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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

4G.... yep, the industry is still breathing its own exhaust

I was at the Osney Media 3G LTE--> 4G yesterday & Monday, co-chairing with the ever-evangelical Tomi Ahonen, and with a fairly diverse set of speakers ranging from Ofcom & ETSI representatives through to visionaries from major operators & vendors.

Some interesting snippets:

- The "real" standards world is getting mightly irked by the misuse of the term 4G, which is seemingly bandied about by every mobile industry marketing dept lacking the imagination to come up with something clever.
- While even the standards folk admit 4G is still "vague", there is apparently a (fairly contentious) process ongoing at the ITU which will determine which technologies qualify as part of "IMT Advanced", the follow-up to "IMT 2000" (aka 3G).
- The WiMAX folk are clearly trying to crash the IMT/ITU party, firstly by submitting a request to be considered a 3G IMT-2000 technology along with UMTS, CDMA2000 etc, and secondly by lobbying early and hard for IMT-Advanced. I suspect the IMT-2000 pitch is unrealistic, but is perhaps nevertheless a really more a good exercise in enabling their lawyers to say "see? why tried to play by the rules, but they turned their backs, we're the good guys"
- Although the WiMAX Forum allows both SIM- and non-SIM authentication, the prevailing opinion seems to be toward the latter view. Sprint-Nextel won't use them, nor will WiMAX Telecom. A good thing in my view, especially as the initial incarnations of 802.11e appear to be very geared to non-phone consumer electronics devices like web tablets, MP3 players, gaming consoles, laptops etc.
- The ITU World Radio Congress at the end of the year is going to be a right laugh. I bet the world's tech lobbying industry is gearing up as we speak. The thorniest issues will be reclaiming some "digital dividend" from the broadcast industry, with lots of telecom folk pointing to the rise of "unicasting" and who's going to watch HDTV, anyway? Then there's how much more spectrum should be licence-exempt for future WiFi-esque developments - and whether Ofcom & others can convince the world of the benefits of tech-neutrality (apparently now referred to as WAPECS in Europe. Nice acronym...)
- Speaking of tech-neutrality, another elephant in the room was IPR. There seems to be a fairly strong argument that whatever 4G turns out to be, we're going to try to make sure that it hasn't been patented up to the eyeballs. Joe Barrett from Qualcomm was busy ensuring us of the Big Q's honourable intentions, and challenging Nokia, Ericsson & co to be as transparent in their royalty rates.

Now, the downside. I thought we'd killed the stupid "everything will be wireless, and integrated into your phone" mantra. Yet I still encounter numerous examples of people breathing their own exhaust fumes, usually flavoured with scent of Japan and Korea. While I am certainly one of the believers in SMS as an unstoppable train, I certainly don't buy the notion that "the web will migrate to the mobile". No, not even in emerging countries. There was also assorted wince-inducing blather about other niche/useless mobile enhancements like mobile search, micropayments, widgets and so on.

The conference had assorted proponents of this - obviously Tomi whose enthusiasm I respect, but also assorted others exhorting faith among the mobile planners and strategists. Loads of out-of-context quotes ("mobile is the future" XYZ CEO, April 2005) and misinterpreted/poorly-defined forecasts.

I simply do not believe any of this. Experience has shown that most Internet innovation takes account of the fastest, flattest-rate connections, the largest screens and the fastest processors. Yes, Korea has done wonderful things with mobile communities like CyWorld. But eBay, Skype, YouTube & blogging absolutely would not have occurred without PCs.

The notion that "PCs are for old people" and that anyone under 21 would rather use the web on a mobile phone is unspeakably ludicrous. Younger people are probably the most intensive users of PCs, outside of high-end business activities like CAD design. Every kid who sends 300 SMS per day probably also has a PC with 20 simultaneous IM sessions on the monitor, a richly-customised full-screen MySpace page, and assorted games requiring DVDs & a graphics card that would put Pixar to shame.

Let me put this succintly. Japan and Korea are different. They both have 2 main mobile operators plus one smaller one, they both have no heritage of prepay, heavy control by operators over handset requirements, better spectrum allocations than much of Europe - and, critically, assorted social/cultural issues. You can walk around Seoul or Tokyo with $1000 of phone & other electronics on you, use it in public, and not be worried that it's going to be stolen. Try the same in Barcelona, Nairobi, Rio or, hell, even parts of London.

If you're designing 4G around the assumption that the web is somehow magically going to transform itself to being mostly mobile-centric in 10 years time, and all the cool Web 2.0 / Web 3.0 stuff is yours for the taking, you're mad.

Hotel WiFi - sign the petition

Nice one Silicon.com - I applaud your anti-ripoff petition for hotel WiFi.

I'd like to add a couple of extra points:

- Hotels should charge meeting/conference organisers for WiFi on a reasonable basis. Either included as part of the room rental, or roughly on a par with the cost of tea-and-biscuits or bottled-water-and-mints.
- Where hotels are new or refurbished, they should make sure that cellular coverage is provided throughout the building, using repeaters/DAS systems or similar.

