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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

T-Mo a bit behind the curve on prepay mobile broadband

I read this article from T-Mobile UK about a shift of mobile broadband from contract to prepaid offerings. Strange it's taken them this long to realise....

... and what is also interesting is what this means for the 3G-enabled notebook market. With prepaid options, it is incumbent on the end user and PC vendor deciding to spec their notebooks with an HSPA card at the time of purchase. Otherwise they'll just use a dongle instead.

To be honest, I'm actually expecting even "plain vanilla" prepay to shift towards other options like 3rd-party paid services, or "free" (ie sponsored) models similar to some WiFi hotspots. If we can somehow get rid of the need for a physical SIM, we could also move to ad-hoc models much more easily too.

All this is quantitatively analysed in a lot of depth in the recent Disruptive Analysis report on Mobile Broadband Computing. Please contact info AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for more details and pricing.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Upcoming adventure in India - Suggestions and Sponsorship required

The last few months have been manically busy for me workwise. As a result, I'd been intending to take a holiday in April to relax.

And indeed, I am going to be away for 3 weeks from April 8th. But rather than relaxing, I've been persuaded by a good friend of mine to go on a charity-raising adventure across India instead. We're going to be driving a three-wheel, 7-horsepower auto rickshaw for 4000km / 2500 miles, from Shillong in the Northeast, to Goa on the West Coast. About 60 other teams are also taking part.

Full details of the trip are here: http://rickshawrun09e.theadventurists.com/

All of this is very last-minute, as we got told about a waiting-list space on the trip only a week or two ago.

Given the whole thing is clearly a crazy thing to do, my friend Kathleen & I have called our team the Mad Hatters, after the character in Alice in Wonderland (and our mutual liking of hats).

Our woefully-underdeveloped Team Microsite is at this link. We'll be putting up our route as soon as we work it out ourselves, and maybe some more content if we get a chance over the next week. Depending on connectivity (see my questions below!) we'll be updating it and the team Facebook page as well, as we go across India.

As well as visas, vaccinations and general preparation, we also have to raise sponsorship money for two very worthy charities. And this is where I am hoping some of my regular blog readers will step up. You'll notice that I don't have adverts on this blog. The content is "free to air" - and while some of it is anecdotal, other stuff would stack up paid-for, in other contexts such as my reports & consulting. I'm happy to give it away for free.....

....but I'm appealing to your generosity (and maybe guilt!) to contribute on this occasion.

The charities are:

Frank Water

Sustainable, affordable, clean water projects using the latest technology. Currently 1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, 2.2 million people die every year from dirty water related disease affecting mainly under 5’s. Over 20 World Health Organisations recognise water related diseases. 85% of hospital admissions in Andhra Pradesh are related to dirty water. Women and children walk miles and spend hours collecting dirty water. Old pumps, boreholes and wells are often contaminated.

Frank Water is working in partnership with Water Health International (technologists) and Naandi (local NGO), funding and implementing community clean water projects across India. Money raised will go the capital costs of building the clean water facility. Villagers also contribute to build costs for commitment and ownership.
Read more at www.frankwaterprojects.org
Donate at: http://www.justgiving.com/rickshawrun-madhatters-frank

SOS Children's Villages

SOS Children's Villages has been providing a family for life for children who have lost their parents through war, famine, disease and poverty since 1949. Over 70,000 orphaned or abandoned children are cared for by SOS mums in clusters of family homes in more than 470 of our unique children's villages, in 123 countries around the world.

A further million benefit from SOS Children's outreach support which includes education, vocational training, medical care and community development programmes. SOS Children also provides emergency relief in situations of crisis and disaster and continues to support families in Pakistan and tsunami-affected countries.
Find out more at www.soschildren.org
Donate at: http://www.justgiving.com/rickshawrun-madhatters-sos

Please note that the Justgiving website allows personal contributions to be made on the part of a company, and can give receipts etc.

As regular readers know, I'm very protective of this blog's independence, and I don't do "paid" posts and generally dislike direct "will you do an article" pitches from PR people. On this occasion, though, I will make an exception. Companies or individuals sponsoring the trip will get a name-check in a future blog-post. And particularly generous contributions will get more content written - maybe even a standalone post.

And if you have any practical hints or tips - or maybe want to give us a satellite modem or India-ready USB modem or data SIM - please either comment on here, or email me via firstname.lastname AT disruptive-analysis DOT... com

Many thanks!


