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Monday, October 30, 2006

GSMA verging on hypocrisy... methinks they do protest too much

The European arm of the GSM Association has put out a frankly risible press release this morning, bemoaning the increasing intervention from EU regulators in the mobile industry.

Quoth GSM Europe Chair chair Kaisu Karvala “This review should be about enabling European businesses to develop in an open and competitive environment which facilitates efficient businesses delivering innovative products at fair prices.”

Ah, so in other words, you're happy that oh-so-"innovative" products like basic GPRS/UMTS data roaming are at "fair prices" then? And that there should be no "premium" for terminating calls to a mobile, versus a fixed network, as you're so keen on promoting the notion of substitution and replacement? And you're disappointed that the European Commission is adding regulation in areas like wholesale SMS? Really?

Well, I'm sorry, but that's what you get for your members pursuing an ignorance-based pricing policy in so many areas, and resentment-based pricing in others. (See my earlier post here for the new way of classifying telecom tariffs)

But hang on, what's this at the bottom of the release?

"In general the Commission’s overall aim to increase flexibility and efficiency of spectrum is welcome. However, the demonstrable merits of harmonisation and prevention of interference under the current regime should be maintained. This means a cautious and evolutionary approach and a suitable transition period"

Ah, I see. So regulation's a bad thing, unless its removal is unfortunately threatening to let in those unpleasant WiMAX chaps to "your" promised 2.5GHz spectrum? Or release slices of spare GSM spectrum for new applications like low-power indoor coverage? But you'd still like the possible "flexibility" to refarm 900MHz for UMTS, perhaps?

And so if it was "demonstrable" to economically prove that value would be added by spectrum neutrality, with appropriate measures to prevent interfence, you'd also be happy, I take it?

I'm just looking forward to the post-consolidation fights where the "fixed" side of a newly-integrated operator wants 2.5GHz WiMAX, and the mobile side wants 2.5GHz UMTS.

Problems with Disruptive Analysis email last Friday evening

If any readers of this blog sent email to dean.bubley or other @disruptive-analysis.com email addresses between 7.30pm Friday 27th and 12 noon Saturday 28th (London time), please note that my hosting company had a major technical problem & your message may not have been received. Thanks.

Friday, October 27, 2006

PBX extension-to-cellular exploiting smartphones

Amid all the hoopla about dual-mode phones, both in the consumer & enterprise markets, it's easy to forget that there's also a parallel stream of work going on to integrate corporate telephony better with "plain old" mobile, especially where devices can accommodate an enterprise-centric software client.

Avaya's been talking up its mobile extension product for some time, which is available now on Symbian handsets, with a Windows version looking likely as well. And I noticed that Cisco acquired Orative yesterday for $31m, which has solutions for Symbian, BlackBerry and interestingly also Qualcomm's BREW. Furthermore, a briefing with BroadSoft (more focused on operator-hosted Centrex) highlighted its own client as well, and I just noticed from OnRelay's website that they did a deal with Siemens in the summer too.

The only downside with some of these solutions is that it may generate an extra call leg between handset & PBX - but given the increasing desperation of operators to win corporate business, that incremental cost is falling rapidly.

Add in the private cellular model emerging in the UK from players like PMN, and you get a picture of two converging world - albeit slowly - as PBXs and cellphones start to work together a bit more collaboratively.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Removal of prior post on BT Fusion

Analyst research is a funny game sometimes. Obviously, from time to time you have to be pretty critical - scathing, even. This doesn't make you too many friends among the targets of your comments, and it's not uncommon to have PR and marketing types out in force, to try & contradict your arguments. Equally obviously, you often have to dig around for information to make those criticisms in the first place, when often that data will have been well-shielded for that very reason. I, like most analysts, find a certain amount of satisfaction in exposing something that's been over-hyped from a piece of "hidden" data or commentary, and I'm pretty immune to suggestions that I tone down or change my conclusions.

Conversely, sometimes you encounter "hidden data" that is surprisingly positive, and leads you to be complimentary about something. Obviously, it's important to be aware of the unwritten rules about off-the-cuff private comments, and respect NDAs, but after a few years you develop a good radar for what can be considered "public domain".

In my experience it is unusual, therefore, to hear essentially the same data point, from two separate people, presenting at two separate public forums, and then use it as the basis for a positive conclusion.... and then to be phoned late in the evening by a very nice, but rather stressed, analyst relations lady requesting a retraction. Such is the case with my post from yesterday about BT Fusion and what I'd heard about recent growth in subscriber numbers.

So, given how strange it is to be asked to remove a "nice" comment, on the grounds that it is factually incorrect, in this case I have done so. I understand that neither commentator may have been privy to accurate details, and that there may have been some form of miscommunication somewhere along the line.

I guess we'll find out the actual data at its next results announcement. Apologies to anyone I've inconvenienced (I know the blog post was picked up by another telecom news site).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

T-Mobile US UMA. A trial. After a trial. Maybe a graceful exit?

So T-Mobile US is finally "launching" its "HotSpot @ Home" WiFi UMA service, as I mentioned 2 months back. Well, more accurately, it's trialling it again, this time in public, in a handful of areas near Seattle. The official website is here and some good commentary on it here.

Shame they also announced a trial back in January. "Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung devices currently in user trials" on Slide 11 here . Maybe they lost the first trial's results?

... or maybe it's a way to get something to show from their time, money & effort, before they quietly shelve it? According to the NY Times the firm "declined to say how long the trial in the Seattle area would continue, or on T-Mobile’s plans to introduce the service elsewhere"

And I love the spokeperson's comment that "a regular wireless router could be used, but added that “We don’t recommend that.”" . No, I bet you don't, as the inevitable support calls will drain even more cash. Maybe you should have used Bluetooth instead?

