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Monday, June 29, 2009

Arbitrary "content control" from Vodafone

I've just experienced an object lesson in why it's difficult to get any form of web/Internet application and content filtering "right".

I'm sitting in a cafe using the MiFi device I got a couple of weeks ago, which still has a Vodafone HSPA SIM in it. I'm currently writing up some profiles of various voice and messaging providers for a forthcoming report.

But when I try to get onto some service/software vendors' website, I get redirected to Voda's overzealous "Content Control" page. Now I'm sorry, but no matter how much you might not like "over the top" VoIP services or their ability to offer unfiltered access to other content, there's nothing offensive on the actual website for Skype.com or Fring.com or Jajah.com - where I want to check up press releases, service details and so on. There is absolutely zero excuse for censoring the parent home page, whatever you might want to do in terms of policy for the downloadable app itself.

Yes, sure I could get onto the operator's customer service and jump through their hoops to get myself provisioned with full access to girls, gambling & harmless VoIP websites, but the libertarian in me thinks that it's deeply ironic that the Israel-based Fring is accessible from Iran but not London.

And, of course, I can get to the Fring page on Facebook - or install a variety of Skype-based applications on my page.

But some reason, Voda isn't blocking Truphone's web page, or Vopium's, Vykes or Mig33. But Nimbuzz and Mxit are blocked. Consistent or rational? I don't think so.

It's even more risible when (purely in the interests of science) I use Google's image search to look for something that might upset nanny. The gateway blocks certain thumbnails (presumbly based on URL) but not others.

It's instances like this that make me think that the mobile operators' often blind trust in packet inspection and "content control" will make them lose the trust of end users. How do I know that they won't change their "policy" tomorrow and block something I need?

Bottom line - if you're going to operate a Censorship Server (trademark: me), then make sure your Chief Censorship Officer is on the ball and occasionally thinks from a customer perspective. I'm in favour of intelligent ways to limit children from accessing undesirable things online - but this just highlights the wrong way of going about it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

3G backhauled femtos.....

There seems to be a common assumption among mobile broadband operators that when they put bandwidth caps on their offerings, most users will still only exploit a fraction of their allowance.

This is probably just as well, as there are strong signs that the underlying per-GB cost of many HSPA networks stacks up rather poorly against the revenues per-GB if customers do actually use all their allocation. In the UK, 3 is giving away 15GB per month for £15, for example.

At that price, I'm wondering if there's a risk that operators start attracting the "wrong" sort of customers.... for example other operators. OK, it might not be ideal to run GSM voice tunneled over HSPA, but imagine if that 3 dongle (with its 15GB per month) was hooked up to one of Vodafone UK's new femtocells.... not a bad way for Vodafone to improve its backhaul economics, perhaps? Especially where its customer doesn't have an ADSL line.

OK, I'm sure there's some stuff in the terms of service which would prohibit this. But it wouldn't surprise me if some operators unexpectedly become wholesalers of capacity, if they price their retail services too low, in the hope of winning the marketing "who's got the biggest cap" war...

I love the smell of phones in the morning....

Forget about data plans, IM, mobile TV, LTE, two-sided markets, widgets, advertising, ringtones or payments, I've discovered the company with the best way to enhance ARPU and derive more customer loyalty.

OK OK, it's Friday afternoon, but I couldn't pass a chance to make a reference to this company. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next stage of mobile handset personalisation: smell.

I'd certainly pay £10 to make my phone smell of Wild Cherries. And I'm sure the crowds at Wimbledon will want their handsets redolent of strawberries and cream. Not so sure about "subtle" or "teen spirit" though.....

Thursday, June 25, 2009

NFC in all phones next year? Dream on....

There's a quote from an Ericsson representative about NFC and RFID-enabled handsets reported here.

Apparently, "A year from now basically every new phone that's sold will have NFC. It's a two-way, bi-directional RFID communication link that makes this device work as a tag or as a reader." [I wasn't there, so I'm assuming the quote is correct]

If someone from Ericsson would like to take a spreadbet with me about NFC uptake in 2010, I'm a seller. I'd like to think I'm a fair man, so I won't hold them to the letter of "basically every" - how about merely about half? What about we say 0.00001p per handset, each way from 500m?

