meantime, the best solution might be to assume fragmentation will occur, and look as soon as possible at creating ways of easing the pain.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Let's not understand and embrace/extend innovation, or call it meaningful terms like "independent", let's sneer at it instead:
Off-deck / off-portal = "Our content is the centre of the universe. Why would people want to venture into nasty world outside the garden?"
Over-the-Top Applications = "How dare these nasty clever Internet people use the connections our customers pay for, to compete with our beautiful vertically-integrated & expensive services"
Terminal = "What do you mean that device has a 400MHz processor & can think for itself about how it wants to use the network? We grew up with mainframes & Class 5 switches, and frankly, we'd prefer all mobile phones, er terminals, still came with a green-screen"
Dumb Pipe = "I can't believe any of our customers would ever demand a plain-vanilla access service. And therefore I'm absolutely sure that in a market economy, nobody will ever want to supply them & meet that clear need".
There's a word for this, which starts with "B" and ends with "ollocks".
I've got seven primary communications identities (2 SIMs, fixed line, ISP, Yahoo, Google, Skype) and many more secondary ones. This is likely to increase, not decrease.
For a start, unless an operator offers me guaranteed "identity portability", I'm obviously not going to trust them to host all my various log-ins, as I don't want to lose anything when I churn. Customers aren't stupid - they know a lock-in policy when they see one. You can add "content portability", "email portability", "address book portability" and "payment portability" to that as well.
Secondly, I can't see any of these providers relinquishing control to the others. If I decide to forgo my SIM, and try & authenticate with O2 via Skype or Yahoo!, I'm not convinced I'd be able to. Or authenticate my T-Mobile phone via O2's network.
Bottom line - drop the the "one identity" Powerpoint bullet, and put it in the bin alongside "one device", "one address book" and so on.
Thought for today:
Over the past 30 years, what's been the cumulative value created in the technology industry, split by "de jure" agreed standards, and "de facto" proprietary ones? I reckon it's probably 50/50, when you include things like MS Windows, Cisco IOS, and assorted bits of IBM, DoCoMo, and other IPR.
The Internet has further strengthened this, with other de facto standards like Google for search, and Skype (arguably) for VoIP.
So... while we might not always like it, de facto standards work. Not always, and not perfectly, but they definitely create value & user benefit. Sure, alternatives might have been better - but they might also have taken 4 years longer to develop.
Now... mobile. As far as I can see, there's no way for de facto standards & solutions to evolveacross operators. There's no way for a Skype, or a YouTube, or a Hotmail or a Myspace to evolve, spanning 100's of millions of users internationally and spread virally.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
While a full list of events I'm attending is here (I'm at the Osney FMC event this week, and the Informa SIP one next week) , I want to draw particular attention to one of the more innovative conferences I've seen for a while - and one to which I can offer a discount to readers of this blog.
On 4-5 Oct I'm going to be 'analyst-in-residence' and a 'stimulus' speaker at a rather different IMS event in London - the IMS Services Industry Brainstorm . Note the "brainstorm".... it's not a typical ‘Death by Powerpoint’ conference, more of a sort of large-scale interactive roundtable-type event.
It's run by the same people that write IMS Insider and linked to their recent ‘Telco 2.0 Report’. While my report looks at the problems around getting IMS-capable end-user devices, this is focused more on the similarly thorny topic of "What IMS-enabled services will (really) make money for operators, and how to implement them?"
Other stimulus presenters at the event are from BT, Global Crossing, GSMA, KPN, LogicaCMG, Lucent, MultiServiceForum, Neuf Telecom, SFR, Siemens, SK Telecom, Swisscom, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, TeliaSonera, Vodafone & the UMTS Forum.
I'll be covering the Handset issue in depth in my own presentation. The overall brainstorm, though, is looking to re-define the wider commercial vision for IMS. The event is also co-located with the less-techy Telco 2.0 Industry Brainstorm, intended for the corporate strategists.
