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Thursday, September 23, 2010

500m fixed broadband lines - how many users?

The world has now reached the important threshold of half a billion fixed broadband lines, which is generating some nice headlines.

It will also no doubt generate some hype from the mobile side of the fence, touting the 1 billion 3G connections passed earlier this year.

However, it is worth thinking what these mean in terms of people, not the near-obsolete notion of "subscriptions", an increasingly useless term that the telecoms industry clings onto.

What the 500m number really means is "households", plus or minus some small businesses, schools, Internet cafes and so forth.

I did a quick calculation, based on average household size in the largest broadband countries (3.1 in China, 2.6 in the US and so forth) and looking overall, I'd say there's probably about 2.9 people per broadband home. That's going to vary a bit because of a bias towards families (more people per household), urban areas (fewer people), younger people (more) and assorted other modifiers.

But give or take, we've got about 1.4 billion people in homes with fixed broadband, although some of them will be too young to use it. I'd guess maybe another 500m+ get (less frequent) access in cafes, schools and workplaces. The number is growing pretty fast too.

For all the rhetoric about mobile Internet growth, it's important to stop comparing apples with oranges. A mobile "subscription" is not equivalent to a fixed line - many people have multiple mobile devices, but typically a DSL or cable line is shared.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mobile phones as PC replacements? I don't think so...

One of the greatest myths in the mobile industry (and IT industry) is that we are in the "post PC" era. The noise and hype around smartphones and lower tier devices replacing normal computers remains deafening.

(There's also a growing clamour that iPads and other tablets are shaking the PC market to its core, but that's a slightly different issue I'll deal with another day).

I've written about this before, but there's still a ton of ill-informed noise, usually from people who have long held a grudge against Microsoft, and see the rise of the smartphone as a way to realise their wishful thinking. Unfortunately, they let their glee cloud their critical judgement, asserting that a handset can easily replace a notebook, once it's got a TV-out port and a basic OS.

I've covered this issue before, but one new statistic has just helped me crystallise my thinking:

A typical smartphone battery holds 10-20x less energy than a typical laptop battery

In a simple nutshell, that represents the difference between the two worlds. In a computer, that extra power is used to make the screen brighter/larger, and also to run the processor and ancilliaries harder. For all a phone's great power-management tricks on standby (and indeed much-needed cleverness when it's being used as well), the bottom line is that their "ain't no substitute for energy".

Laptop shells are bigger, supporting a larger battery. Not only that, because they are dependent on volume, a 2x increase in each dimension results in an 8x volume and therefore energy storage capacity.

The result: the two devices remain in different universes. Yes, in the big Venn diagram of "use cases", there are a few areas of overlap. I certainly use smartphones *a lot* for certain tasks - but there's no way I'd be writing this blog post on one, with the need for a decent keyboard, and a screen large enough to have open windows from various web pages & background apps.

For those wanting some harder numbers, the key metric is "Watt-Hours", not the more common "mAH" (milliamp-hours) you see on handset websites, because power (watts) = amps x volts, and different devices operate at diferent voltages. Watts = 1 joules [energy] / sec, so a Watt-Hour is a proper measurement of *energy* (3600J to be exact).

Some data points:
Nokia E52 = 5.5 W-H
iPhone 4 = 5.25 W-H
BlackBerry Torch = 4.7 W

MacBook Pro = 77.5 W-H
Dell Latitude = 85 W-H
HP Mini netbook = 66 W-H

EDIT - an Apple iPad has 25 W-H of battery life, hence its position further up the curve. 5x that of a smartphone, but 3x less than a laptop. More of a threat, greater overlap on some use cases, but still in a different world.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What happens to indoor coverage during emergencies?

A very quick question:

- Which of the current crop of indoor mobile coverage options offers the best chance of working during emergencies, for voice and/or data?

Historically, landline phones have been fairly reliable as the lines are powered from the exchange (unless it's via a locally-powered PBX or home cordless unit), and have a direct physical metal connection exiting the property through the wall.