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The collapse of the featurephone market

There's been a lot of discussion about the woes of Motorola, SonyEricsson and others recently. I thought I'd add a couple of viewpoints from what I've been seeing:

- Push by mobile operators to lengthen upgrade cycles for phones, from 12 months to 18, and now to 24 months. (This is especially in Europe - I know that Americans have had 24mo contracts for ages, and Canadians sometimes have to deal with ridiculous 3-year deals). The 12-18 month move, at the height of the "boom" in 2006-7, was catalysed by giving away top end devices like Nokia N95's on a highly subsidised basis. This time around, it's being catalysed by the promise of low prices or better bundles
- Upgrading from one featurephone (or low-tier smartphone) to another doesn't really seem to be a priority for most people. Going from a 5MP to an 8MP camera is "meh". A slightly faster data connection you still don't use isn't exciting. Storing a bit more music? Yawn. Basically, people either seem to want to migrate to something completely new (usually either QWERTY or Touchscreen) or else they're not that bothered.
- Familiarity breeds contempt. There's a zillion slim slider-phones around - it has to be pretty special for your friends to notice your cool new phone. Or it needs to be a touchscreen or QWERTY (see above....)
- Operators pushing SIM-only contracts are making it appealing to use an old, ordinary phone for cheap voice & SMS.
- Some of the recent featurephones have been a let down. I'd say my SonyEricsson C902 is probably worse to use than my old K800i, even though it's cuter/slimmer. It "hangs" regularly, the flash is anaemic, and the UI is slower generally.
- The iPhone has redefined peoples expectations a lot. I feel clumsy & old-fashioned showing people my camera's photos on a 2-inch QVGA display, even if the colours are good.

Bottom line - selling mid-tier candybar, clamshell or slider phones is going to be tough for the rest of this year at least.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Second-order effects on mobile from environmental challenges

I've been following the interactions between the mobile industry and "green" issues for some time. Most of the manifestations have been what I'd call "first-order" - direct changes that impact how handsets and networks are designed and used.

Specifically, it has meant initiatives such as:

- Base stations and other network elements which use less power
- Solar and wind power, rather than diesel, for "off grid" sites
- Recyclable handsets (and better recycling processes)
- Standardisation of handset chargers, auto switch-off when fully charged etc

But I think that there are also some important "second-order" opportunities and challenges ahead. These are where environmental initiatives and trends elsewhere in society and industry have a knock-on effect on mobile.

For example, yesterday I attended a public lecture about energy consumption, given by Professor Michael Kelly, the Chief Scientific Adviser ro the UK Department of Communities and Local Government. He was mainly talking about energy use linked to buildings - principally for heating, cooling, lighting and electrical devices. Despite the focus on things like air travel, the fact is that it is ordinary homes and offices that generate a very large % of power consumption and CO2 emissions.

This reflects the importance that many are placing on things like home insulation.

And despite all the talk of constructing new "carbon neutral" homes, he made the astonishing prediction that 86% of today's buildings will still be in use by 2050. So consequently, a huge amount of retrofitting will need to occur - insulation, energy control technology and so forth.

OK, all very interesting & worthy - but what does this have to do with mobile?

Several things, in fact:

- I wonder whether there are issues (or any measurements) regarding the propagation of wireless into and within well-insulated buildings, vs. poorly-insulated ones? What effect is there from triple-glazed windows, perhaps with mirrored or reflective glass? Wall cavity insulation of different types? Does this change the landscape for femtos, WiFi and so forth?
- More specifically, the Professor suggested that in the UK, for various reasons (eg speed) it might be necessary to put some form of cladding on the outside of houses. This could be both a threat (RF propagation again) but also an opportunity. If every house in the UK will have to be "retrofitted" to come up to standard, what else could be done, simply and by the same workers, during the process? Could the cladding be designed to include external antennas or repeaters, for example? Or wireless sensors, perhaps?
- There are also various options around moves to monitor and control power use - for example with smart meters, or other systems that mean more flexible ways to control energy, heating, lighting, aircon and so forth. The obvious ones are things like remote meters - but what about using mobile technology more inventively? A government could use mobile to incentivise or modify behaviour, in conjunction with mobile operators and power companies. "If you cut you electricity consumption by 30% over the next 3 months, we'll give you a 50% discount on your phone bill" or perhaps (privacy advocates look away now...) "You've left your heating on at home, while you're out at work. Would you like to turn it off remotely?"

There will probably be various other secondary effects as well. Already, mobile accounts for around 1% of personal CO2 emissions (handset and network, capex and opex). Given targets of an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050, there will be a broad set of impacts, both direct and indirect.