TO BOOK A PLACE: follow the links above, call + 44 (0) 207 864 9912, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Mention 'Disruptive Dean' and you can get a 10% discount off the price.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
This one's taken me a bit by surprise, as TI's guys are some pretty visionary FMC advocates whom I regularly bump into on the conference circuit.
But really, it's not about FMC. Even on the most optimistic forecasts, the majority of mobile customers will be non-FMC for at least the next 5 years, especially if like Italy they are in very pre-pay centric markets.
The thing that will determine the value of a mobile operator like TIM will be the boring, mundane cellular margins. Driven by voice tariffs, costs of customer acquisition & network build-out, and the whether increasing data revenues can outstrip falls elsewhere. Given that Italy is about to get MVNOs it's a fair bet that prices for the majority of users will come down precipitously, irrespective of FMC, mobile TV, premium SMS or any of the other niche services.
Therefore from an investment point of view, the core of TIM's valuation may well fall - so TI is taking a decision to offload it first, ideally to someone a bit more bullish/naive, or to be kind, someone who owns so much content they reckon they've got a better chance of foisting expensive mobile content on users who will be paying less for their phone calls.
In fact, one of my main pitches around FMC will be that it's biggest impact will not be on re-substitution of mobile by fixed/WLAN, but the impact of WLAN as a pricing lever, even if it's not used.
And while the leading fixed operators have already made the transition to an IP-centric future (especially Telecom Italia, which has had an IP & VoIP core network for years), mobile operators are only just starting. TI's fixed business plans have now built-in the threat from VoIP and "off-portal" services. Plus there's all sorts of opportunity for fixed assets deriving value from things like digital TV.... and, as BT has proven, you don't actually need to own a cellular network to offer FMC or MVNO services.
Put simply, the larger fixed operators have had 10 years to work out how to make money as providers of "smart pipes", while mobile operators are still utterly dependent on their vulnerable vertically-integrated access+service business models.
The question I would ask TI would be.... have you already agreed MVNO terms with TIM?
Monday, September 11, 2006
I'll have a guess that Apple might surprise everyone and NOT include music-playing functionality in the device. It'll be a basic phone with an ultra-cool iPod-inspired aesthetic.... but no iTunes. Why not go for the divergence angle, and sell people multiple devices with a common design theme?
I mean, designer brands don't usually feel the need to bundle multiple products into one.... "yeah, I'd like the converged Gucci ShirtWatch please, and the Paul Smith TrouserShades"
... plus it gets around all the possible problems with mobile operators worrying about cannibalisation of their music revenue streams....
OK, it's (probably) not going to happen, but the next-best thing appears to be multiple cross-sell / virtual services.
1) BT Fusion uses Voda's network as a platform for its MVNO in the UK
2) Voda ZuHause in Germany uses BT's fixed-line & number translation wholesale services.
3) ... and now Voda UK is going to become a customer for BT Wholesale's broadband ADSL
Certainly confounds the expectations that Voda has to acquire broadband service providers....
What next for the Newbury/Newgate "rivals", I wonder?
One thing I've noticed once again is how the Japanese operator reports the number of indoor FOMA 3G systems deployed. I think this is highly admirable, and points to the fact that the company views in-building coverage as "strategic" and not just something to be done on an ad-hoc basis for customers or particular locations in "special circumstances".
European and US investors should hold this up as an example of a much more useful & meaningful KPI & encourage other operators to follow suit. At present, they (and regulators) seem happy with the totally-pointless "% of population covered". As a stat, that's useless - as I've commented before, 99.9% of the population lives indoors (and uses 3G there), not outside.
To some extent, the exact nature of the indoor coverage is immaterial - picocells, distributed antennas, and so on - that's an engineering consideration based on capacity & usage projections. What matters is that 3G works where it's needed.
(On that subject.... I had problems with O2's 3G network in my part of London a week ago. Signal dropped, it didn't register my 3G SIM or hand over to 2G for some reason. So I switched my phone to 2G-only mode to see if that would work. Only remembered 4 days later, because I was surprised the battery life seemed to have doubled. I don't use videotelephony, and I have another device for email/web... so I've left it on 2G permanently now).