Conventional macrocellular 2G/3G phones and networks have also been to individual buildings being affected, although city-wide events such as terrorism and earthquakes have caused congestion or failure. The use of GSM or CDMA in 850-900MHz and 1800-1900MHz bands has tended to mean reasonable indoor coverage.

But I'm wondering if newer solutions such as WiFi, femtocells and even active distributed antennas & repeaters are more vulnerable, as they are reliant on local power from electrical sockets and the in-building LAN wiring and infrastructure.

I'll readily admit that this isn't a focus area of mine - but with the advent of technologies like LTE & WiMAX running in high-band frequencies like 2.6GHz, reliable in-building operation surely becomes much more of an issue.

What are the knock-on impacts on both indoor build-out (UPS power for femtos?) and also specrum policy?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mobile cloud hype

I just read an article in New Scientist about cloud-based music storage & streaming sites, asking why anyone would want to own music, if it was all available in the network. I've heard the same argument advanced about image or video or work data storage.

Don't get me wrong, I think Spotify is wonderful and I used Rhapsody for a while. I stream Internet radio to my phone over 3G. And I enjoy numerous other "cloud" services such as webmail and Facebook.

But for all the greatness of those services, they also highlight various limitations which mean that I absolutely want all my music and photos and contacts in "owned" form, on a hard drive or flash memory or CD or whatever.

Having the cloud as a backup is fine - or as a convenient way to get access to the "long tail" of things I'll never buy, yes. But as a primary source and repository for my most important mobile stuff? No thanks.

(For fixed applications, things are a bit different - this argument is specifically about the 'mobile cloud')

So what are the limitations?

The first one (as ever) is mobile coverage. It's still far from ubiquitous, even in central London. Obviously the Tube still doesn't have mobile coverage. But even just normal 3G at street level, or indoors, is patchy. Yesterday afternoon I was at an office in Holborn in central London. No 3G on Vodafone, approximately 100m from global mobile HQ - the GSMA is based a block down. Yes, we'll see improvements with femtocells and 800MHz spectrum and assorted other innovations - but I seriously doubt we'll ever be happy enough with coverage to trust it for data or content we really need now.

The next is capacity, especially for uncompressed data. If I take a photo with an 8MP camera, I'd like to retain a version that's comparatively unmangled - the ability to generate data volumes is accelerating beyond the uplink capacity of mobile networks, as is the propensity of people to generate content such as video. Yes it could be cached and uploaded later, but the sheer volumes make it sensible to store most of it locally, especially as memory is so cheap.

Then there's roaming. The idea that anyone wants to sit on a beach on holiday, pulling down music from the "cloud" at prices that insult the intelligence, is not believable. In fact, the whole data roaming scenario is now such an abuse of trust, that it will act as a barrier to mobile operators succeeding in new marketplaces. Honestly - do they think anyone will be stupid enough to trust an operator with their content - or worse, bank account - if they continue to perpetuate daylight robbery when you go across borders? It sends out a strong signal that "loyalty" is not wanted, just gullibility and compliance.

Linked to that issue is churn. Yes, I know that many services are intended to be "sticky" and reduce churn. But people do churn, for various reasons, and will continue to do so. Blackmailing them with potential loss of their data or content is unlikely to be seen positively. The main obstacle here is anything that ties service to access - that is clearly a link that will be broken even more fully than it is today.

Lastly - longevity. Inevitably, some "cloud" providers will go bust at some point. What happens to your data?

(There's also plenty of other issues around battery life, security, privacy and so forth).

Bottom line - mobile cloud services will indeed become more important and valuable. But the notion that they will replace ownership (and local storage) of data and content is risible - wishful thinking by those that want perpetual services revenue streams.

People like to own stuff - not rent everything.

Or else perhaps you'd like to sign up for my new mobile footwear service? A free pair of shoes on a 24 month $25 contract. The bundle includes 25km of walking a month, with an optional $3 a month upgrade for football-kicking. Unless you're travelling abroad, in which case you have to pay an extra $20 every time you want to wear sandals on the beach.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Android - the retail experience

I just stopped off at my local branch of Carphone Warehouse on a whim, to have a quick look at what's being sold and how. (By coincidence, this is actually CPW's first ever store, opened in 1989).