And as for the idea of "enabling the phone to take on other roles, such as the keys for your car or house" that's really not the greatest of concepts, if as currently seems likely, the secure element of NFC is controlled by the operator.

"Oh, I'm sorry that you've decided to churn Mr Bubley. No, unfortunately you can't transfer the key account to another operator. But we have a special deal with a local locksmith, we can use your location API to send him to meet you now if you'd like? But next year, we'll be launching a key portability service, which should work fine with only a 3-day transfer period when you'll be unable to use it"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Femtocell applications - APIs and platform choice

Yesterday the Femto Forum announced its Services Initiative to help drive both adoption and consistency for femto-based applications.

In general, femto use cases can be categorised in three ways:

  • Basic improved indoor coverage (as seen in yesterday's Vodafone announcement)
  • Data traffic offload from the macro network, either indoor or in hotspots
  • "Cool new stuff"
Apps are in the "new stuff" category - things like triggering reminders or messages, or performing other actions when a user gets home and registers onto their femto. Or perhaps exploiting the differential speed or price of connection on femto vs. macro ("upload this video from my phone via femto, as it's not realtime-urgent"). Undoubtedly there will be a range of more imaginative ones as well - some of the demonstrations at the launch event yesterday demonstrated home control (eg phone=TV remote), or even VoIP softphones enabled directly on the device.

The Femto Forum's new special interest group is working on some standard APIs for developers, which I'd definitely say is essential for all but the most important "bespoke" apps for the largest operators.

But in my view it's critical that the femto APIs align with other initatives on devices or in the networks. Realistically, we're only going to get a certain level of femto penetration in any given market.

If you're writing an app for a delivery company, for example, it's unlikely that you'll only want to know when 5% or 17% of your customers get home - you'd like 100%, or at least 50%. So you'll probably want to combine lots of ways of getting that "at home" trigger: femto-based alerts, perhaps browser widgets accessing GPS on phones that have the capability, network-based location APIs, maybe WiFi-based location sensing as well. You'd also want it to work across all operators' femtos in a given country.

In other words, writing a general "tell me when my customers get home" app is likely to involve many different APIs - an iPhone version, one based on GSMA's OneAPI set, perhaps OMTP's BONDI and so on. In some cases, the same user might be identifiable by 3 of these, so there's going to be competition for API mindshare and perceptions of "coolness" by the developers.

Another thing is important for femto applications & APIs - trying to compete head-on with WiFi in the home is a non-starter. I heard lots of excuses about the battery impact of WiFi and complex logons - but frankly that's a story from 2006. How many iPhone users do you know who haven't managed to set up their device to access their home WiFi by now? Or who complain so bitterly about power consumption they've switched the WiFi off? Now, I certainly agree that not all 3G phones have WiFi, and that some of those that do are more tricky to set up than the Apple. But that's not a static situation.

I reckon that really successful femto apps will use some of the unique characteristics - such as the operator's data about you as a subscriber, or its ability to connect you to other services or a payment mechanism. Turning your phone into a remote control for your toaster is equally achievable via WiFi or even Bluetooth - the femto adds no extra value, and may even reduce value if the ToasterMatic app has to be approved by your operator.

(A couple of times yesterday I heard the notion that people would want operator-approved apps for "security" or "reliability" reasons. I'm sorry, but I can't imagine anyone wanting important services for use *in your own home* and *between your own devices & equipment* that's controlled by a third party who charges for the privilege and revokes the capability when you churn. It's like saying you're safer having your PC's printer driver provided by your broadband ISP. There is a role for operator-controlled apps here - but it needs to be implemented intelligently).

I also think that there's a lot of work to be done on handset connection manager software. What happens if you have a multitasking smartphone with both 3G and WiFi - and some apps that are optimised for one network, and some for the other. How do you manage that?

