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Friday, April 27, 2007

Handsets, Naked SIP, openness, VoIP, N95s and operator intervention

I've been trying to get to the bottom of the whole N95 / Vodafone / Orange / VoIP issue. There's an awful lot of vitriol, supposition about dark conspiracies and plain misunderstanding that have come out over the past 2 weeks, as well as some interesting forensic analysis.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am broadly supportive of 3rd-party applications running on smartphones that enable innovative communications experiences. I coined the term "Naked SIP" to refer to phones with an open OS or Java plus a developer-accessible SIP stack, and I've also been a fan of both consumer and enterprise VoIP innovators. I regard it as folly for mobile operators to attempt to "block" things in phones or network, rather than compete head-on (with the exception of things like P2P that could break the network).

On the other hand, I also believe that operators can (and should) take sensible commercial precautions which make it difficult for others to eat their lunch, as long as it doesn't impact materially on the customer's reasonable expectations. So if they want to compete on which of them has the most "open" terms & conditions, or want to explicitly prohibit things like VoIP if you take their bribe of a free phone, that's fine. Things get a little bit more grey where they insist that use of Skype or Truphone or other third party services need you to sign up to the "over 18s adults only" content policy on the rather spurious grounds of child protection because of the messaging component. And adopting a stance of "well, you didn't ask the salesman if XYZ feature works on our version" is also not really reasonable when there's 100+ features, and when the typical mobile salesman doesn't know how to do his own shoelaces, let alone comment knowledgeably on VoIP.

So, inevitably, problems occur where these reasonable expectations conflict. Most phone users in the UK "expect" to have phones subsidised. High-end phone users "expect" to have access to a wide range of 3rd-party applications. Operators "expect" to have more control over the look-and-feel of their subsidised devices. Developers "expect" that phones will work fairly consistently across operator & vanilla variants with regards to APIs and certain embedded features. Hence the N95 debacle over recent weeks.

So, after a bit more research, some further thoughts on the N95 thing:

  • To be fair to the operators, Nokia hasn't actually made a big deal over the native VoIP capabilities of the N95 (unlike some of its other devices), focusing more on the 5MP camera & GPS. VoIP isn't mentioned in the original launch press release , the UK full tech specs of the N95, or even the developers' main page about the phone. It does however feature on this developers' page listing VoIP-capable phones.
  • However, to even a casual observer, the N95 has "geektastic" written all over it, so it's clearly going to be bought by people who like to download the coolest app they've read about on their favourite blogs. And who are the leading VoIP adopters & enthusiasts. And who like to complain vociferously about the operators' hegemony. You don't have to have been to many telecom events to see that E- and N-series WiFi-enabled devices are the VoIPistas favourites. So taking out or hobbling one of these customers' probable favourite features is asking for trouble, even if the subsidy notionally gives you reasonable moral grounds for doing it.
  • My understanding is that Nokia & other handset vendors offer operators a "menu" of which applications/functions can be included at the factory in their specific variants of phones. The operators also have a bunch of their own applications they want added in, plus a range of modifications according to their inhouse UI template. Some (eg Orange Signature, Vodafone Live) are much more detailed than other specs, and go into a lot of detail about menu structures, what happens with phonebook & connectivity between apps. Now in some cases, there isn't enough memory to fit everything possible in, or enough display space to display all the icons without scrolling down for 27 screens-full. So some things get removed or at least hidden.
  • Speaking to WDS Global the other day (which does outsourced technical customer support for the mobile industry), they commented that the biggest sources of helpline costs for operators are handset features that create configuration nightmares. Email is top of the list, along with setting up the phone as a modem, Bluetooth pairing and so on. VoIP/SIP/WiFi is probably going to appear on that list over the next year or so, I'd guess, so you can forgive operators who want to minimise their exposure to this. That said, the "techiest" users will probably fix things themselves anyway, and over time certain groups of consumers will mandate these features so removing them may be a false economy.
  • There will be some interesting user experience issues that occur when phones have 2+ VoIP clients running simultaneously, especially if one is the operator's own or a close partner's. A lot of operators are looking at this, perhaps developing own-brand services (especially if they also have a fixed-line VoIP strategy) or are considering partnering with the likes of Skype, Truphone, Cisco, Fring or assorted others. In theory multiple VoIP services can work fine in parallel, but I'm sure that won't be universally true, in which case an operator might want to optimise for its own.
  • Different VoIP applications use different bits of the underlying OS of the phone. Some use Nokia's own VoIP app as an engine (eg Truphone, Cisco) while others just use the SIP stack (Fring, I think) and others do virtually everything themselves (Yeigo, Skype). Some are intended as "primary line replacement" and so everything is done to integrate well with phonebook, call register etc, while others are more about embedding VoIP into an app like IM or gaming or conferencing. I have to say I was originally pretty surprised by Nokia doing their own VoIP - I thought they'd leave it up to 3rd parties, but clearly this is part of their "N-series is the future of the Internet" pitch.

So taking everything together, I don't think this is specifically some dark anti-Truphone strategic conspiracy, although it's clearly one of the key VoIP players that's ruffling a few feathers at the moment.

I think this is what happened here - "VoIP? Nah, we can't get any money from that, so ditch it or hide it, so we can fit the ringtones store icon on the menu" or maybe "no. that menu entry doesn't conform to specification section subsection q and we don't have a testing plan detailed in volume 17 of the user experience manual". There's also possibly a near-term angle of "the out-of-the-box VoIP experience is going to be our own"

My advice to operators:

  • Be sensible about what usage cases will be expected of particular new devices. If it's obviously going to be a techies' favourite, think about how they'll probably want to use it and work with them, not against them. It's not worth the grief.
  • Feel free to be more draconian about your own "exclusive" versions of devices than you are with mildly-tuned generic ones. You don't really want to be competing with your rivals, or Carphone Warehouse or Expansys or Nokia's online store about "whose N95 is the best" . But if it's in a different plastic shell, and called an N96 or V95 or whatever, then there's no spec sheet up on Forum Nokia and developers have to call & ask you what apps and APIs there are available.
  • Think about the knock-on effects elsewhere. You want people to buy your HSPA-embedded laptops at some point, right? Am I going to trust you not to have monkeyed around with it, if I perceive you as having "crippled" a high end "multimedia computer"[Nokia's phrase] in the past?
  • Train your (and partners') sales & customer service staff. Put full spec sheets up on the web. Highlight any changes that impact on your customers' reasonable expectations. Ask your customers want they expect from different types of devices, and how they expect to use them. Bear in mind that those expectations are partly set by the manufacturer's initial press release, reviews & tech specs etc.
  • Think about how multiple VoIP clients (or IM, or whatever) can coexist peacefully on devices. It's going to happen, so don't pull the blanket over your head & pretend the problem will go away. It won't.
  • Have respect for popular 3rd-party developers, even if they compete with you. Especially if they're clever at using the blogosphere, Web 2.0 things like YouTube & PR in general. Bear in mind that you may want to partner them in future.
  • Consider selling two versions of some devices, subsidised & unsubsidised.


Rick Hultz said...

Thanks for the Nokia link. I've been trying to find what they're using for Voip codecs and such.

Peter Judge said...

There could be more to this than one crippled handset. James Tagg just told me that Vodafone is actually blocking calls to Truphone's mobile numbers, which would be against telecoms regulations.

He says Truphone is "considering its position". Obvioulsy, there's a big element of stoking the fires of publicity here, but that's a serious allegation to make.

There's a story at Techworld.

Peter Judge