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Thursday, April 19, 2007

VoIP and the Nokia N95

I've been quite surprised to see the huge marketing campaign behind Nokia's latest top-end handset, the N95, which has "all the toys" - HSDPA, WiFi, GPS, 5-megapixel camera and so on. And like a number of recent E- and N-series phones, it comes with native VoIP capability. It's also pretty expensive, so I the fact that it's being pushed through many major retail channels (in the UK via Carphone Warehouse and Vodafone, including posters in the windows, advertising spots usually reserved for the biggest-selling & most profitable massmarket offers).

And then I saw a link on ForumOxford mentioning this - it appears that some operator-specific variants (Orange & Voda have been named and shamed) have the native VoIP capability crippled, and also apparently don't work with downloaded 3rd-party VoIP apps like Truphone's.

This is very interesting as I had a conversation last week with a senior devices honcho at one of Europe's main operators. He actually made some slightly opaque references to removing some of the native VoIP capabilities from smartphones, but he described it more about stopping Nokia (or whoever) from putting Skype or similar services preloaded onto the phone when it ships. Basically he said he didn't want users to be able to make out-of-the-box VoIP calls with a competing provider on a phone he'd subsidised, and that all VoIP calls from the phone would initially be routed via the operator's own VoIP servers. When I asked him whether he was talking about disabling the underlying VoIP capability down in the operating system, he said that no, that wouldn't happen. Advanced users would still be able to download Truphone or Fring or whatever - these "clever" users, he recognised, would always be able to use VoIP if they chose, and alienating them was stupid, as they'd just churn - not ideal, as these are exactly the sort of high-end users who use data and other interesting new services if they're pitched right.

What's not clear is whether the Orange & Voda folk have been so ham-fisted that they've blocked all "naked SIP" capabilities or just the VoIP. Personally, I think they're being particularly stupid to cripple a phone and not be completely up-front about it. Face it, the customer base for N95's is likely to be pretty tech-savvy - if you lie to them about the device's capabilities, or don't ensure that your sales staff & customer service reps know exactly what the modified functions & policies are, then you're going to irk an awful lot of customers.

I also remember asking the 3 folk at the time of X-series launching whether they'd block "real" VoIP running alongside the circuit-switched Skype/iSkoot service. No, they replied, if you wanted to download the packet version of Skype (assuming a Symbian one ever launches...) they wouldn't stop you or interfere with it.

Separately, I got an email yesterday from a senior exec at a major mobile software firm. He'd just bought an N95 (a "vanilla" version) and had been using it on a business trip to make VoIP calls from his company's US office, and his hotel. "So far I’ve spent 137 minutes on SIP calls using the N95. Setup was trivial, dialling is as simple as pressing “internet call” on a contact. Call quality is indistinguishable from GSM roaming call..... I've saved $292 so far, so that's payback in 9 days [for the phone purchase price]"

I foresee high-end users switching over to vanilla phones (especially businesses), or churning to operators like 3 which publicly state they don't screw around with the software too much. While this may have the long hoped-for effect of weaning many of us off of our addiction to subsidy, it will have the corollary effect of making us want proper ex-factory vanilla phones which work "to spec". I can't see anyone wanting an unsubsidised operator-custom handset that clearly has a risk that the software has been crudely hacked for "revenue protection" reasons.

In theory I have no problem with subsidised devices being limited to certain types of usage. I also have no problem with T's and C's being restrictive if all parties enter into the contract with open eyes. But I think that there needs to be increasing transparency about all types of "policy" with both mobile & fixed services. If you get a subsidised phone, you should be made to sign a form which says "I understand & agree that the operator can delete X Y & Z capabilities from the device's published specifications". If you sign up to an ISP, they should have similar transparency concerning any bandwidth management / port-blocking / throttling. I met someone recently planning to take this type of suggestion to Ofcom & other regulators: more power to you.


Truphone has posted a clip on YouTube showing an Orange-ised N95 with its VoIP capability amputated and unable to work with aftermarket applications which use the native dialler & menu integration.


Anonymous said...

As more European MNOs offer AYCE data plans, it will be interesting to see if they cripple phones or put caveats on what can or cannot be done with the phone. While AYCE data plans are now offered by most US operators, they prohibit many D2C streaming & SIP type services either in the contract or in the device.

James said...

Vodafone and Orange choose to cripple what is the most feature rich and desireable handset on the market today. O2 choose not to.

Is this a good reason to buy your N95 from O2?

Anonymous said...

whats a "vanilla" fone?

Anonymous said...

I am outraged to find out that all the uk providers are either blocking or charging an extortionate rate to use your mobile phone for Voip services.
3 are actively blocking it
Orange are removing software and will block it if you use Voip
T-Mobile charge and extra 15GBP on top of there supposed unlimited internet access for nothing as they do nothing other than NOT block it. Paying for nothing!!
Virgin are blocking it.
Vodaphone are actively blocking it

This has got to be illegal surely.
I paid for the phone outright. I pay a company for the Voip service. I am willing to pay a mobile operator for internet access on my phone and a contract pay monthly so they still get paid. Yet they have the right to block me using the service.
We have very little rights any more. I may as well move to China.