I was at the Osney Media 3G LTE->4G conference yesterday, in the basement of the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch in London. Beautifully refurbished at a cost of £90m last year apparently. And only 15min walk from my house, so really convenient. So it's a pity that I have to suggest that all tech conference companies boycott the place, on account of its total lack of cellular coverage in the basement business centre, and its stupid £15 per day WiFi (that takes ages for non-guests to pay as they have to enter & print a full invoice).

(I was also going to nominate the XXXX Hotel in central London, especially as the reception informed me they'd "run out of vouchers" for the £10 WiFi. But then one of their tech guys gave me a free access code instead, so it'd be churlish to name them).

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Broadband and MVNOs - the branding & differentiation paradox

How many brands do you have a strong connection with? Favourite TV channel? Make of car? Supermarket? A couple of designer clothing labels? Football team? Frequent flyer consortium?

I'll guess half a dozen, plus another few that you have billing/commercial connections to - your bank, your mobile operator, your fixed/broadband company, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft.

Now, consider that various of these launch MVNOs, or white-label broadband connectivity. Which one do you choose?

Here's the paradox. If it's "branding lite" with few extra services & add-ons, it doesn't matter that much. It's whichever catches your eye at the appropriate time. Basically, it's dressing up something commoditised in a colour you like. You pick one, but don't spend much extra as the service is basically the normal one.

But if it's fuller branding "experience", with a lot of unique differentiated value-adds in terms of content or commerce, which of your favourite brands do you choose? That's the problem - as long as they're not too expensive, you'll want two or more. You don't choose between your favourite airline and your favourite football team, if tickets for both are cheap.

So there's the paradox - if you can really differentiate a branded technology experience, you'd better be prepared to share it & deal with messy interoperability issues.

Friday, January 26, 2007

WiFi and dual-mode phone sales

I see that one of my analyst peers has released a report on WiFi phone shipments. Always tricky to interpret actual data from a press release, as it never has the full set of definitions / assumptions, but I'm scratching my head about a couple of things.

"Samsung leads in dual-mode WiFi/cellular handset revenue market share, followed by Nokia"

This seems unlikely, unless it specifically excludes smartphones from the definition of "handset". Nokia announced in its results yesterday that "The Eseries sold almost 2 million units since its introduction in the second quarter 2006.", presumably accounting for a fairly large chunk of the total €1bn sales of its Enterprise business unit. The E60, E61 and E70 have WiFi, while the E50 and E62 don't - and it seems to be the E61 that's the winner at present, which I guess goes for around $300 ex-factory price. Added to its N80, 6136 & other WiFi-based dual-modes, I'd be surprised if it hasn't shipped $500m+ on its own. I suspect HTC's in the same ballpark too with its various PDA-style devices, many of which have WiFi. Apart from the Samsung P200 and T709 UMA versions (which have probably shipped <100k units) I can't see where it's getting the volume, unless it's selling a shedload of WiFi/CDMA devices in Korea .

Motion sensors - the next big thing in mobile phones?

I have a hunch, which unfortunately I don't have time to research & turn into a full report at the moment. So rather than let someone else steal my thunder, I'll blog about it instead.

I think the coolest thing about the iPhone isn't the multitouch screen or the industrial design, it's the motion sensor. No, the iPhone isn't alone - the Nokia 5500 has one too ("Nokia plans to introduce other phones that use 3D-motion-sensor technology in the near future"), and I've seen references on the web to some others - in particular, it wouldn't surprise me if some local-only Japanese or Korean devices have them. Then of course there's the Nintendo Wii as well.

I'll take a punt here & predict that motion sensors will become pervasive surprisingly quickly, and that we're only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding the applications. Sure, we know we can use it as a gaming controller, or to detect which way up the screen should be displayed if the device is held horizontally/vertically, or to monitor your sporting achievements. But I reckon there's a lot more to come.

I've seen quite a few references to motion sensors being used to recognise someone's walking pattern. The suggestion is to use this as an anti-theft "locking" function - someone half-inches your dog & bone, and the tea leaf's different gait alerts the phone to prompt you for a password. (OK, sorry about the rhyming slang, it's Friday...).

But I reckon the biggest thing is that it could appeal to operators as well as being used for "local" uses like the ones above. Given that operators specify (and certify and often subsidise) many handsets, having something that has dual-appeal both direct to the end-user for applications, and to the operator for services as well is likely to be a winner. It's why cameras took off (User: takes snaps; Operator (in theory!) gets MMS/email revenue) or even Bluetooth (User: use headset in car safely. Operator: more minutes of use). And it's one of the reasons why WiFi attach rates in handsets haven't grown faster - it's often difficult for the user to exploit the WiFi for their own purposes as well as the operator's (more on this in another post).