It's been a while since I'd been in there, and one particular thing caught my eye - the removal of the Apple iPhone point-of-sale island, with the live demo phones. Instead, there was a podium with dummy Samsung devices.

There was also, against the wall, a specific Android display. It was awkwardly placed, so I had to keep getting out of the way of people moving around the shop. It has a display for four phones - the Samsung Galaxy S, Motorola Milestone (European equivalent of the Droid), an HTC Desire and an empty space where there was supposed to be a SonyEricsson X10.

I thought I'd have a quick play with these, to see how they looked to a potential customer:

- The Milestone didn't appear to have a SIM in it, or it was otherwise not working properly. A click on Maps from the homescreen gave me a "waiting" logo for about 60 secs and then told me it didn't have an Internet connection.
- The Desire was switched off, and it wasn't immediately obvious how to switch it back on (the phones are held fixed in clamps).
- The Galaxy S had a demo running. All attempts at button-pushing to take me to the menu failed. I gave up. Nice screen, though.
- The X10 wasn't there

Net result - major fail. They might as well have been plastic mock-ups bolted to the wall.

Honestly, could you imagine that in an Apple - or even Nokia - store? Or an Apple display in a normal phone retailer?

I'm guessing that the point of sale material was either put together by CPW corporately, or the specific store itself. I'm sure you'll appreciate the slightly vulgar irony of the abbreviation for "point of sale".

Now clearly, this is just a one-off visit, and I haven't been Android-shopping anywhere else. And clearly, they're selling devices by the bucketload. But if my experience is typical, I'm unsurprised that people aren't generally buying them for their apps, but because they are now the typical "default high end devices" in much the same way that S60 Nokias used to be.

Sooner or later, I expect we'll see Google develop a retail presence, either under its own brand or specifically for Android devices. Until then, the in-store experience is going to be driven by the individual manufacturers rather than any form of unified pitch to the customer.

(Separately - no sign of 3G-embedded laptops either, all of them are sold with external dongle modems. Who would have predicted that....)

EDIT - by an amusing coincidence, GigaOm has an article today on smartphone retail as well, featuring Best Buy, which owns half of CPW in Europe

Monday, September 06, 2010

BT WiFi smartphone application

I've just seen BT's announcement of its new iPhone and Android app, offering free WiFi access at its Openzone and FON hotspots to its Total Broadband subscribers.

I'm trying to think through the purpose of this, given that it doesn't directly generate any extra revenue for BT, either in terms of the app download or hotspot access fees.

My initial take is that it is primarily aimed at making BT's ADSL service look better value to reduce churn, or tempt across new customers. I've been using the free Openzone WiFi access on my laptop for a while, but not generally on my iPhone. I see it as a useful value-add that offsets the fact my home broadband isn't the cheapest or fastest I could get.

But it could also be a way of doing a more convenient "managed offload" solution for the UK's mobile operators, rather than the current approach which needs separate logins at the hotspot for Vodafone, Orange etc. While some users are able/happy to navigate through the "WiFi roaming" pull-down menus or splash pages, I bet that others are put off. If all that could be done at the back end, recognising the device and its host operator automatically without user intervention, it would improve compliance and allow BT to tell O2 or Vodafone or 3 exactly how much of their macro data was being offloaded.

Alternatively, it could just be a stealthy approach to get a BT-branded client onto a lot of smartphones for use in WiFi zones.... with the second or third upgrade suddenly adding extra new features such as BT VoIP or Vision IPTV or something else. I'm a firm believer that an upcoming trend will be operators launching apps to run over each others' phones/networks - if their PR departments can work out a way of sidestepping accusations of hypocrisy over disparaging use of the term "over the top". Actually, BT has some prior history here - I believe it was the first to launch a VoIP client (for Corporate Fusion) intended to operate on other operator-supplied devices.