Overall, some definite good stuff. But I think there's a significant amount of work needed to make sure femto apps fit well into the rest of the network/device/app ecosystem.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Novatel MiFi - possibilities for new mobile broadband business models

OK, I realise that I've been a bit grumpy and critical of some things recently. But before everyone assumes I'm getting more cantankerous as I get older, I'm actually going to say something nice for once:

I really like the little Novatel MiFi unit I've been playing with the last couple of days. (Peter Judge does too). For the uninitiated, it's a cross between a 3G dongle modem, a WiFi access point and a Linux-powered device.

Basically it's a portable, battery-powered personal "hotspot" that up to 5 people/devices can log onto, multiplexing their data traffic through a single SIM and data connection. Various larger, chunkier 3G routers have been around for quite a while, mostly for residential use, but this one is small, cute, and doesn't need to be plugged into a power socket. You could also compare it to using a 3G handset as a modem/tether.

At one level, it's nice just as a standalone product, especially if you have lots of devices, or work in a small team. It means you don't have to install connection-manager software onto your computer - or worry about conflicts with an existing clients. It just uses the normal WiFi connection, and appears in the list of other WiFi AP's your PC can hook up to. It's also good to have your mobile broadband being powered by a separate battery, rather than mentally juggling your own power budget between screen and modem.

Part of the cleverness, though, is the fact that it's programmable - if sold via an operator (or another channel), it can have various additional capabilities. It doesn't have an open SDK or set of public APIs, but in theory it could be usable for all sorts of cool things - coupled with its memory-card slot for example, an operator could choose to push video or other content down to it during quiet network periods. I'm probably a long way ahead of the curve here, but I guess in the long term something like this could probably be used in conjunction with a content-delivery network or web cacheing architecture.

More prosaically, I can operators trying to charge extra for a MiFi-enabled mobile broadband plan than for a simpler dongle-based one.

On the downside, if I'd bought it via retail I'd have to find a good data-only SIM and tariff. Not too tricky in the UK, but harder in places like the US. You'd have to go via the (quite simple) admin screen on the device to set up the APN and other config settings. It's not obvious to me how it handles SMS-based alerts from the network ("You're nearing your monthly bandwidth cap") although that's a minor niggle.

The one problem I can foresee though is around network data capacity - in areas with congestion, do operators really want to risk too many five-in-one connections? Will it further increase data consumption, without adding revenues in similar proportion.

I'd quite like to see a dual- or triple-SIM version, allowing the user to pick & choose which network to use. The OS could even perform a least-cost routing function, as it has GPS in it. "Hmm, I'm in Spain, I'll use the Yoigo SIM instead of roaming on Vodafone".

One other thing: it looks really good. With a couple of LEDs blinking on the outside, I've had a few people come and say it looks interesting.....

Rant: Virtual conferences - come back in 2015

Everyone is finding costs tight at the moment. Travel budgets have been slashed, time away from work needs to be justified, everyone is looking for savings. Part of this involves working "virtually" - by phone, by videoconference and so forth. There has been a huge upswing of interest in collaboration technologies, online conferencing and so forth.

For certain use cases - especially internal meetings between team-members - this is OK. Maybe sales meetings with clients, where both parties know each other well, and have access to high-end telepresence rigs and dedicated rooms and high-bandwidth connections. Also, events like public webinars which are 90% "broadcast" and 10% Q&A seem to work OK, up to a point.

But for multi-party, interactive, conferences, it's an atrocious model. It just does not work. Period.

I've attended two supposed online analyst "events" this week - beyond the basic webinar. Both have used some awful metaphor of a virtual conference hall, complete with tacky "lobby" graphics. I'm not going to enumerate all the technical difficulties & useability issues - but I've had enough crashing browsers, random/multiple passwords, indifferent sound quality, interminable logins etc to last me a very long time. Using a netbook with a small screen makes everything worse, too - I can't imagine trying to do this on a phone.