The direct issues are already getting a lot of play. I'd suggest that starting to think about indirect and second-order effects now is a wise move.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Underground 3G coverage

I am currently in what is probably London's only basement with perfect 5-bar 3G coverage.

By a curious coincidence, it's the cellar bar in a pub opposite the GSMA's headquarters....

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Google Voice and idle speculation about VoIP partnerships....

Google has launched its revamped Voice service, formed on the basis of its GrandCentral acquisition. At the moment it looks like it's mostly PC-based, and dovetails with Gmail.

Predictably, the world & his dog are putting two and two together (Voice + Android) and calling it the death knell for the operator as a "voice pipe" by using an mVoIP work-around.

For various reasons, this seems implausible in the short term - not least the low likelihood of any two people both having Android phones, with flatrate data, and HSUPA coverage, and sufficient battery power to run not both the OS but all the voice processing and so forth.

The other option is some sort of callthrough / callback option using circuit calls, perhaps subsidised by adverts. This might work in the US, but elsewhere in the world the interconnect fees to mobile numbers are prohibitively high.

Maybe Google's got some clever voice-recognition technology that could pick out words in phone conversations ("restaurant", "flight", "car", "gig"), which coupled with lax privacy rules could allow some clever advertising or other services, along the lines of Pudding Media's proposals from a year ago, or indeed, my own from three years past. Maybe that could subsidise termination fees at some point.

In any case, an Android / Google Voice pairing would probably make last week's hoo-ha about Nokia+Skype look comparatively trivial from an operator standpoint. Or at least it would if anyone actually gets around to developing desirable/capable Android phones.

But to me, [and this is total & utter random speculation on my part] the real deal would be if at some point Apple partnered with (or, better, acquired) Skype or BT/Ribbit or Truphone or someone like that. Then the cat would be well & truly among the pigeons.....

200 million dual-SIM phones?

I wrote a post about the new crop of dual-SIM handsets a couple of months ago, and since then it's been a slow undercurrent, with a few new ones at Barcelona, but otherwise it's been a fairly quiet trend.

Or so I thought.

According to this article, over 200 million were produced in China last year!

Given the whole of the handset market is only 1.1 billion, and a big chunk is taken up by "normal" Nokia, Samsung etc phones, that figure sounds implausibly enormous to me - but if anyone from China or elsewhere could comment, I'd be fascinated to be proved wrong.

Monday, March 09, 2009

VoLGA - reinventing UMA for Voice-over-LTE

Regular readers will know that I've been a huge skeptic of UMA (Universal Mobile Access) versions of dual-mode WiFi+cellular for more than 4 years. And indeed, the market has shown me to have been correct - apart from moderately-succcessful deployments by Orange in France and T-Mobile in the US, UMA has largely been a failure.

My issues largely related to the original lack of a 3G variant of UMA (until recently, all the services have been 2G+WiFi) and the complexities of creating phone OSs, UIs and applications that had UMA-friendly [ie operator-centric] WiFi running at the same time user-defined WiFi functions. Most UMA applications "hide" the bearer from the application stack, whereas I firmly believe in a connection manager layer that tells apps whether they're using WiFi, cellular etc.

But most of my original objections to UMA do not apply to its recent incarnation (in its 3GPP-approved GAN acronym form, meaning Generic Access Network).

These issues are rather less important for LTE, which is:

a) Using licenced spectrum, so there is no conflicting "private" usage mode like there is for WiFi
b) Desperately needing a standardised voice service
c) Unlikely to be paired with an IMS core except in a handful of cases
d) Timed to arrive at a point in the economic cycle when nobody will want to ditch their core switches & circuit voice apparatus
e) Going to demand that operators simultaneously learn about a new radio network technology - and transition their 80%-of-revenue voice service to packet technology, with all sorts of unknown dependencies and learning curves.

I've written before about the possibility of "tunneling" circuit voice over a packet-based radio connection. Consequently, I'm generally a believer in the new VoLGA concept advanced by T-Mobile and various vendors like Ericsson and Kineto. Apart from the stupid name, obviously, which is one of the most unfortunate acronyms I've seen in years. I'm in two minds whether they should have kept it identified as UMA rather than GAN, given the baggage that would convey, but surely they could have got some branding folk involved? (How about just VoLTE, which would have the added benefit of a pun relating to the volte-face about IMS VoIP?).