So, what could be motion-sensor based services? I reckon it comes back to a theme I'm developing about "context" being more important than "content". If operators get access to the sensor APIs, they could determine a lot more about how you want to communicate. It should be possible for an advanced presence function to have status descriptions like "walking", "on a train", "in a car" and so on. How about a service which uses multi-context data - if the phone's on charge and there's been no vibration consistent with footsteps for an hour, then there's a good probability that the user is either out of the room, or asleep. Or which detects the combination of a car's movement "fingerprint" plus registers a Bluetooth headset being used - inference being that the user won't be able to look at the screen, and therefore sends video calls straight to the mailbox.

These are just of the top of my head. Yes, all of these could suffer horribly from false-positives and false-negatives. I've said before how much I hate technology which tries to second-guess me, unless it's done really well (eg Google's "did you mean...." mistype-correction function).

I'll keep watching on this, as the more I think about it, motion-sensing is a key part of the multicontext environment which will swiftly replace the current narrow obsessions with content & multimedia on mobile devices. If I was part of the Symbian or Windows Mobile teams, I'd make sure I had an open sensor API on my near-term roadmaps, and I'd suggest the JCP gets working on a Java one too....

PS - just noticed that this handset-centric sensor company got more funding 2 weeks ago. Nice to know I'm looking ahead at the same time as the VCs (who include Qualcomm, interestingly)....

PS2 - just seen this very detailed article - if the price point is already at the $2 level, and they look small enough to fit in a phone, I reckon this is a done deal. I can see this getting to 10-20% penetration in the next 3 years, ie >100m devices. Get writing, apps developers.....

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Femtocells - will they really work with absolutely-standard phones?

... sure, they will technically, but what about the realities of the usage case?

I'm just sitting at the Mobile Converged Devices conference in London, and a few people (including myself & a representative of Ubiquisys) have commented about whether femto's might obviate the need for the complexity of WiFi-based dualmode phones.

But listening to some of the operators & vendors presenting, it's struck me that some of the real-world practical issues of FMC will probably apply to femto's - and their users' handsets - as well.

For example - should a handset have a display icon to demonstrate it's on the femto rather than the macro network? An audio tone? Given that many operators are thinking of different tariffs or applications for indoor use, that might be important. Should any of the applications (eg music players, browsers etc) be made aware that speed/price/latency/context (eg indoor vs outdoor) might have changed? Should the user somehow be notified if the femto isn't working (perhaps if it's unplugged when someone's doing the hoovering....)?

None of this is that tricky - but it could shave a few months off the ultimate time-to-market if it's considered now, rather than waiting for the results of a consumer trial & needing iteration at that point.

(BTW - If you're an operator thinking about femtos, and you want to short-circuit the "tuning and tweaking" phase by identifying probable issues upfront, you know who to contact...)

3GSM fatigue

It's still almost a month away, but I'm already exhausted by 3GSM.

I've just looked at my calendar to find that I already have 36 briefings, meetings, dinners & other events booked in, plus I know I have assorted others "pending" and I've already had to turn away some interesting (and some not-so interesting) invitations. I reckon I'm getting around 5-8 inbound event requests or notifications per day at the moment - and that's without GSMA letting analysts register as media on the system.

Some tips for any other latecomers thinking of sending out "Are you at 3GSM?" requests to analysts:

- Don't organise daytime events offsite. At all. If you're really important I might take the 3mins to walk over the Plaza de Espanya to that big hotel, but if you think I'm taking a coach or metro for 40mins somewhere else.....
- Lowest on the pecking order are press conferences and combined press+analyst briefings. These are invariably too stage managed, oriented around product launches rather than strategy, and designed to stop analysts asking too many tricky questions in Q&A time. These are the first things I'll skip or cancel if I get clashes
- 1 hour is about right - enough time for you to give me blurb about whatever-it-is you're announcing, and for me to ask what I want to know, plus an opportunity to chat a bit about the bigger picture, what's hot/cool .... and still have 5 min buffers at each end to transit between meetings
- PR people: if your client is based in London, or if the execs come through here regularly, there's no point in me travelling 700 miles to see them somewhere else
- Read this blog. If there's stuff I've never written about, or doesn't fit with my typical research themes, I'm probably not interested in it. Examples - obscure electronic subcomponents, yet another me-too mobile IM/email client, most "content" stuff. Caveat: if you've got a really cool party, I might be persuaded, like that company last year that had a live gig by Juliette Lewis & her band. I forget their name......

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Alternatives to end-to-end QoS: how to monetise smart pipes

Fantastic post over at Telco 2.0 today. Talking about simplifying the architecture behind IMS and other QoS-managed networks, by virtue of simply charging different "entry fees" at the edge of the network.

It always amazes me that a lot of people in the telecom industry completely fail to understand how yield management works in the airline industry "Oh, our network will enable you to give first-class service to out premium customers, and business-class for realtime traffic like voice". That misses out on the clever part - the fare code system. Making different amounts of money from exactly the same product. If I'm in economy with a V-class ticket, and you're sitting next to me with a Y-class, you will have paid a different amount, but you'll still get the same meal and legroom. (OK with some tickets you get a bit more flexibility re: cancellation & changes). It's partly to do with capacity - selling the cheapest seats first - but also to do with distribution (ie which travel agent). Budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet can be even cleverer about all of this, too, dynamically changing their pricing at a whim, and upselling with new "products" like early boarding.