Put it this way - I have 3 PCs with different browsers. All of them crashed or failed to display one of the events at least once. The last straw for me - and the one that prompted this post - was when the after-event "what did you think?" feedback page crashed Firefox.

I hate it when some conferencing app "maximises" itself on my screen - how am I supposed to type notes into a text document? I absolutely abhor the inability to download complete presentations in advance - yes, I know you don't want people to flip ahead, but I'm sorry, I *do* and I'm the "customer" here. I want to know if the next 60 mins will be relevant to me, or go back a slide, or prepare questions for later on. I'm not interested in video, at all.

I have no problem with remote events - but please, please, PLEASE just send me a dial-in number (UK-based or Skype) and email me the Powerpoint.

I haven't - and won't - attend a full large-scale virtual "industry forum", say with 200 participants. Everyone knows that the true value isn't in the sessions, it's in chatting with peers over lunch or a coffee break. It's the little conversations (or even nods/headshakes) with your neighbour. Also, it's "too democratic": I want to be able to make eye-contact with the moderator, who will recognise me & know I'll have a good question, and allow me to interrupt. If I'm chairing the event, I want to see people's eyes, notice attention-span rising and falling, look at what makes people put down their batteries. I want to shake the speakers' hands and swap business cards.

Bottom line - there are plenty of good roles for collaboration tools. But events and conferences aren't in that category. Certainly not now, possibly not ever.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Under-the-floor to Over-the-top

One interesting trend I'm starting to see early signs of: the transition of some mobile or fixed operators (aka "under the floor providers") to becoming access-independent service providers ("over the top players").

This is where an established vertically-integrated network operator starts providing branded applications and services to users of *other* operators.

Top of the list here is Vodafone, which has already pushed ahead with a branded presence on Facebook and which has also started playing with an iPhone app which works on non-Vodafone supplied Apple handsets.

In the past, BT has also dabbled in this area, with an enterprise-centric branded softphone client for Windows Mobile devices, which was also aimed partly at users with phones provided through other operators.

I'm keeping a very close eye on this - I think that this is one of the greatest taboos in the mobile industry, where one operator could partly "own" the customer of another carrier. Normally the same bogeymen get rolled out by spokespeople: "those nasty Skype / Google / FaceBook / BBC iPlayer people are using our network for free". It will be interesting to see how the rhetoric changes when it's one of their direct peers, instead.

In some ways, it's a similar situation to using Carrier A's femtocell over Carrier B's broadband.

My view is that it's an extremely healthy development - if you're Vodafone, or for that matter NTT DoCoMo or a small mobile operator from Africa, why *shouldn't* you have inhouse-developed cool mobile apps, which you want to make available to everyone, not just people on your own network? Sure, maybe you *optimise* for people who have both access+app from you, but why not distribute your software as widely as possible?

This is particularly relevant in areas like backup 0r network-based address books. I've long said that these are being viewed by some in the industry as lock-in tools to reduce churn, rather than as good services intended to generate loyalty (and ideally revenue) in their own right.

It will be interesting to see if Vodafone turns Zyb into a true cross-operator platform, competing with "native" services by individual carriers. They could certainly cite "contact portability" as a prime advantage. It's interesting that Big Red hasn't rebranded Zyb to "Vodafone Contact Manager" or similar - perhaps in this scenario, overdoing the rival branding is counterproductive?

It will also be interesting to see if BT can resist any charges of hypocrisy, if it offers any more services that take a "free ride" on other fixed or mobile networks - given its recent controversial statements about charging web video providers for QoS. In fact, any network provider that complains about "over the top players" is setting themselves up as a hostage to fortune when they find a great service that *they* want to distribute to a broader global audience.

One thing this will likely accelerate is the desire for operators for inhouse-controlled AppStores, where they have right-of-refusal for apps they decide they don't like.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Touchscreens and widgets - the promise vs reality on the Nokia N97

I'm a little wary of writing this post - I'm quite aware that opinions about specific devices are really subjective, based on your expectations, your own personal way of using phones, what you feel is important and so on. I'm also well aware that implementations vary, software and hardware gets updates, and all sorts of little contextual things make a difference, such as the precise configuration of a given service provider's network.