MSF GMI interoperability test for IMS and NGNs

I've just spent the morning up at BT's Adastral Park, formerly its Martlesham R&D campus, plus a few presentations yesterday afternoon at their HQ in London.

I'd been taken up there principally to look at the MSF's Global Interoperability test for NGNs, which is currently taking place. This is a major 2-week test hooking together 5 operators' new IMS/NGN networks (BT, Vodafone, Verizon, KT and NTT) with various vendors' kit to check a lot of the basic protocol stuff actually works, when different networks are bolted together. Basically it's IMS/NGN standards + a whole bunch of specific implementation details nailed down.

Basically - the main standards for IMS & other stuff can be a little "woolly" about specific details - different options, some things left up to specific vendor or operator interpretation and so on. MSF (The MultiService Forum) attempts to actually tighten some of this up - I'll write about them another time if I get a chance, but the bottom line is that in my view this is "necessary but not sufficient" to get IMS working in anger. While it certainly makes sure that I can place an IMS call from a device on BT's network to one on Voda's or NTT's, to some extent that's "table stakes" and just proves the basics work. I was a bit more impressed that they'd also managed to bridge a call between an IMS device and an Internet-resident SIP end-point, via the testing labs at the University of New Hampshire in the US.

However, what's not currently included in the MSF's remit is:

(a) any really conclusive attempts to bridge between IMS/NGN and Internet worlds, for example by inviting Google or Microsoft to take part in the tests, probably not with a real-world "MSF Spec" network, but with one which is a good real-world example of a large-scale, multi-application IP/Internet environment
(b) interoperability between operator NGN and enterprise IP network domains
(c) anything that relates to the access or device mechanisms, and how that may work with/around/against the network-level interoperability. Most of the testing is being done by engineers using laptops, rather than phones or anything in which a restricted user interface might apply. Clearly this was "out of scope" for the current project, but it would be nice to see MSF or another body try to work on the "end to end" interoperability of IMS/NGN from the user's perspective

Overall, very interesting. 5 major operators, and a bunch of major equipment vendors like Cisco and Nortel and Huawei. Notable absences were Nokia and Motorola, though.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

First UK low-power GSM + picocell service launches

The press release isn't yet up on their website (it has been emailed out), but Private Mobile Networks (aka Teleware) is the first - I believe - fully commercial service to launch, based around Ofcom's low-power UK spectrum auctioned off this May.

"Thirsk, North Yorkshire – 24th October 2006 – Private Mobile Networks Ltd, the UK provider of private GSM network technology, today announced the launch of PMN SIM cards. Utilising the spectrum allocated by Ofcom in May 2006, this solution provides an industry first enabling business users on a private mobile network to move, seamlessly, between the private and public GSM networks without having to make any changes to their mobile phone. "

I'm dashing around today so can't do a full write-up - but suffice to say I was pre-briefed on this and it seems to make an awful lot of sense at first sight. Basically, it should enable enterprises to act "as their own MVNO", providing employees with pseudo-private GSM networks for use while on-campus, hooked up to their landline private/VPN networks to make free "on net" calls between sites. No WiFi dual-mode phones needed, just a new SIM card.

The system also integrates mobile phones with existing PBXs and enterprise fixed-telephony applications. This much more sensible for most companies than the ridiculous "oh, you can host it all on our mobile centrex platform, just put your PBX in a skip" approach advocated by the cellular-only folk, who are scared of boxes marked Cisco, Avaya or Nortel, and who run around gibbering at the phrase "call centre".

Right, so of the other licencees, who's up next? Carphone Warehouse aka Opal aka Martin W-H has been very quiet of late.... surely BT & Colt will pull something out of the bag? Or maybe Pipex fancies using the (actually technology-neutral, not GSM-specific) spectrum to do something to improve the performance of indoor WiMAX.....

Friday, October 20, 2006

Germany - media regulation gone mad: a tax on PCs and mobiles?

I've just read this post at MobileBurn suggesting that the German government is to try and impose a levy of $7 a month on devices "capable of receiving TV programming or radio broadcasts", as a way of ensuring continued funding of state-run media stations.

Obviously, living in the UK, I also pay a TV licence annually to fund the beloved BBC. But the notion that just because a device has an IP connection and a decent screen, it is equivalent to a TV tuner.... and that (if I'm reading this correctly), the levy applies per PC/phone and not per-household is patently ludicrous. And given that this is only a couple of days after Symbian and Sling Media announced their "place-shift TV to the smartphone", this clearly has the possibility of creating all manner of problems for the communications industry if enacted.

At first sight, this legislation looks to me like something that probably won't survive the onslaught of pressure from industry groups - not to mention the practicalities. It does seem rather stupid that the government that raised the most money from 3G spectrum auctions might turn out to be the most keen to limit the migration from 2G phones by extra taxation.

I need to dig into this a bit more....

Technology analysts consolidate too: Datamonitor acquiring Ovum....

As an industry analyst, it makes sense for me to keep an eye on events in my own backyard of technology research firms, as well as the mobile industry. So it's fascinating for me to watch the offer this morning by Datamonitor for Ovum.

It's particularly interesting, because in 1991, I was employee #7 at Datamonitor, and was one of the first 2 analysts to write technology research there in 1992. I worked directly for the two founders, Mike Danson and Doug Wilson. (Mike is still there & remains the largest shareholder). Unlike Ovum, Datamonitor covers multiple industries and doesn't just focus research & consultancy on the tech sector - it has analysts watching everything from chocolate biscuits to cardiovascular drugs.