I'm doing some research on wireless VoIP at the moment, and it still amazes me how primitive much of the rhetoric around QoS is. "Oh, it's voice, so it absolutely must have priority". Nonsense - you should be differentiating voice traffic based on context: your users do. I'll use SkypeOut for a briefing call with a company in the US that wants to pitch its strategy to me, but I'll use my landline if it's a client who's actually paying me money.

Monday, January 22, 2007

So exactly what is a byte when transmitted via a mobile data service?

Now, possibly this question will be irrelevant in a couple of years' time if we all move to flatrate mobile data (including roaming), but for now, I'm surprised it's an issue that hasn't cropped up more often.

I've just got a press release from LogicaCMG about their web compression ("optimisation") product which is essentially a proxy server which squeezes down web images & generally monkeys around with content to make it render better on a small screen. No, this isn't a particularly new concept, various others have done it in a similar way, or via on-device client software like the Opera Mini client/server approach. Yes, there's also a bunch of question about whether I, the user, am happy (or even know that) my expected pristine Internet experience is being filtered & squished & re-ordered according to what the network thinks I'd prefer, if I can get it a bit quicker. That's a topic for another day (for example, how does it know what screen resolution I can display? does it adjust for what browser I'm using? what happens with Flash and AJAX and all that good stuff?)

But how about the question of what this - and other techniques, think caching or multicast - means for the billable traffic flow. Am I billed for the actual bits that go over the air to my phone? Or the raw pre-optimised content going into the server? What about if some of the content is cached locally at the base station? do I & multiple others pay for that as well? (various people have suggested that this is an option). Or if some stuff gets multicast? Is there any "overhead" that I don't get to use or even see - am I paying for that too? No big deal if it's flatrate of course, but I pain if it's €10 a MB on international 3G. Or if it's a mid-size bundle, how do I know my consumption is being judged accurately?

I'm reminded of my Yahoo mail. I know that if I get a 3MB mail attachment with a 2-line text email, for some reason Yahoo claims that I received 4MB or 4.5MB in total into my inbox. Eh? As I'm not paying for it, I'm not really bothered. But I certainly would if a mobile operator tried to pull the same trick & then charge me by volume.

Now, lots of phones have a data "meter" which shows total traffic in & out - but it doesn't generally split this by port number, so you don't know what's going to a "free" application (from the data traffic perspective) like MMS or even the operator portal site, and what's charged at off-portal rates.

I would have thought a 3rd-party solution for this sort of thing would be highly relevant for applications like push email, especially for businesses whose staff roam a lot. Do you have an audit trail for your roaming traffic?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

iPods and musicphones

The prolific Tomi Ahonen has a couple of viciously-detailed posts about the iPod's fall from prominence in comparison with music-capable mobile phones. It's pretty difficult to argue with the main thrust of his argument.

My one over-riding question though.... exactly where ARE these 400m active musicphone users, outside of Japan or Korea?

I'm struggling to think of a country I've visited in the last 12 months (out of I guess 20 or so) where "identifiable" MP3 listeners in cafes/public transport were predominantly phone-based. Forget the surveys for a moment, and think about what you actually see in real life. I don't mean white earbuds, lots of non-Apple devices have them, but actually people you can see selecting tracks, changing the volume and so on. Sure, there's a fair few SonyEricssons being used, and a susprising number of standalone non-Apple players, but I honestly don't see that many RAZRs, Chocolates or Nokias being used with headphones.

I know the UK is an Apple stronghold, so I realise that real-world empirical observations of music listeners on London's Tube (I'd guess 4:1 in iPod's favour) aren't globally representative. so I'd be interested if any of other readers around the world could do a "straw poll" of MP3 listeners they see on their daily commute or around college.

I also disagree with Tomi's stance on using the mobile as the centre of your "music life" rather than a PC. Apart from the easier user interface, faster/cheaper broadband and greater storage, I have to believe that most active music-lovers will treat unfettered access to iTunes, Amazon, bands on Myspace and assorted streaming services as much more usable on a PC, irrespective of their preference for iPod or musicphone.

One other thing.... what happens when today's downloaded music purchasers switch operators or upgrade handsets & lose some of their content because it's DRM-locked to that phone? Will we see a sudden clamour for "Content Portability" laws to go along with number portability?

Update

OK, I don't want to start a statistical flame war, but I see that Tomi has updated his blog to give some ests of geographic split of where the supposed 400m musicphone users are. Now, I actually think his underlying message that the iPod's domination is over is sort-of right, especially in countries which Apple's pricing or language limitations put it out of contention. But I do reckon he's still exaggerating the importance of musicphones quite substantially.