Also, I don't do "product reviews". Occasionally I'll play around with a device, which I might have bought with my own money, borrowed from a friend, or (as in this case) had sent to me for evaluation. I try and use them pretty much as I would "normally", albeit with a bit more inquisitiveness to see how some of the less usual features work. So for example, I tend not to read instruction manuals - I reckon most things should be intuitive.

I've been using Nokia's N97 for the last week or so. It is (I think) production-spec and not a prototype. The one I have is "vanilla" in both colour and configuration - ie it's not an operator-specific variant, just ex-factory with (I presume) a UK-specific bias as it came with a British-style plug.

And I'm sorry, but it is without doubt the most frustrating phone I have ever used. It's pretty rare that I swear at inanimate objects, but my language has been pretty fruity for the past few days. If you ever encounter either PM Gordon Brown or model Naomi Campbell with an N97 (both well-known as phone-throwers) I'd advise you to take cover.

Before I get a deluge of flames, I'd point out that I'm not a Nokia-hater. I've been using an E71 for months as my main web/email device and quite like it. It's not without faults, but it's a great piece of engineering and it's pretty predictable in the way it behaves, so I can work around the idiosyncracies.

The N97 is not predictable.

It's not a bad-looking device (although a bit chunky), and has a decent-enough QWERTY. It doesn't scream "tactile" and "design" in the way the E71 or iPhone does, but it's not as plasticky as some past smartphones either.

First, the touchscreen is pretty weak, and the software integration with the touchscreen is worse. It seems totally random whether a swipe makes things scroll or not, and with some apps you have to find some sort of "sweet spot" to do page-up/down. Possibly something to do with resistive vs. capacitative, but whatever, it's very poor compared to the iPhone. Sometimes there's lag (especially in the browser) so you tap again when you think nothing's happening - which then triggers two actions in a row when it finally wakes up. There's a separate stylus in the box (on a lanyard, not integrated into the body of the phone) which clearly seems to be an afterthought.

The first day I had it, I found the battery life to be abominable. Really. It ate two big 1500mAH batteries within 30 hours - with no use of video, voice or music. Since then it has seemed to be mostly OK, which is a relief, but I don't quite trust it yet. It may have been because I was on the edge of signal coverage at a conference, and it was flipping radio state all the time. It might have been because of widgets and automated "pull" email, or perhaps some background tasks or whatever. I didn't fiddle with the settings, so whatever happened was default mode. It felt quite warm at times, which suggested that something might have been going on, either keeping the radio alive or some sort of software loop using the processor. Either way, not impressive.

The orientation sensor and software integration is very patchy. Does an app (or the menu?) rotate when you go from portrait to landscape mode? Do you need to flip out the keyboard to trigger the landscape mode? Who knows, seems totally random. I found the "sensor settings" menu with "turning control", which made things a bit better, but again scrolling is often tricky and you need to open the keypad to get to the 4-way controller for fine-grained choice of links or menu items. Pity that on at least one app I tried, it didn't realise that the 4-way was therefore 90degrees different, so down/up got transposed as left/right on screen, confusingly.

Initially, I thought the home-screen widgets and applications were OK. But I've found them to be one of the biggest nightmares, especially the Facebook app. It seems to randomly log me out, or hang"Loading... please wait". Clicking on it does nothing. Or it gives other random & confusing error messages.

But the worst was yesterday - I was away over the weekend, and switched off the cellular radio, to avoid roaming charges, just using WiFi instead. I got back to the UK, and the Facebook widget on the homescreen repeatedly tried to connect to a WiFi point I'd used, giving confusing error messages and referring to the "options" menu and changing the connection settings. The Options menu on the homescreen doesn't have a settings tab. So I fired up the main Facebook app. No options menu at all. But an error message every 3 seconds, and repeated attempts to connect to the now-phantom WiFi. I deleted the homescreen widget, then went to the main WiFi connection config screen. No way to delete that AP, no way to turn WiFi off entirely. I ended up deleting the Facebook app, convinced it was bugged. Then I launched the browser - and once again, I get the WiFi SSID from a Budapest cafe, rather than the 3G network. Ah-hah! The browser does have an Options menu, and eventually I could change the connection preferences.