Nevertheless UMA-over-LTE has various advantages in my mind, as the network side of UMA already "works" and is quite robust, with well-defined security gateways and testing and so forth. It supports SMS natively. It also doesn't rely on clunky fall-backs to HSPA or GSM, which may require the handset to switch to different frequency bands as well as technologies, and which could interrupt ongoing data applications. It also helps extend the life of the circuit core, which is good news for CFOs, but bad news for the IMS and RCS crews.

One thing which is notable is that all of this is being done outside the 3GPP, which appears to have been dragging its feet for several years over this VoIP+LTE problem. I'd imagine that this more-pragmatic group will try to push for VoLGA to be standardised after deployment, rather than braving the politics in the short term. Martin Sauter has some extra comments here.

(There: I finally said something nice about UMA. There's probably a case study in good analyst relations there somewhere, as Kineto has been very good-humoured about my being a thorn in its side over a prolonged period of time.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Thoughts from eComm

It's coming to the end of another eComm here in SF.

I've been pretty saturated with the content from the presentations over the last three days, plus chatting to a broad range of people, some familiar friends and some newcomers.

It's difficult to pick out specific highlights, especially as some of the coolest stuff I've heard before. But some of the things that stick in the mind are:

  • An endless procession of telecom web API platform providers, all of whom are talking about cool mashups, CEBP and assorted other voice apps. Ribbit, Jaduka (under new CEO-ship of Mr Mashup Thomas Howe), Adhearsion, IfByPhone, Voxeo, Metaswitch and others. All pretty cool, although they still seem to me to be very fixed-voice focused.
  • iPhones everywhere. OK, there's huge uptake of them in the US, and they are very cool. But addressing the Apple market is still only a tiny slice of the world mobile phone user base.
  • Surprisingly little about handset web runtimes & widgets
  • A cool service called TokTok from DiTech Networks, which injects voice commentary as an extra overlay into live phone calls - allowing voice interruptions or whispers while you're on a live call ("Your football team just scored!") etc
  • A supercool presentation from Ge Wang of Smule - the company that does the "lighter" app for iPhones. They do really clever things with the audio on the device, which also means they can do apps like the Ocarina flute, for which you blow into the handset microphone
  • Rebelvox, which has an interesting "timeshifting" voice technology, which essentially acts as a hybrid between push-to-talk and voice messaging and telephony. This is essentially another form of "non-telephony" VoIPo3G.
  • Lots of the usual rhetoric about net neutrality, lobbying on fibre and spectrum etc. It's always worth getting a reminder about how competition just doesn't work in US telecoms - and how much resentment the various carriers seem to be able to garner. Coming from the UK, with copper, cable, fibre, 5 3G operators and 20+ wholesale/unbundled local loop operators I still find it hard to get too exercised by this whole issue. Although I agree with Brough Turner that it would be nice to find a way to push 100Mbit/s to everyone.
  • I still find it difficult to get excited - or even vaguely interested - by Twitter. Although I can't justify it yet as it's still growing, I'm enjoying using the term "legacy Twitter" just to annoy the more evangelical enthusiasts. (I also like terms like "legacy IMS" and "tyranny of the SIM card" - religious extremists usually have the least sense of humour about these sorts of things, so deserve to be wound-up occasionally). By next year's eComm, I expect to be able to say Legacy Twitter without the irony.
  • A couple of speakers (including Alan Duric from Telio) have shown really cool fixed IP-screenphones for use at home. Someone else showed one from Verizon. I think that these sort of terminals (with integrated web services on a decent-sized screen, and useable videocomms) could well extend the life of the "landline" despite the usual "cutting the cord" rhetoric prevalent this side of the Pond.
  • I've seen absolutely nothing new here to suggest that Android will be important, especially in 2009/2010. As before, I think it's foolish to write off Google, but I still can't see the appeal or relevance of the platform to anyone except a few developers excited by the prospect of open source.
  • Some good commentary from Google's Washington counsel about net neutrality - "network netrality is about the outcome, not the path". Basically saying it doesn't need extra regulation -pointing out that most broadband providers currently don't mess about with access pipes.
  • Fascinating presentation from Cullen Jennings from Cisco about the possibility of network operators limiting the numbers of TCP connections per user, as a sort of back-door way to do traffic and application management.
  • The Calliflower platform from Iotum looked highly usable as way to do easy web-based teleconferencing and collaboration. I might actually try this out myself.
  • Fonolo's "deep dialling" into IVR systems is still cool (as it was at least year's eComm)
  • Interesting discussions & presentations about new approaches to spectrum management - especially extending beyond the "white space" paradigm to a better way of reclaiming and exploiting underused spectrum, even if it is currently licenced to someone. A lot of this seems to revolve around US issues in rural areas that are underserved by fixed broadband. As a native central Londoner I tend to switch off when people start talking about rural connectivity, but I recognise that the US has quite low population density so clearly this is an important topic here.
  • Skype announced its free licencing of its wideband codec, which seemed well-received among people I spoke to
  • Interesting presentation about "natural interfaces" from Microsoft, plus a great future-looking video, revolving heavily around e-paper, touchscreens, speech input etc.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Technophobes are useful indicators.....