Now I delve into it, I think this 400m number is way out. Its based on an assumption that 15% of worldwide handset users listen to MP3s. But the Continental Research report he cites is UK-only, not worldwide, based on around 2400 responses. Further, based on the write-up in this article only 15% of these 2400 people had listened to an MP3 file on their phone in the last 12 months, of whom only 70% used it at least weekly (ie 10% overall), but only 13% on a daily basis.

Let's go with the weekly figure as a reasonable indicator of "active usage", and assume that Continental's sampling methodology is rigorously representative of the market as a whole, despite the rather cheap price of its report. That gives 10% of UK mobile users listening to music on phones regularly - ie about 5m people (or 1m using them daily using the other figure). Personally, I still don't think this reconciles well with my own empirical observations of peoples' behaviour in the UK, where I reckon I see around 4x iPod users vs. musicphone+other MP3 users - and no way are there 20m iPod users in the UK!

I don't have enough knowledge about the Chinese market to say whether 90m is reasonable, but I'd guess that the German & especially Spanish figures (14m out of 40m total population) look a too high as well (I have an "on the ground" anecdotal comment on my own blog from Madrid saying that musicphone usage is pretty rare, so I can't believe that 1 in 3 people of all ages is a regular user).

If I had to make a punt, and given that the UK (outside of Korea & Japan) is probably comparatively high-usage than most places, I'd estimate that a more realistic worldwide number is 4-6% of mobile users are regular musicphone listeners, ie around 130m, rather than 400m, with probably only 3-4% for non-Korea/Japan markets. Observationally, I'd say this seems to feel "about right" as well.

Still a good number cf. iPods but certainly it's not as clear-cut a ratio as he suggest.s

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fudging the numbers, part 2

Last summer I wrote a post called "Fudging the numbers", which looked through some of the statistical dirty laundry of the mobile industry. Time for a follow-up, methinks....

11. "X% of handset owners use feature Y or service Z"
Fudge: How often do they use it? Hourly? Monthly? Once? What do they use it for?

12. X million musicphones were sold
Fudge: What's a musicphone? One which can play long audio files? One with a dedicated music player & library software suite? One optimised for music, or one which just happens to have a software client buried down in the entertainment menu somewhere? One with dedicated buttons (play/stop etc)? Or maybe just one with an FM Radio, not an MP3 capability?

13. 3G phone shipments vs. 3G users
Fudge: Some 3G phones are sold into markets without a 3G network and just work in 2G mode. Others are shipped without a 3G SIM (this happened personally to me "Oh, your old SIM should be fine"), or people switch them manually to 2G when they find it doubles the battery life.

14. "X% of customers would switch broadband subcribers to sign up to Operator Z's fixed-mobile service or Carrier Y's quad-play"
Fudge: did your survey mention they'd also have to change their email address (and their family's) if the change ISPs?

15. "Lots of people are willing to 'cut the cord' and go mobile-only"
Fudge: Ah, so that'll be the segment of the population that can't afford a PC & so doesn't want fast uncapped broadband then? ... and no, they wouldn't want IPTV on a big plasma screen, or other services in the future. And, er, do they own a fax machine or an online home security system by any chance?

16. Heavily subsidise data-oriented devices, then charge a higher tariff
Fudge: If you tie your BlackBerry or 3G data card customers into an 18/24-month contract, you can increase your data ARPU by implicitly including the device purchase cost in the revenue stream

17. Classification of "miscellaneous" billed revenue
Fudge: On the revenue breakdown, where do you put things like handset insurance? Or an extra fee for itemised bills? Or per-minute charges to call a customer care line on an 0870 or other premium-rate number? I bet these don't go under "voice"......

18. Mobile Internet use are/will be more important than PC-based use
Fudge: Not everyone who clicks on the WAP/web browser icon on their handset is "using the Internet". And there's a huge difference between users and usage - lots of people may have tried the web icon on their handset when they first got it, or even used the number-pad keys to Google something ultra-important after a few drinks. But looking at actual ongoing use measured by pages / bytes / pixels consumed / time online / online purchases is still 99% PC-based (& yes, I know, Japan & Korea are exceptions). [99% - rough guess. Can anyone show me website logs which breakdown page hits by browser with >1% identifiable mobile browsers? Look at this analysis]

19. "We're a next-gen content / VoIP services / social networking / managed services provider"
Fudge: So why don't you tell us just how much of your revenue stream is actually made up of mundane stuff like interconnect/termination revenues or SMS gateways?

20. Use of 3G / smartphones increases ARPU
Fudge: Cause & effect - can you prove that using 3G or a smartphone increases a given individual's spend against their previous usage... or do existing high-spending users just tend to migrate faster to 3G/smartphones & skew the averaged figures? (do you actually offer 3G or smartphones to prepay customers, for example? or is the measured user base actually self-selected contract users?)

Friday, January 12, 2007

How strange, I wasn't asked to speak at the March UMA conference.....

It's funny, given the number of conferences that Informa asks me to speak at or chair, that I hadn't been aware that they were running their second UMA forum in March, until I spotted this post on Guy Kewney's site.