This is possibly a fatal flaw with the whole widget phenomenon - if they're using the browser "engine", they also use the browser's settings. Most people won't know this, or think to look. If something's awry with the browser, that also screws up all its associated widgets. I found myself glaring & swearing at the phone - apologies if you were on the Heathrow Express yesterday evening and saw my exasperation. And there seems to be no way to configure the homescreen to show 2 separate sets of email widgets, one from my work email and one from my personal address. (And the widgets are labelled "content" on the menu, ugh - as in "hide content" or "edit content". Horrible, horrible term used by nobody outside the industry, and inappropriate in this instance anyway).

When the widgets work OK, that's fine. But I found myself wanting to get rid of them all and just go back to a nice plain homescreen, with menus & softkeys that had no mention of "content".

Another inconsistency: the screen backlight turns off & the phone locks after a period. That's sort of OK, but you need to use an external hardware switch to turn it back on. It even seems to turn off while mid-task, eg downloading big web pages. You can't just tap/swipe it alive again, you need to use the switch. And about 20% of the time when it unlocks, backlight doesn't come back on, competely randomly. The keypad's live, but you can't see the screen.

Other things:
- The EMail client is atrocious - not just usual S60-bad, but with really poor integration with touchscreen. Flipping through emails is painful, especially ones with HTML which comes through as an attachment needing the browser to open. Poor use of screen resolution - all you can see without clicking on a message is "about 20 characters of sender & title, even in landscape mode
- Menu organisation is frustrating. Moving apps to the bottom of the list makes them disappear. Somewhere there's a sub-menu or page 2, but it seems completely unclear how I accidentally found it.
- It took me more than 5 minutes to find the settings menu & work out how to turn off the (default!) annoying keytones. And some apps seem to unilaterally switch them back on again.
- The radio reception is flaky. It's much worse than my E71 with the same SIM & network in any given location, often only giving me 3G rather than 3.5G.
- The camera sucks, surprisingly - I expected it to be really good, but it's worse than the not-particularly accomplished one in my SonyEricsson. Might be Version 1 software again, but I'm glad I had a proper camera with me for the weekend. No proper flash either, just LEDs, pretty dismal on a top-end phone. And when you zoom in on some photos, it goes to about 2x... then displays a black screen if you drill down further.

The Ovi store has been discussed elsewhere, so I won't comment further. I'm also guessing there's not many N97-tailored apps yet, so maybe the selection will get better. It needs to.

I could go on. Bottom line, there's a lot of good stuff in the device (32GB memory etc), but the screen & UI just don't work intuitively. Just too much is frustrating. Nokia should have spent less time & money on fripperies (FM transmitter - cool, but who cares?) and more on power management and a better touch experience.

It's a shame - I wanted to get a bit of a reaction from my iPhone-toting friends, especially as the 3G S is only an incremental upgrade rather than a complete redesign. But I'm putting the SIM back in the E71 instead, so they won't even get to see it.

I'm sure there's a bunch of other cool stuff in the phone (I saw apps from Qik, Joiku and others, although no Skype), but I can't suffer the basics of the phone to make an attempt to try them out.

One last point - it looks really geeky when it's opened, like the MDA Vario 3, with the flip-up screen and (for real!) the spec printed on the hinge when open. Having "3G HSDPA. USB 2.0. FM RDS" written on your handset's exterior reminds me of a Mercedes E-class I saw once, on which the owner had put a handmade "Air Conditioning" sticker next to the model number E320.

Sorry for this guys, as I know a lot of people must have put a lot of effort into building this - but Apple isn't going to have any sleepless nights unless there's a serious attempt at a Version 2.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Multiple devices.... quick comment

Interesting panel discussion, between Orange, Qualcomm & Acer.