When I left in early 2000, I was one of the directors of the technology business unit - and at that time, we estimated internally that we'd just overtaken Ovum as the 3rd largest technology analyst firm in terms of European revenues, after Gartner and IDC. In fact, one of the strategies I'd been driving during the late 1990s was to specifically target Ovum's telecoms & IT specialism. (I'll also hold my hands up & confess to helping steer DM away from wireless & more towards IP networks & security). However, over time Datamonitor decided to relinquish much of the hardcore techy analyst domain to the specialists, and focus on leveraging its knowledge of other industries to provide vertical market information (IT in the banking industry, telecoms in the pharmaceutical sector and so on). Ovum itself went through a rough patch after then collapse of the bubble in 2001-2, but wasn't as geared into some of the fluffier dotcom areas as many of its US peers, so rode out the storm better.

In the big scheme of things, the combined DM/Ovum technology division is still a relative minnow on a global scale - Ovum has revenues about £18m per year, and I'll guess that about 20% of Datamonitor's £56m was in tech-related areas. So, a total of about £30m / $55m - against Gartner's $800m+ . Mind you, there are still quite a few other decent mid-size firms that could become targets if DM decides to really push towards a global tech analyst position (Yankee, Strategy Analytics, Pyramid, IDATE & Current Analysis spring to mind).

One of the challenges that Datamonitor is going to find is exactly how to blend (or perhaps keep separate) the different identities and cultures of Ovum, Datamonitor and Butler research. My perception is that the gap between them has widened a lot since my time at DM's "palatial" London offices. I suspect that quite a few customers of Ovum will be feeling a bit bemused by this move, as in recent years Datamonitor has had much less of a presence in areas like telecoms. In my view, Datamonitor is a very well-run company from a business & shareholder value point of view - but (certainly on the technology side) has not pushed quite as hard on intellectual thought-leadership and "brand name" industry guru positioning. When I was there, analysts weren't even individually named on reports. When I was at Datamonitor, there was also a real work-hard/play-hard culture, emulating the long hours, ruthless deadlines & bonus-oriented remuneration of some strategy consultancies and investment banks... I remember my boss' favourite line "So...how's your weekend looking?" with a mix of fondness & dread, as you could be certain he'd be in the office on Saturday too.

From a personal & wireless-centric point of view, this acquisition probably won't make any material difference to Disruptive Analysis. DM has never really played much in the mobile area, outside of a few bits on enterprise mobility, and I already compete with Ovum. On the other hand, I still know quite a few DM analysts, and regularly meet my Ovum peers at industry events, so I wish everyone well for the future.


Just seen this fantastic comment (not a direct quote I suspect) from Mike interviewed by CityWire, which to me rather sums up the difference between the DM philosophy (create templated business information products & sell the heck out of them) and more conventional tech analysts view (employ knowledgeable but sometimes prima-donnaesque gurus and monetise what they have to say, ideally communicating directly with clients wherever feasible).

"Ovum markets itself as a people-based adviser and consultancy, but Danson says that this is flannel to make it look posh. He argues that, in fact, its services are product-based."

Gartner, of course, tries to do both approaches simultaneously using a volatile mix of gurus and an aggressive salesforce)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Symbian Smartphone show...... a mixed bag

I find "smartphones" a bit of a conundrum to be honest. Personally, I quite like the idea of software extensibility in theory, but I simply cannot be bothered to think about buying, installing or using 3rd-party software. Sure, I try out bits & pieces of software for a "professional" point of view, and I watch other peoples' demos (eg the various VoIP clients recently), but I can't be persuaded to dedicate any time to the vast bulk of it.

I've used Symbian, Windows and Palm devices in the past, and don't have any particular preference or axe to grind. As my personal "data" device, I'm currently using a WinMob-powered T-Mobile MDA Vario, largely because Nokia was late to market with the E-Series and I wanted a QWERTY/WiFi device earlier in the year.

I don't think I'm unusual in this aversion to smartphone software, either. Apart from a small group of "device enthusiasts" I see no direct massmarket demand for installing 3rd-party software on phones, apart from the occasional game. I don't see any signs of young mobile users showing off capabilities they've newly installed, rather than the capability "it came out of the tin" with.

(Warning: I'll probably offend a lot of readers here). I have a nagging feeling that people who enthusiastically "pimp" their phones with aftermarket software are in a similar category to car modifiers.

Instead, I think smartphones are all about "what comes out of the tin". Smartness is there for the benefit of operators, manufacturers, enterprises and 3rd-party service providers, not for end users. Most people "take what they're given".

It would be different if there was fantastically-simple way of getting new software, similar to clicking on a link on a website & installing a browser plug-in (think Adobe Flash, or Skype or MSN or Yahoo Messengers), or via some AJAX-type mechanism. But this absolutely, positively has to work across 70%+ of handsets in a given country. Viral stuff on the web works because people tell all their friends & just assume they can access it - you don't say "oh, and you can only use this if you've got XYZ operating system".

So, I found the Symbian show an exercise in contradictions.

At one level, I think high-end OS's are essential for a lot of future operator / service provider usage cases. Development & installation of operator custom UIs and flagship applications, support for multi-tasking, future frameworks IMS applications (haha, maybe...) and so on. I think "good" WiFi handsets need a smart OS. Enterprises may want to install mobile versions of corporate applications, or VoIP/IP-PBX clients. As phones move to becoming "intelligent IP endpoints", I think a decent OS and UI platform becomes more important. Symbian will benefit from this trend, as will Microsoft and various types of Linux.

And, clearly, Symbian is doing a decent job here. A lot of the recent Nokia devices (especially E-Series and N-Series) are capable, with great pre-installed applications. Vodafone and Orange have shown commitment to the platform, as DoCoMo has done for years.