Saturday, September 09, 2006
The WirelessIntelligence group (a venture between the GSMA and my industry analyst peers at Ovum) have found announced we've hit the Cellular 2.5 Billion mark.
Nice to see they're using "connections" rather than "users" or "subscribers". It will be interesting to see which publications & commentators leap to the false assumption that all these terms are synonyms.
I'd love to see an uptodate figure of "unique active cellular device users", which excludes second/third SIMs, inactive users, SIMs in non-phone devices like gateway boxes etc.
I'd take a guess at around 1.7-1.9bn, depending on your definition of "active", and maybe how you treat phones which are shared amongst groups.
Friday, September 08, 2006
There was a smaller-than-usual crew of scorned UMA-acolytes pretending that all was fine - Kineto (obviously), plus a few other vendors. Nokia's representative did his best to give the company's usual grudging endorsement of the technology, essentially "It's OK for some operators, in some contexts", with the usual undertone of "...but we'd much rather you bought lots of IMS gear from us instead". Ericsson and Alcatel were pretty under-represented at the event, given their enthusiasm, while there was a conspicuous lack of lots of operators eagerly scribbling down the details of potential new dualmode FMC services.
There were some noteworthy things to come out of it, though. I've been saying for a while that UMA may get reincarnated as a more generic authentication technology, exploiting its stronger points around security, while avoiding the huge difficulties in creating phones. It was very notable that Kineto & others referred to embedding UMA agents within non-phone devices like terminal adapters and cellular pico/femtocells (tying in with a discussion I'd had with femtocell advocate Ubiquisys earlier this week). The big advantage of this is that these devices don't have user interfaces & lots of applications that need to be made "dual-mode" friendly. There was also an enterprise-centric pitch from NET, which I need to dig into a bit more, but which at first sight appears to only have a chance in a niche of a niche of a niche. Of course, none of these non-phone UMA widgets actually move in & out of cellular coverage, which underlies the irrelevance of the much-vaunted cellular-WiFi handoff bit of the technology.
On that theme, I've been leading a campaign against the term "Seamless" for about 3 years, insisting that "Seams are important" in networking, and that it's stupid to try & get rid of them.
So I was deeply impressed by a BT presentation, which as well as talking about Fusion, touched on IEEE 802.21 Media Independent Handover, and talked about "Intelligent Handover", wherein the applications, network & device take account of the properties of the different networks available to them and change their behaviour accordingly. So, instead of the application being "bearer agnostic", it is "bearer aware", and for example changes codecs, or alters the way that video is being transmitted, based on available bandwidth/latency/cost and so on. In other words, it starts to fix the biggest underlying flaw in both UMA and IMS philosophies.
The BT representative has also shown the operator has had another epiphany, and is trying out different types of mobility management in the lab - switching between WLAN, cellular, WiMAX etc based on either centralised control in the network (ie as UMA works now) or uses the device itself to monitor local network conditions (signal strength, congestion etc) and make decisions autonomously about how/which to connect to. At present, the demo setup uses a laptop rather than a phone to do this, but the solution should scale down to smartphones over time.
It strikes me as deeply ironic that it has taken a fixed operator to recognise the benefits of Moore's Law on the mobile device, and that instead of being a "dumb terminal", a handset actually possesses the ability to make network connectivity decisions based on its own local conditions, and the applications being used on it at the point in time.
The cellular community, on the other hand, remains ruled by the radio network & switching departments, which largely refuse to recognise that software and chips on the actual phone could have any useful input to controlling or defining a service. Which is why we have had a continued stream of network-derived innovations, which have fallen down when people have actually tried to implement them on phones & persuade people to use them (MMS, videotelephony, and IMS in the future). UMA itself is a very clever radio network solution, aimed at solving problems in the access network, but created without regard for the ultra-painful "collateral damage" involved in actually getting the user experience right.
It is also, no doubt, why the visionary 802.21 concept is coming from the IP community, rather than 3GPP, which remains mired in the wasteland of bearer-ignorant applications.