The last one in mid-2006 in Barcelona was quite interesting, although my usual, measured analysis (OK OK, I had a slide called "salvaging something from the wreckage of UMA") was comparatively tame when set against my analyst peer John Strand's stream of invective.

Anyway, so what can we infer from the agenda? Well, there's the usual set of suspects presenting, on both the vendor (Moto, Kineto, Alcatel , LG & the usual grudging "well, in some contexts, if you really insist" line from Nokia) and operator side (BT, TeliaSonera, FT/Orange, Telecom Italia). There's someone from Orascom in Egypt, which maybe indicates a new convert to the cause, plus what look to be some "Devil's advocate" counter-pitches from Hello AS and VIPnet.

Then there's the new-found hope for UMA, the femtocell vendors. I'm quite a believer in this as an application, as I've long held that the "killer app" for UMA was authentication-over-IP, not dual-mode handset access & handover. Femto's don't move in & out of WiFi/cellular coverage, and they don't have a UI, which makes them much better-suited to the technology than actual phones. (I noticed that BT is actually referring to its new Fusion handsets as WiFi-capable, which should put the cat among the pigeons when buyers expect to use them in a similar fashion to their other WiFi devices - eg networking them to their desktop PC's hard drive to swap music files....)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Off-topic - Rekindling my other blog

A while back I started up a second blog, covering environmental issues, climate change and similar topics. To be honest, I haven't really spent much time on it at all, but I've decided that should change this year.

As the oh-so-imaginative name Disruptive Environment suggests, it's not exactly a consensus-oriented effort either. Like my views on wireless, I'm sometimes contrarian, sometimes controversial, but hopefully thought-provoking nonetheless..... if you get a chance, please stop by.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Apple, Cingular, service creation and operator requirements

I've seen a few comments about Apple's new "Visual Voicemail", which enables random access to a Cingular mailbox from the new iPhone. What's not 100% clear is whether the concept comes from Apple, and they've got Cingular to adopt it, or vice versa - or even maybe it's a third party vendor's idea that they've both licenced.

Let's suppose it's Apple's idea, that they've made it a core app on the iPhone, and as Apple puts it "Cingular is the first supported carrier". In which case, isn't this going to involve a lot of work for any other carrier that wants to be "supported" by Apple? They'll have to rejig their voicemail platform as well.

But....most vendors and operators are enthusiastically pushing their next-gen "service creation" environments, whether based on IMS, Parlay, Web Services or whatever, as making it (supposedly) ultra-rapid and ultra-cheap to create & deploy new apps.

Now, the original idea was that the operator (or maybe a 3rd party developer) would be the innovator & drive the design & creation of these apps, then implement them rapidly. But this has failed - the operators (generally) aren't innovative or fast enough, while 3rd party developers haven't had the support & tools.

Now... imagine that someone like Apple comes along and TELLS the operator "Hey, we know you've got a new rapid service creation environment that you've been bragging about! So come on, let's see you develop an app that works with OUR vision & our device. We've done the innovating, and you can do development really quickly, so let's get on with it"

So if these things really DO work as advertised, and it only takes a week or a month (let's say) to develop a parallel voicemail service for Apple, then why not? And why not do a Nintendo one, or a Nokia one or whatever?

At the moment, operators put out lengthy requirements documents for the handset suppliers. Maybe this is the first instance of a handset supplier turning the tables and putting out requirements for the operator to adhere to. "Support Visual Voicemail, or we won't sell our product through you, and your customers will buy it from someone else instead & churn". Maybe Motorola should have taken that approach with the RAZR - if you have a "must have" product, the usual competitive dynamics of "power of supplier" and "power of customer" might get realigned. Of course, it helps if (like Apple) you don't have any existing carrier relationships to jeopardise by playing this type of game.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Apple iPhone.... first thoughts

Good:
  • Screen 320x480 pixels looks awesome
  • Touchscreen UI looks intuitive in demo's
  • Decent memory 4/8GB
  • Two batteries to avoid confusion between talktime & audiotime
  • Proper multitasking
  • Looks like my joking was wrong. It does do music after all....

Bad

  • 2MP camera is a bit sub-par for a premium phone. There is a definite "credibility threshold" at 3MP at which point it's a proper replacement for a pocket digicam.
  • EDGE only, not HSDPA on Cingular, and therefore maybe not even WCDMA in Europe
  • Looks rather big.... will need a big pocket. Mind you, the original iPod isn't small either.

Who knows

  • Apple OS X - unclear how well this will transition to phone OS
  • It's got SMS... but not much other typical cellular stuff. May be tricky to hit usual operator specs & requirements
  • Very Cingular-centric launch doesn't suggest an early European launch date. I wonder if Apple's at 3GSM next month.....

Right, I'm off for a few drinks courtsesy of Symbian. I wonder what their thoughts will be about the new kid on the block....

The problem with IMS is the "M"

Just musing a bit here.

I'm wading through some 3GPP documents about "Multimedia Telephony" that could run over a 3G network, and it's struck me how there's far too much emphasis on bundling different "media" streams, and not enough about bundling "context" streams.