I had a long chat with the person in charge of the IP networking bit of Symbian OS, talking about SIP and other matters, and it looks like they're really thinking clearly about this - for example, how to deal with multiple SIP applications running concurrently. The company is also pitching the notion of "bearer mobility", enabling applications to understand what type of connectivity (WiFi, cellular etc) is being used, and act accordingly. In my view, this is absolutely critical, and not many people are yet talking about it - many in the industry still nod their heads to the ludicrous notion that "people don't care what network they're connected to, they just want seamless handover". Well, some people might not care in some instances, but applications certainly do. BT gets this, and now so does Symbian. And, interestingly, Symbian isn't putting a UMA protocol stack or other bits in the OS, but leaving it up to their licencees and underlying chipset guys to be bothered if they really want to.

All this is good, worthy, technical stuff. And there were some decent new phones from LG and Samsung, breaking the "only Nokia, DoCoMo & SonyEricsson make desirable Symbian devices" rule. And there were a lot of people from "the right players" around - Skype, Google, and even Microsoft.

But some of the top-level messaging from Symbian is cringe-worthy. Even leaving aside the nastiest branded "conference shoulder bags" I've ever seen, some of the output from the press conference left a sense of disconnection between the company and the real marketplace. There was no comment on IMS or FMC as key driving trends persuading operators to adopt smartphones, but instead a pitch which seems to focus on the user benefits of "smartness", when I have to believe that most existing Symbian users neither know, nor care, that their phone has a smart OS.

There was a frankly risible pitch about "the smartphone generation" and how young kids with smartphones in "leapfrog economies" would drive a trend that would replace PCs. Funny how the famously-advanced Korean kids seem perfectly happy with high-end featurephones, isn't it? Or how Japanese "smart OS" devices are locked-down to 3rd-party applications.

Hilariously, this point was made using statistics about smartphone usage from the same discredited Nokia/ICM survey I singled out as being nonsense earlier in the year. Even more amusingly, that survey was conducted among a base of PC users, as it was done via the web, not via phone.

There was another stat about an installed base (ie cumulative shipments) of about 80m Symbian devices. Personally, I'd be surprised if more than 50-60% were still in use (got an N-Gage? still use it?). And a prediction of 30% of phones having a smart OS in 5 years' time (with more than half of these sold in these mysterious "leapfrog economies").

During the PR conference, I asked the CEO Nigel Clifford what proportion of Symbian users were prepay subscribers, and if the company had a specific strategy to target that part of the marketplace, beyond just lowering handset costs. It appeared that I was the first person to ever highlight this rather important demographic split in the company's customer base. Important because prepay phones usually aren't subsidised, and because such customers often have different expectations about the types of software and services they use.

To be fair, Clifford also told me that the company would consider porting its OS to non-cellular platforms - in may view a critical factor if it wants to participate in FMC. Converged operators will support a mix of products & services based on cellular, WiFi-based, and wired (eg PCs, set-top boxes) connectivity, and will want some applications & services to run across multiple platforms.

Overall, I came away with the sense that Symbian will probably continue to grow in tandem with various emerging telecom/Internet trends - but in spite of its overall strategy and messaging, not because of it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Truphone.... redefining the mobile operator

Recently, I've been speaking to an awful lot of software firms who have "wireless VoIP" somewhere in their company description. Not that this is entirely new: softphone vendors targetting wireless PDAs and dual-mode phones have been around for ages - Cicero, Firsthand and so on. Then there's been the well-known migration of Skype towards handsets, as well as Nokia's own VoIP efforts on the E-series and other devices.

But most people would have noticed the sudden explosion of weirdly-named companies hoping to capture the Web 2.0 community spirit, coupling a device-side client to some sort of web-based server solution. Some use SIP, some use their own protocol. Fring, Jajah, Woize have all had their PR people in touch with me, and I'm aware of Mobiboo, Roq Viper and assorted others, most of which are just too embarassingly-monikered for me to talk to with a straight face.

But the company that I've encountered more "in the wild" than others has been Truphone, who seem to have been doing the rounds of conferences, exhibitions and assorted PR opportunities in an extremely assiduous fashion.

I have to confess that until yesterday I'd just thought "yeah, they're wireless VoIP supplier #37, whatever....". But then I had a rather interesting chat with their CTO at the Symbian show, where they had a stand, which rather opened my eyes.

I'd asked for a demo,and had one of their marketing guys call me via WiFi from a Nokia phone to my normal circuit-switched handset. No big deal, just standard VoWLAN via a SIP server, I thought (OK voice quality), until I looked at the caller ID... which was a mobile number starting in 07....

So, out of curiosity, I asked "what happens if I send an SMS to that number?".... and it worked. No cludged SMS-to-IM nonsense, it just works as SMS. Truphone apparently has an SMSC, and also manages to "hijack" the native Symbian/Nokia SMS client rather than needing a separate piece of software and in-box.

So far, so good. So, this is another weapon in the epic fight between the Virtuous Licenced Mobile Operators and Dastardly Upstart Over-the-Top VoIP providers, then?

No. There's a big difference, which really surprised me.

What, I wonder, do most people define as "a mobile operator"? A company owning spectrum? A company issuing SIM cards? A company with a network? Do MVNOs count?

How about this: a company with a mobile operator licence. But no spectrum. Nor MSCs, HLRs or all the rest of it. But with an approved (by Ofcom) tariff plan, and - get this - it's own mobile number range. Truphone is a not a VoIP company competing against mobile operators, it is a VoIP company that is a mobile operator in the eyes of the UK regulator.