We all know (or are) gadget-lovers and early adopters. They are the people with the coolest devices, playing around with new services and generally enjoying the whole experience of geekery. It's sometimes very tempting to extrapolate from these people to the rest of the market.

To be honest though, often these people are exceptions, not examples. It's sometimes more instructive to watch the behaviour of the laggards and late-adopters.

This post is about a single personal example, so obviously it's not appropriate to assume that it represents a cross-section of the entire marketplace. Nonetheless it's an interesting case study.

I have a friend of mine who is essentially a mobile Luddite. She still uses a three-year old RAZR, on prepay, almost entirely for SMS and the occasional phone call. Doesn't use the (very low res) camera. Hasn't been interested in content, Internet access and certainly not smartphones. Ignores most voicemails. Often is out of battery, call credit, or both. She has derided most phones with QWERTY keypads as being ugly.

She usually tells me off for spending too much time checking email or the Internet on my own phones at inappropriate times.

I sometimes use a question of hers at conferences, to shock attendees (usually themselves "enthusiasts") into realisation of how the real world thinks: "Is Orange better than Vodafone? They have a pretty pink phone & I'm tempted".

It's worth pointing out that from a PC point of view, she's technically savvy. She uses a Mac with software like Mathematica for calculating equations for fluid dynamics, Facebook, Myspace, iTunes and so on.

But until now, phones have been phones. SMS devices, with a secondary voice function.

So I was pretty staggered when she suddenly (a) declared a liking for iPhones, (b) declared a desire for mobile email, and (c) said how impressed she was by the ease of using Google Maps and getting directions on a handset (an iPhone, in particular).

To me, that's more of an indicator of the growing mainstream demand for, and adoption of, smarter devices and mobile applications than any number of enthusiasts.

It's also an indicator that handset vendors and operators seriously need to get their heads around better ways of dealing with prepay subscribers who don't want monthly subscriptions.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Nokia and Skype - the masters at game theory

Various mobile operators are allegedly "furious" that Nokia intends to put some form of Skype client on upcoming devices like the N97.

It's not immediately obvious to me whether it's a full two-way mobile VoIP service intended for use on HSPA, or whether it's an iSkoot-type circuit voice dial-around as seen on various of 3's phones (especially the INQ Skypephones and Facebook device).

Either way, it's clear that Nokia has hit something of a sore spot for the operators.

But although various operators seem to be waving sticks and threatening Nokia on this issue, I reckon it's all bluster.

Because if Nokia was *really* serious about VoIP as an important generator of revenue and traffic, it would have done it itself, not partnered with Skype. The possibility of adding voice into Ovi was something I wrote about over a year ago. An Ovi VoIP client could be perfectly integrated with the device, Nokia could even use SMSCs to create a good off-net SMS. I'd also bet that Nokia could create a really good multi-IMSI experience like Truphone's if it chose.

I reckon that the Finns are really, really good at poker.... or at least the more academic discipline of game theory.

The operators know that Nokia is large enough and skilled enough to "go nuclear" with VoIP if it really wanted. Apart from the devices, its relationship with NSN would help on interop testing and optimisation. And it's large enough to acquire a (struggling) operator with pre-existing roaming deals and number ranges.

I reckon we'll see a bit more grumbling about the Nokia/Skype thing - like we did with Ovi and its SIP VoIP capability and others. Nokia will probably add a "delete option" for the N97. But it will happen elsewhere, and Orange, O2 and co. will start to doubt the wisdom of their N97s being under-specced compared to the ones available elsewhere.

Of course, it's not a surprise that two of the most RCS-friendly operators are the ones with the biggest chip on their shoulders about this. What they don't realise is that Facebook integration on-handset is way more of a threat than Skype when it comes to "ownership". I reckon people would churn VoIP/IM provider (or multi-source) much more easily than social network. It's only the relatively small handful of paying SkypeOut users that's the real threat from a revenue standpoint.