What's struck me is that much of IMS' cumbersome nature seems to be driven by an unshakeable belief that the most important aspect of new telecom services will be to hook together voice, video, text, image etc. Add media streams, drop media streams, direct them to different people, have the same QoS and control mechanisms & supplementary services to apply equally across the board.

The problem is that 99% of calls are "just" voice. The whole of IMS - right down to its quaint 1990s-era name - seems to be geared around the notion that "the answer" to telcos' problems is "add videotelephony & make sure it works as well as voice". Rather than improving & extending the 99% of voice-only sessions, the vast bulk of effort seems to be around hoping that the 1% of multi-media sessions might become 2%, 5% or 10%. Despite a lack of obvious demand, or the fact that a huge % of mobile conversations are made when people can't watch the screen for fear of walking into a lamp-post.

So, for example, in the literature I've been reading, VoIP on a future 3G network is being treated as a "special case" of multimedia telephony. Personally, I think that it would make far more sense for video/multimedia telephony to be thought of as a special-case "enhancement" on top of vanilla VoIP.

And it's not the only possible enhancement - I'd argue that "context" is much more important in VoIP than adding video. Presence information, mood information, timezone, location, device characteristics, reputation, calendar info, messaging/reachability preferences, numbering preferences, multi-device ringing and 100 other things that go int the whole "Voice 2.0" phenomenon that's evolving.

As a result, I think that a lot of 3GPP IMS standards - and therefore much implementation by mainstream mobile operators - are hugely over-complicated and delayed by this dogged insistence on multimedia sessions. Meanwhile, nimbler startups are starting with voice+context at the core, and adding on other "media" as supplementary services on the side. Skype and most fixed operators are good examples. (Yes, fixed videotelephony is being pitched, but here it's being treated a "special case" and, of course, the lamp-post problem doesn't arise).

It's also worth noting VoIP has been designed-in to CDMA EV-DO Rev A & being deployed now, while it's still very much an afterthought on (maybe) HSUPA or even LTE. The 3GSM community is wasting too much time and effort on "multimedia" when instead they should just focus on plain-old VoIP with "multicontext" capabilities.

Monday, January 08, 2007

BT Fusion consumer WiFi ... no new phones, but HotZones & distribution are int

BT's finally announced its consumer variant of WiFi Fusion. I'm a bit disappointed to be honest - I'd thought the delayed launch vs Orange, Telecom Italia et al meant that they'd been waiting for an ideal opportunity to announce some new WiFi UMA phones. But it's the same-old A910, P200 and 6136 - not even the recently-announced Nokia 6086. I guess all the device manufacturers are waiting for 3GSM next month.

The reference to BT's Wireless Cities is interesting, and is a differentiator vs. quite a lot of other HomeZone-only FMC pitches. But it raises some interesting issues around scaling up hand-off. I haven't got the stats, but I'd be surprised if the average consumer Fusion user actually uses the WiFi/cellular or cellular/WiFi handoff more than a couple of times a week. Maybe 100 times a year, let's say. I mean, how often do you actually walk in or out of your front door at home, mid-call?

... but in an urban area, there's likely to be lots more WiFi "dark spots" - getting on the Tube, walking in and out of buildings, and in some cases the WiFi no-service area will overlap with a cellular no-service area, with all sorts of funny effects on the fringes. I guesstimate that the average user will probably have 10x or 20x more handoff events in a metro/hotzone setting than just using it at home. Should be interesting to see how the devices, the networks, the user interface & the batteries all cope with this.

Also interesting is BT's pitch on pricing & distribution. I definitely like the "four minutes talk for the price of one" as it's pretty easy-to-understand, although how it competes in the longer term with "free" courtesy of Skype/other VoWLAN is less clear. Elasticity being what it is, though, I suspect "75% off" in consumers' eyes is almost as good as "free". The Phones4U deal sounds promising as well - but what isn't stated in the press release is whether it will also bundle BT Broadband, and whether Fusion will also start to be made available for non-BT Broadband customers.

Nokia, Skype, Internet tablets..... and Sprint?

Let's join the dots.

  • Nokia launches new N800 WiFi Internet Tablet, following on from N770
  • Nokia announced deal with Skype, to provide its VoIP service via WiFi on the N800
  • Nokia conspicuously chooses CES in the US to launch more of its N-series "multimedia computers" including the WiFi-equipped N93i (the "i" seems to be Nokiaspeak for consumer/Internet-centric, not operator-centric, hence the N80i with native VoIP client)
  • Nokia designated as "key consumer electronic device vendor" for Sprint's forthcoming WiMAX network, for which it will "develop and market WiMAX-enabled mobile devices in significant volumes, including multimedia computers and Internet tablets
  • A fascinating post on Michael Mace's Mobile Opportunity blog about Sprint's embracing of openness, device agnosticism and no-contract-required service on its WiMAX network.