Apparently, there's a whole bunch of bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through before this option is open to a new entrant. Apparently , the UK is a bit of a special case because of the regulatory regime. And apparently there's some interesting things this might mean in terms of regulatory precedents in the EU. And presumably as an "official" operator, there's all sorts of implications in terms of regulator-mandated requirements for interconnect, roaming etc. But I'll let someone else fill in the gaps.

(Note: although early Truphone users have got 07624 Isle-of-Man numbers - which apparently the ludicrous-sounding Mobiboo does as well - this isn't the whole story).

In the past, I've wondered whether it was important to have a dual-mode phone with two numbers - a normal mobile number and a fixed/SIP one. Various other FMC-type solutions like the various German cellular HomeZones also give you two numbers, fixed and cellular. Some enterprise "mobile extension" services try and "cloak" your employees' mobile handsets by just giving out a corporate fixed numbers (but SMS knocks this on the head).

But I think this is the first time someone's shown me a mobile with two mobile numbers provided by different operators. (OK, apart from some of the concepts Martin Wren-Hilton mentioned about Coffee Telecom, before he joined the estimable Mr Dunstone at CPW).

I'm still trying to get my head around where this puts Truphone on the overall mobile map. Perhaps the best way of thinking of it, is as an MVNO (which doesn't need a host MNO - ie "virtual" in the sense of no spectrum or infrastructure. But... when in range of WiFi... all the numbering & regulatory benefits of being a "real" operator.

Perhaps not so much "over the top" as "shortcut throught the middle".

(Commercial plug - I do a lot of work on consulting / advising firms around the FMC / VoIP / IMS space, although Truphone itself is not a current client. If this is of interest, please contact me)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Carphone Warehouse - independence is over-rated

I thought I'd add my tuppence-worth of opinion to the ongoing CPW / TalkTalk / Vodafone / etc debate. I don't normally talk much about the "sharp end" of mobile distribution to customers, preferring to focus on the strategic dynamics of technology upstream. But I think there's another angle to the current furore.

With the benefit of hindsight, it should have been obvious that retailers cannot effectively sell all operators' increasingly complex mobile and multi-play packages, especially if they compete with their own suppliers in some of these areas.

I believe that as products become more complex, and supplied by more companies, it becomes almost impossible to offer completely "independent advice" that is also truly competent. It's called "specialisation", and is typical in many areas. Many car dealers supply only one brand, or perhaps a handful from the same group. Consumer electronics shops do not stock every range of HiFi or TV. (Supermarkets don't count - fruit isn't "complex")

The only retail companies that can simultaneously represent hundreds of companies' similar products are the one that compare solely on price (eg insurance brokers, airline travel agents), and even these don't represent those firms that choose to sell direct or through "tied" channels (like EasyJet tickets or Direct Line policies). Not only that, but some brokers and agents specialise on particular segments (eg sports cars, holidays in Canada), representing only certain suppliers, but do not suffer from a perceived lack of "independence". The only counter-example I can think of are off-licences, where you can get advice on 300 types of wine (but what % of customers actually bother?)

As mobile communications become richer and more complex (more & differentiated services, triple/quadplay, advanced phones) it becomes difficult for a retailer to properly represent all operators and handset manufacturers. They do not necessarily have sufficiently-skilled staff - nor enough time with each customer - to enable a full demonstration & explanation to be given. Do I get better mobile TV, at better value, on a Nokia sold through Vodafone, or on a Motorola sold through Orange? Maybe I should I get two devices, one from each? And how does this change if I've got Sky or cable at home, or Orange Broadband, or a load of personal video content on YouTube? Can a retailer really give "independent" advice in that type of world?

It will be interesting to see if Voda helps Phones4U do "proper" demo's, similar to those in Voda's own stores, rather than relying on plastic handset mockups nailed to the wall. Maybe the underlying story is that "quality of point-of-sale systems" is more important than "number of retail stores".

Interestingly, I saw a reference in yesterday's Sunday Times that mentioned that Vodafone was impressed with the amount of "time per customer" Phones4U - 55minutes, conducting "a very detailed assessment of customer needs as part of the sales process", which seems to underscore the point.

(Well, maybe. When I sat in on a friend's Phones4U "assessment" much of it seemed to involve a hard-sell "Oh, I'll have to go & ask my manager about that" and ending up selling her some ridiculous tariff where she had to get a refund by submitting the 1st, 7th and 11th invoices...)

And the other angle is customer service, which is also inevitably going to become more complex in parallel with mobile products. Again, maybe specialism helps. OK, I'm not as vitriolic as Keith over at Telebusillis, but I have to say I've also had my own frustations with CPW over the past year.

Bottom line: complexity and independence don't sit well together. You wouldn't expect there to be a "Nuclear Power Station Warehouse", supplying Westinghouse, GE, Hitachi and Areva reactors.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The continuing rise of picocells....but femtocells? Still early days.

I'm impressed by the continued rise in profile of cellular picocells over the past couple of months. I've actually been following the area for about 6 years, and until a year ago, I seemed to be the only person who ever mentioned the technology outside of very specialist "indoor wireless" events. The first mention I heard from a mainstream operator suggesting that they might have a role in FMC / nextgen-FMS (fixed-mobile substitution) was O2, at a conference on wireless VoIP, last November. They were also absent from most FMC infrastructure vendors' discussions, again apart from a few niche applications like ship- and aircraft GSM coverage.

The pivot point seemed to be around 3GSM in February, where I counted at least 10 vendors and silicon companies pitching various types of small base station - mostly aimed at 3G in-fill. Sure, there was still some cynicism about the concept - I remember a senior Nokia Networks representative disparaging special indoor cellular systems with the line "Outside-in always wins".