Orange & Acer are both of the belief that people are happy to have multiple mobile devices, albeit maybe not carrying them all, all of the time. Qualcomm is more emphatic about its own research showing consumers are happy to carry 2 devices, some of them 3, but very few 4.

Depends a little on the definition of "carry", however - pocket vs. bag, for example.

The Acer speaker made a good point about needing to tie them all together better "which device has the photo of my friend?". But he was very emphatic that there is no need for a "Swiss-Army" all-in-one.

Interestingly, the moderator (from the US) seemed surprised about this, citing US research which shows people tend to prefer a single phone/device. I suspect this once again reflects the impact of cheap handsets & non-contractual prepay SIMs that are used in the rest of the world - there is a much lower entry barrier to getting a second phone in Europe.

Annoying WiFi logins

OK, first off top marks to the organisers of the Open Mobile Summit for arranging free WiFi for delegates.

However, it's notable that we've all been given daily BT OpenZone scratch-cards, rather than just having a dedicated conference-room SSID or single conference login. There was an OpenZone speaker, so I guess this may have been negotiated outside the usual hotel/event channel.

However, while I'm glad to have WiFi, and OpenZone is generally far better than peers like Swisscom in terms of attitude & pricing, it's a bit of a pain to use.

The BT splash-screen takes about 10 seconds to appear in the browser. Then it asks for both a username & password, which is a bit silly given they're both printed on the same card (behind a scratch-off panel - overengineering or what?)

I then have to enter both a 9-digit ID and a 10-character alphanumeric keyword. And then re-enter it after each time I hibernate my PC during the breaks.

It's completely unnecessary hassle - especially given the unfriendliness of the password. I haven't dared try and hook up any phone-type WiFi devices. Honestly, it's £5 worth of WiFi, not a bank account, so why the goldplated "security".

If anyone cares - my username & password are 409650422 and uhbpAKj4R8 respectively....

Misleading mobile Internet & smartphone statistics

I am constantly amazed by the groupthink in parts of the mobile industry, and the shameless and unquestioning way that careless, woolly figures get rolled out, time and again.

"There are 4.5 billion mobile subscribers"
"The next billion Internet users will be on mobile"
"160m smartphones are sold annually"
"LTE will deliver 100Mbit/s speeds"

These all make great soundbites, but they don't bear close scrutiny. Of course, much of this debate revolves around definitions and semantics, but the point here is to drill behind the figures to understand *how they are derived* and *what they actually mean for the mobile business*

Instead, the industry has a very bad habit of using the best "marketing" numbers to make itself look successful and important, even if the reality is rather different. That's sort-of fine from a PR point of view, but unfortunately many insiders believe the headlines and use them as a basis for business planning.

Two examples have caught my eye today, both quite closely linked.

Firstly, my regular "sparring partner" Tomi Ahonen has a serious rant at Microsoft about its claims that smartphones are still in their infancy, and that PCs are still dominating the computing industry. Yes, you can argue that if you add together all the Apple, Symbian, Linux, RIM and Windows devices, you get a larger number than Ballmer quoted in his speech. However, that obscures two important caveats:
  • Many "smartphones" are locked to additional applications, especially in Japan. Comparing them to a user-controlled smartphone is disengenuous. Many bank ATM machines, or retail PoS terminals have ordinary Intel/Windows boxes in their innards... but most observers would not call them PCs.
  • Most "smartphones", especially older Nokia Series 60 devices, are not bought or used for their "smartness". Apart from Apple iPhones, very few are sold with "mandatory" flatrate or other "decent" data plans. I saw lots of "remaindered" Nokia N-series phones during my recent trip to India - a market without 3G networks.
  • As I estimated the other day, the total number of 3.5G smartphones with good dataplans is almost exactly the same as the number of 3.5G-connected PCs.
  • Despite Tomi's rant at Microsoft, it's instructive to note that the growth curve on netbook shipments (15-20m in 2009, after first introduction in 2007) far exceeds that of the early years of smartphones. I think there is a reasonable probability that operators switch their subsidy and emphasis to netbooks or dongles and away from (some) smartphones
  • Smartphones are *expensive*. The Nokia N97 I have in front of me, costs 2x the price of the Samsung NC10 I'm writing this post on. Guess which gives me a better Internet experience. And which has a better battery life.
Overall, I certainly agree with Tomi that Microsoft could do a lot better in mobile than it has so far. But I certainly disagree that it is in any way threatening the future of the company by its failure to address the sector - at least for the next few years.