Now, would anyone like to place a bet with me on the likely inclusion of WiMAX chips in the N900 or whatever the version is called? And perhaps a couple of N-series WiMAX-Phones (sorry, WiMAX-Multimedia-Computers)? And, just conceivably, Sprint following 3's trailblazing and extolling the virtues of Skype?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Mobile phone radiation: truth, science and Clarins face spray

I generally stay away from writing about all the hoo-ha around "do mobiles / masts / laptops fry your brain". There's a huge amount of both utter rubbish & intelligent comment available from other people.

The physicist in me just thinks "it's just yet another form of electromagnetic radiation, at relatively low power". Yes, in sufficient doses, it probably causes some form of physiological effect, just like any other form of radiation - like light, for example, or ultraviolet, or gamma rays. I'm sure if you swallowed a kilowatt TV transmitter it probably wouldn't do you much good either.

But in the big scheme of things - ie "relative risk" - it's really not worth getting worked up about. Modern society brings a bunch of stuff that tend to mean that most things with "upside" have a little bit of downside too. I'd rather live to an expected 78 years old with a minuscule extra risk of cancer, than go back to living till 35 in a cave in the African Rift Valley with a large extra risk of getting eaten by a leopard. Dying horribly from some awful mobile-phone induced disease lies on my personal "risk meter" somewhere between accidental poisoning with Polonium-210 and getting hit by an asteroid. Or rather less risk than getting hit by too many cosmic rays when I'm flying, come to that. Same reason I wasn't too worried about spending a couple of hours at Chernobyl in August. Put simply - I've got better things to worry about.

So when my friend told me yesterday that he'd been barraged by an intense sales pitch from one of the nice Clarins cosmetics ladies in a large London department store, I fell about laughing. A wonderful new product, apparently made with extracts of thermophile bacteria that can live in extreme environments, will protect you from various sorts of radiation. Er, right. Looks like Clarins pre-announced this a few months back, but rather than a belated April Fool joke, it now seems they were serious about launching. Apparently, he was told it protects him from the ultra-mysterious "laptop rays" too. One of her lines after spraying a sample on his face was "see how refreshing & invigorating that feels?"..... "Er, yes. Like spraying water, in fact".

I'm just deeply insulted by the fact that their market research obviously told them that Londoners were the most gullible people on the planet, and thus most suitable for the launch location....

I'm quite tempted to go & waste some of their time myself, for the sake of comedy anecdotes for conferences.....

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Alcatel - Lucent... overdoing the rebranding and FMC groupthink

OK, a test for all you out there. Go to the brand new post-merger Alcatel-Lucent website and see how long it takes you to find any product information about its CDMA EV-DO Rev A network offerings. I gave up. Maybe they've canned it all during the merger, as I'm damned if I could find anything on the main website & I didn't have time to dig up my password to the former Lucent analyst extranet.

Go on, you have a try.

Yes, that's it.... a single bullet point in the general EV-DO section, which itself lurks under the smarmy and oh-so-intuitive heading of "Broadband for all", next to the equally wince-inducing heading of "User centric experience". Then think... is Rev A about "Mobile Penetration"? Or "Mass Market Broadband"? Or "Leading Edge Services"?

Urgh. I'd like to buy 17 user-centric experiences & a dozen competitive transformations, please, Mr Account Manager. And can I get fries with my "business critical communications"? What a load of rubbish.

Note to the new Alcatel-Lucent web marketing head honcho - You represent a technology company, so have a tab on the website so that people who know what technology they're looking for can go straight to it , without having to wade through your branding quicksand. Yes, maybe its easier for your internal organisation to group together a bunch of disparate access technologies like ADSL and EV-DO. But just label it "Access", and then have a hierachical menu split between fixed and mobile. We all know that that there's lots of clever FMC evolution going on, but for now, 99% of people have something quite specific in mind, so why not help them?
And by the way, your search engine and product catalog sucks too - do you really think it enhances readability to spell out "Alcatel Lucent" for every single product in your alphabetic listing? Just because you spent $$$m on a corporate image consultancy, please don't try and get your money's worth by trying to beat the world record for repetitive brand-per-page count.

So, when is HSUPA going to arrive?

I've seen an awful lot of roadmap slides for different wireless technologies this year. And quite a lot of them put HSUPA deployments a year on from HDSPA.

Yet by December 2005, Cingular had launched its service commercially in the US, and O2 had launched on the Isle of Man. Over 50 other networks were in deployment or planning at the end of 2005, with a trickle of launches through H1 2006 and accelerating through H2 to almost 100 networks live now. Even then, the vast majority of usage has been for laptops or PDA-style devices, rather than true handsets.

Thus far, there has been very little noise about real-world HSUPA deployments or even large-scale tests, although various operators have mentioned it in passing. I'd be surprised if we see any commercial launches in H1 2007 - my guess would be perhaps around October. This means a ramp-up of launches in mid-2008, ie probably about 20 months behind HSDPA. It also probably means we shouldn't be expecting handset form-factor HSUPA products to ship in meaningful quantities until perhaps Q4'08 or Q1'09.