The next boost, in PR terms, came from the UK low-power GSM licence auctions in May, when people suddenly realised that this probably needed special types of infrastructure installations.

There was a little lull over the summer, but in the last 4 or 5 weeks it's all kicked off again, both for picocells and their svelte sisters, femtocells (aimed ultimately at the residential market). My understanding is that there are numerous major operators trialling the technology in their labs in Europe, North America, and I suspect Asia as well. It's been telling that operators who are publicly hostile to WiFi and dual-mode phones have been cropping up at FMC-related events with surprising frequency.

The usual culprits being mentioned are Ubiquisys and ip.access (the veteran in the market and now part-owned by Motorola since TTPCom's acquisition), with PicoChip named as a clear driver on the silicon side. There's also been a fair amount of reference to assorted Asian vendors, as well as some of the major players in the current home-networking and gateway space.

Also, a number of radio network infrastructure specialists, as well as "convergence gateway" vendors have been adding picocells into their slides, in some cases sharing technology components with dual-mode solutions.

To be honest, I suspect we're going to see a bit of a hype build-up, with various over-enthusiastic forecasts for mass rollouts in 2007 and 2008. I reckon that's a bit premature, to be honest. Looking at the evolution path of recent innovations like dual-mode phones (UMA or SIP), or even WiMAX, I suspect it's going to take rather longer than some of the evangelists suggest - and I'd also say that at present, the residential femtocell concept has yet to prove itself even in the lab, let alone in a realworld trial.

In fact, I think that anyone looking at this sector should probably analyse the pico and femto markets separately - and possibly 2G and 3G as another dimension too. The use cases are different, the proof points are different, and the economics are different.

On the one hand, we're hearing T-Mobile making concrete decisions about 2G network fill-in using what is now comparatively mature & uncontroversial technology, in comparatively simple standalone deployments.

But on the other, the concept of shipping millions of femtocells to home users, magically brushing away an RF management issues, expecting users to simply plug the box into the back of their existing broadband gateway/router, and happily using cellphones indoors on their own private 3G access point is, frankly, a long way off. I suspect that, like UMA, loads of practical issues are about to emerge. Yes, the handset issue will be less important (although I suspect some customisation will still be needed). But the real-world testing of technology (eg femto-macro handoff) and user experience (what happens when someone unplugs the mains-powered femto when they're hoovering... and how does the operator do customer support when someone else's home gateway is in the way) are yet to be determined.

Putting all the pieces together will take until mid-late-07 for "proper" consumer trials. Decisions on early deployments may be made in early-2008, but rollout will be slow (maybe 10's or 100's of thousands), and even if all the practicalities sort themselves out easily, late-08 / early-09 is a realistic timeframe before we can start talking in millions and a potential "hockey stick"

Pico's, on the other hand, are shipping in small volumes now. This will continue to grow steadily with demand for niche 2G fill-in and enterprise applications like the UK LPGSM services. 3G indoor coverage and capacity enhancements for offices & public spaces is also becoming important with the growth of EV-DO and HSDPA. The big variable will be if other regulators adopt the UK low-power spectrum licence policy - although timelines are likely to be protracted given the likely arguments from existing licence-holders.

In any case - I expect the next few months to see a continued ramp-up of interest and (maybe) over-enthusiasm about low-end / low-power cellular.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mobile search.... my context is better than yours

When I see emergent consensus about something, my instinctive reaction is to look for why it's wrong.

Well, there seems to be a growing consensus that "mobile search" is a wonderful new phenomenon, and that people using their handsets will absolutely need a different experience to plain old PC-based Google or similar.

"People don't just browse the web on their handset! Obviously they need clever, context-based platforms that try & give them a short cut to what they really want!"

Hmm. I see lots of non-sequiturs, unsupported assumptions and apparent misunderstanding of cause and effect, plus maybe a tiny kernel of truth that's in danger of being swamped in nonsense & poor user experience.

Let's see:

1) Until recently, most people didn't use "the real Internet" on their phones simply because it was slow (especially roundtrip latency when you clicked on a link), and costly (real or just perceived - basically people usually don't know how much it costs). Of course you didn't browse randomly - it was a pain in the butt to get online at all, let alone just wander through the web on a whim.
2) With faster networks like HSDPA (and especially lower latency in UMTS / EV-DO) it's getting easier, with better user experience. Even re-engineered GPRS isn't too bad these days. Also more sensible flatrate data tariffs like T-Mobile Web'n'Walk are emerging.
3) Screen sizes are increasing (QVGA is common, with VGA on the way), phones are getting faster processors, and browser software is getting better (Opera, Pocket IE, Nokia's etc, plus support for Flash, AJAX and all that cool Web2.0 stuff) . While there's still some way to go, the device-based browsing user experience is rapidly improving.
4) Operators are desperate to start generating advertising revenue for mobile users
5) A million startups are trying to beat Google at its own game, albeit on a different device
6) Lots of people are trying to rebrand "walled gardens" as somehow beneficial to the end user, despite the end user becoming more open Internet-ised with every passing day

Net result: despite the improving capabilities of phones & networks to support access to the real Internet, various whining voices are trying to convince us that we don't want it.


There's nothing worse than technology that second-guesses what you really want, because it's deeply frustrating when it decides it knows better than you & gets it wrong. It's bad enough that even on a PC & fixed Internet, Google itself tries to force me to the local Google page when I'm travelling (no!! if I type in Google.com as a URL, I DON'T want Google.be or Google.co.uk or Google.Tajikistan, I want .com). It's worse still when companies like Yahoo! assume that just because you're using a mobile device that you either "obviously" want the lousy WAP site rather than the real web version (Yahoo.com) or you need an automated banner telling you to upgrade your browser (Yahoo.co.uk). These are both examples of how to use mobile/wireless "context" information stupidly.

