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Monday, March 30, 2015

Real-world anecdotes on mobile usage: WiFi, Whatsapp, Roaming & Batteries

I just spent a weekend away with a group of friends. We all have smartphones (3 iPhones, 3 Androids), with a diversity of data plans, mostly from the UK but one of us from Denmark. Most of us are non-geeky/non-industry, but fairly heavy users.

It was interesting to watch the different behaviours - especially as we had severe travel disruptions in both directions, owing to power-failures in Amsterdam/Schiphol Airport on Friday, and severe wind/rain on the way back impacting both flights and rail yesterday.

The most obvious phenomena were:

a) Battery life / power availability is critical, especially when travel problems mean you're reliant even more on communications, but have least-easy access to recharging.

b) Roaming & WiFi-usage behaviour are fluid, depending on home operator (& plan) used. LTE roaming actually works properly, most of the time, now.

c) Use of applications/web on mobile while travelling is largely a function of travel experience & frequency. Perhaps unsurprising.

d) Travelling in a group nowadays inevitably means points in the day when you're all in the same place, silent, and on your phones. Especially when you find good coffee & decent WiFi.

The power issue has multiple angles - firstly, surprisingly few people in UK/Europe carry power-banks or cases with long-life batteries. Compared to bits of Asia where they seem ubiquitous, it's very conspicuously different. Separately, the provision of USB-based power (& maybe in future wireless power) in hotels, rental properties, airports, planes, trains etc is lagging a long way behind WiFi. I'm surprised it hasn't proliferated faster. Lastly, as people increasingly have access to 2+ devices (or friends), it would be good to be able to charge from any-to-any efficiently.

The differences that low/flat-rate roaming makes is astonishing. I have a flat £3/day plan from Vodafone (as did a friend) and we became the de-facto navigators and "leaders" as we had connectivity when walking about. The others grudgingly used data-roaming to deal with travel issues and connect to each other via Whatsapp, but were grateful for/horrified by their advice-of-charge texts. We also religiously checked every location - restaurant, bar, apartment, train station, airport - for WiFi & inherently *expect* it to be free. A simple code/password is fine. Notably, even the flatrate data-roaming users still use free WiFi, as we didn't know whether our £3 a day gives us an extra "bucket" (how much? how notified?) or if comes out of our normal monthly plan.

(As an aside - when I've been to non-flatrate countries recently, the "Welcome to Country X" and "You've used £xx of data already" SMS's came 30mins after I arrived, and 60mins after I crossed a threshold. Needs to be instantaneous, or else it's roaming-off + WiFi + local-SIM time again).

In nutshell - at the moment, most operators/plans are still ripoffs for international travellers. Giving users a flatrate & predictable price - about the price of a coffee or beer per day - seems to make a huge difference to both usage & perception. Per-MB pricing is awful for roaming, especially where you have background apps or inbound messages/notifications. Free data-roaming would be even better, but at least at a low level, the price is just another of the travel-related niggling costs like overpriced water or taxis.

(One thing I'd note for airports - it's really frustrating to have to keep going through the WiFi access process in different parts of the venue, because they're treated as different IP subnets or something. Everyone walks for miles in airports, especially Schiphol. If it's unavoidable, it needs to be password-free, just click-n-join).

Whatsapp (or its competing peers) are indispensable. A group of people from the UK & Denmark, meeting in the Netherlands & travelling via France and Belgium are not going to use SMS/MMS+roaming premium to communicate with each other, especially when 3+ have access to WiFi or flatrate data at any point. 

Sidenote: If RCS is to have *any* remote chance of competing, it needs to completely eliminate roaming or international charges beyond data access, allow simple group creation, support iPhones easily, be accesssible via WiFi etc. Will RCS ever be as ubiquitous, as cheap & as usable as Whatsapp for situations like this? Almost certainly not. I'm due to give it another good kicking in an upcoming blog post, so I'll leave that for now.

The TripAdvisor Cities app is loved by everyone & evangelised by me a lot (What's nearby! Reviews! Offline maps!). Various others are worthwhile too, for finding attractions, food, drinks etc. (I like Thrillist, another friend has "Unlike City Guides"). Google Maps rules for logistics but can be a bit variable with local public transport routes & schedules. 

But interestingly, in the unticketed queue for the Rijksmuseum, waiting in the rain, I was the only one to wonder if we could book online & save ourselves an hour's wait. Job done - but that's because I could remember my credit card details & sort it all before we moved and lost our place. I want the ticket PDF or Passbook entry on my screen, please. (I'd never have charged it to my phone bill, or used an NFC terminal, obviously - I'm not *that* weird & geeky).

I also found out that one of my friends gets ripped-off for calling family in the UK Channel Islands because the number ranges are considered "international" and are outside normal inclusive calling plans. That's a complete joke. She didn't realise she could save a ton of cash by using SkypeOut or similar services. It makes me wonder how much of the remaining revenue in telephony is from "the inertia of ignorance". This isn't value-based pricing - it's just hoping customers don't realise their old behaviour should change.
Oh - one other thing - as far as I know, none of used much SMS or *any* phone calls while away. Telephony is now so far past its peak among certain demographics that it's almost an irrelevance except in emergencies or stressful situations (eg my rebooking of a cancelled flight, while walking to the tube station - but I'd have preferred to have it in the frequent-flyer app, rather than via the dialler).

1 comment:

Fazal Majid said...

"It makes me wonder how much of the remaining revenue in telephony is from "the inertia of ignorance".

Scott Adams, who used to work for PacBell, called this "confusopoly" in "The Dilbert principle"