But the absolute worst would be a handset-optimised search engine that assumes that if I'm in Brussels and type in "restaurant", that I'm obviously looking for one nearby & presents me with a list of 15 which are so unpopular that they've needed to pay to be included. What audacity to assume that because it knows a small amount of "context" (location) it knows the real context of my search? Maybe I'm about to get a on a flight to Lisbon (not with TAP Airlines, obviously) & want to know where to go when I arrive? Maybe I'm talking about somewhere I went in Prague the week before, and forgot the address? Maybe I'm thinking of opening my own restaurant business (Disruptive Darwins - only cloned meat & GM vegetables) and want some advice?

By all means, do a polite Google-style line with "did you mean Restaurants nearby in Brussels?" but don't you dare try & second-guess what my real context is & force me to wade through your inane & irrelevant suggestions.

In fact, just give me proper mobile access to Google (and default to .com not .fr or .mobi) & get out of my way.

One device.... multiple users. Identity crisis?

Various issues cropped up in last week's IMS Services Forum in London that pointed out the difficulties in translating mobile-sector concepts to the fixed-broadband world. Given that the emergence of quadplay services, FMC and IMS are bringing these closer together, some problems are emerging.

One such problem is the notion of identity. I'll be making another post about the challenges posed by anonymous prepay users in an IMS world. But even more general considerations about identity are likely to crop up.

In the mobile world, it is generally fair to assume that the person using a handset is its notional "owner". It's a personal device, usually (outside corporate accounts) with a personal billing relationship, typically a SIM card, and all the "personalisation" that goes into a phone. If someone's using the phone, 99% of the time you know who it is - or, at the very least, it's the same anonymous person consistently. Identity = normal user, to a reasonable approximation.

Conversely, a TV or (to a lesser degree) PC is "communal". There's no SIM, no personalisation, no tracking of who is watching / using it. It might be one person focusing on it intently, or it could be switched on in the corner during a party for 50 people. And there may well be multiple TVs in the house - possibly switched on when nobody's actually watching. (Don't even begin to suggest using NFC or some other similar approach to using your phone to "sign in" to a TV).

So, assuming you've got an IMS, with its wonderful HSS subscriber data store.... how do you deal with this? How do you link a household, non-personal, one remote-control, IMS-TV subscription to multiple, personal mobile accounts? Even leaving aside the privacy issues around such farcical notions as SMS-to-the-TV-screen (thanks Martin), this presents some pretty unpleasant issues for the billing & charging systems. I reckon it should make the supposed "single sign on" notion pretty impractical in many cases too.

I'm not an expert on identity technologies. But I know enough to recognise a minefield when I see one.

Mobile search 2...

Wow, I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest yesterday, with my relatively off-the-cuff potshots at the mobile search sacred cow. Obviously hit a sore point.... in fact, coming back to my general belief that "consensus is always flawed", I'm wondering now whether there's scope for a full research report on the topic. I'll add it to the list of things to delve into more deeply.

In particular, I really don't think location is that much of an important "context" for most mobile searches. The main exception I can think of is for directions to a particular address, which could be better done with (non-assisted) GPS and an in-memory map. It is notable that most in-car navigation systems don't need to be "online" .

To be honest, I suspect the lure of search & context is less about empowering end-users, and more about generating mobile advertising revenues. The more I look at the consumer side of the mobile industry, the more I think that advertising is the only possible saviour of certain things, especially mobile TV.

Haha, I've just seen a web page suggesting that mobile search will be a $13bn market by 2011.

Hmm. I've got an idea.... I reckon if I can get $1bn of VC funding, I could establish a call centre in India with 10,000 multilingual employees equipped with maps, copies of worldwide Yellow Pages, access to Zagats, Time-Out & Lonely Planet guides... and access to the real Google via PCs with keyboards & 19' monitors. Then get a slightly premium-rate number (maybe 20c per minute?) and local VoIP gateways, and set up a true "speak to a real person" mobile search service.

I mean, for mobile search, the single most important piece of context information is this: You're holding a telephone.

IMS Services Brainstorm - wrapup: IMS isn't a winner for mobile operators

I've spent the last two days as "analyst in residence" at the Telco 2.0 / IMS Services Brainstorm event in London, organised by STL. In addition to a lot of very thought provoking & senior speakers from operators, vendors, standards bodies & others, it also was an interesting physical manifestation of the telecom/mobile analyst blogosphere - especially people like myself for whom blogging isn't "the day job", but more of an outlet for disruptive opinions & publicity. Martin, James and Tomi all left their mark on delegates' thinking.

A key feature of the event was the cool wireless mini-laptop things into which delegates could anonymously type "PMIQs" - pluses, minuses, interesting comments & questions - during the sessions. Part of my job was to delve through the huge number of comments & questions and use them to help grill the speakers. The anonymity gave a lot of delegates the ability to air private thoughts that their employers wouldn't have endorsed being spoken in public, as well as the ability to criticise speakers if they gave too much marketing fluff or unsupported assertions in their pitch. (They could criticise moderators too. I was accused of being "too challenging" by one delegate, which I instead took as a compliment).

The IMS Services stream yielded some significant controversy, and, it must be said, a fair amount of negativity around some real-world practical implementations.

One thing came out clearly - IMS is not yet a viable investment for most mobile-only operators. One delegate from a very large & well-known mobile carrier described it as "a very expensive way to get simplicity" - and also mentioned that, however, they might use it to offer fixed IP telephony services over broadband (now there's a real irony.....). Unless you seriously believe that PoC or IM/presence/video-sharing usage can get big uptake & usage - and you're happy without a decent range of handsets (my usual theme), and have a rock-solid way of encouraging prepay users to forgo anonymity - then it's not justifiable. And even these services just seem to have been arbitrarily chosen because they might actually work - not because users necessarily want them. You might as well stick with SDPs and other ways of bolting together simpler services inthe shorter term - there are too many holes in IMS right now. (I'll cover the prepay issue in more depth another time - it's a very important one)

If you're a fixed operator, or a fixed/mobile combined operator, IMS offers potential benefits, if you use the concept wisely (ie don't swallow it whole). Potentially, it can reduce opex, help combine networks onto a packet core, support PSTN migration and... conceivably.... might help the introduction of some extra new services around FMC, IPTV or (yawn) videotelephony. You don't have to worry so much about device availability & the nastiness of creating decent user interfaces to make a business case (apart from FMC), as there's more hard numbers from the "plumbing" side of the implementation. However, fixed operators are much more likely to pick & choose exactly how to use the IMS functional architecture. Various speakers from BT, KPN, Global Crossing and others spoke of selecting the bits they liked, combining some elements to form "IMS Lite", and supporting parallel non-IMS domains for things like TV.

There was a large amount of apparently contradictory talk of standards and interoperability for IMS. At one level, there seems to be far too many bodies involved (variously called standards orgs, consortia, fora & various other euphemisms for "talking shop"). 3GPP, MSF, OMA, OMTP, GSMA, 3GPP2, ETSI, FMCA, NGMN, IETF and about 20 others. All of them are beavering away to create IMS interoperability "test fests", specifications, requirements, "implementation agreements" and so on. Some of them occasionally talk to each other. Some of them overlap (I got a "no comment" when I asked if the MSF's roaming/interop approach conflicts with the GSMA IPX), but despite the balloonful of hot air, many gaps are still left or exact details glossed-over. (phones, billing/charging, network security, multi-identities etc).

Bottom line on standards - too much, and yet still not enough, for IMS to be a reality.

Despite a misguided view from Telefonica ("enterprises are demanding IMS!" - really? name three, I challenge you...), there was an implicit but understated view that private SIP & VoIP is here to stay, and needs to be worked with rather than against. It's a shame there wasn't more on the IMS/enterprise interface, but I'm starting to suspect that's an even longer way out than consumer services, apart from maybe SIP-peering and things like that.

One positive trend that really came out of the event was a sense of realism. To be honest, despite continued vendor hype, there don't seem to be many operators who really believe that IMS is a panacea, or that it can exist in isolation, absorbing all the possible services & enable "defence" against the Internet. Sure, there are clearly lots of political battles within operators, and some of the more myopic "old guard" are still intent on building castles. But as one speaker pointed out, fortresses tend to encourage attacks, not discourage them. Instead, there was plenty of talk of interoperability with SDPs, broadcast and the Internet. Even Vodafone R&D had a Web 2.0 enthusiast present, and KPN mentioned P2P-SIP, mirroring another talk I'd heard from a Telecom Italia representative at another event last week. BT presented a highly user-centric presentation involving "hothousing" kids to help define new services.

In summary, I am rapidly coming to the view that IMS needs to be separated into two chunks:

- transport+ session control (plumbing-oriented, generally good for fixed/hybrid operators, if perhaps a little too complex to be implemented in one go & needing a few tweaks for things like security).

- services + applications (highly questionable, as it still needs huge amounts of work on devices, charging, ops & maintenance, and interoperability with Internet/non-IMS functions).

I'll be posting more thoughts on real-world IMS issues over the next week or so. If you missed the event and want some more info on the outputs or any other follow-up, please email me at imsforum@disruptive-analysis.com . There's going to be another similar conference in March 2007.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Web 2.0 and Deep Packet Inspection

About a year ago, I first posted on why many vendors' and operators' strategies for Deep Packet Inspection would fail abysmally. After meeting again with a couple of vendors recently (including London-listed SandVine last week), I'm doubly sure I'm right.

The idea of segmenting network traffic into different applications (web, email, IM, Skype and so on) is completely flawed. It totally fails to recognise that increasing proportions of traffic will be "meta-applications" comprising multiple different components. MySpace pages have streaming (perhaps from YouTube), image, IM, maybe VoIP included in the future. Mashups by definition will include a wide and unpredictable mix of component sub-applications. Ironically, if it succeeds, even IMS services are likely to be ad-hoc mixes of various enabling elements, put together in the carrier marketing department faster than the network policy drones can keep up.

So all these charts with "20% of traffic is X, 30% is Y, 10 % is Z" are nonsense. If the end-user wants "a good Myspace user experience", or even a good "Carrier-based Myspace Clone experience", it will have to deal with the fact that today, there will be YouTube streams in it, maybe tomorrow there will be a Skype VoIP element, and the day afterwards a Google Earth mashup. And the suggestion that a carrier-resident service will only include carrier-optimised component applications is ludicrous.

Put simply, differential application-level filtering / blocking / limiting won't work, as the notion of "application" is evolving too fast to generate & enforce policies.

The only realistic use case in my view for DPI is in very non-granular network integrity protection. "Limit BitTorrent to 50% of traffic on this link, as otherwise there's a risk of failure".

To be fair, SandVine does have another pitch about using its boxes to try and spot security risks like DoS attacks. That's fair enough - that's not "application traffic", it's more the box doing a clever sort of "pattern recognition", which is an entirely different concept. In fact, I suspect that many of the DPI vendors' key IPR is actually in pattern recognition, and they've initially picked "application spotting" as a usage case, perhaps without realising that it only has months to live.