The other example is related. Two presenters at the conference this morning cited headline analyst figures along the lines of "1.2 billion users of mobile Internet by 2012", typically comparing it with today's roughly 1.3 billion fixed internet users and 400m-odd broadband lines.

Leaving aside the obvious point that there is no "mobile Internet", these figures really don't convey the whole truth. They lump in everything from PCs with 3G/WiMAX right through to GPRS featurephones on which someone accidentally hits the browser icon to go to the operator's homepage.

Most developers (certainly in developed markets) now have a view of a mobile Internet user as a BlackBerry or iPhone user with regular, daily access to email and the web, plus widgets and maybe an appstore. As mentioned above, that population at the moment is probably less than 50m people (ie the 40m plus another 10m of EDGE/3.0G Internet users).

I also see a lot of assumptions that everyone with a 3G-enabled PC will be an active user - not realistic, as only a % will actually pay for connectivity services. Many also forget how few prepay users (still!) get access to mobile data, especially at a reasonable price. 1.2 billion is approximately the number of global individual users with postpaid contracts today.

At the end of 2012, my own Mobile Broadband Computing report from a couple of months ago estimated active users of non-phone devices as:

- 170m for PCs (embedded or dongle)
- 20m with MIDs

Note that these are "users" not "subscribers". Most will not have traditional "subscriptions" but will use connectivity through various adhoc or bundled business models.

I haven't done any formal forecasts for smartphone usage, but my (very approximate) take would be, again for end-2012 [3.5 years from now]

- maybe 250-300m regular active users of flatrate data + highend phones equivalent to today's iPhone. Most will be contract monthly customers.
- maybe 200m more occasional users (maybe on-portal or widget) mobile web users with an OK-ish browser. Mix of contract and prepay.
- a fairly long tail of WAP users doing occasional access - mostly in emerging markets, but hobbled by continued poor availability of mobile data services to 2G prepay users. These are interesting from a statistical point of view (especially if you're trying to make a point), but are not really Internet users in the way that their counterparts with PCs or in cybercafes view the world.

[Sidenote on this mythical next 1 billion Internet users being on mobile: I recently drove 4000km through India, through big cities & small villages & rural towns. Advertising for mobile was absolutely everywhere. But <1% was for mobile data - and most of that was for SMS cricket results or similar. I saw ads for dongles in Varanasi and Mumbai, posters for Blackberries in Mumbai as well, WAP portals in a couple of other towns - and precisely zero people who were obviously using the web on a mobile device. I've been unable to get to the bottom of the 10's of millions of "mobile Internet" users cited by some national authorities, but I suspect the definitions are as loose as possible]

Put another way, I'd expect the population of high-end mobile Internet users to be about 500m by end-2012, split about 40:60 between PCs and smartphones.

Let's get rid of some of the noisy hype, and focus on real, actionable numbers. It's starting to get embarassing to see overblown figures repeated continually - it suggests insecurity or ignorance, like sticking your fingers in your ears.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is the mobile phone really the hub of social connections?

I'm at the Open Mobile Summit, just listening to T-Mobile's head of products talking about their view of the Mobile Internet.

He mentioned that Facebook would kill for the amount of data & web of communications generated by a typical mobile phone's address book. Basically it was another pitch about network-resident address books (provided by operators, naturally).

He also made a comment about customers being "fed up with silo services".

He ducked my question from the floor about whether a T-Mobile address book would lock a customer to a "silo" access provider, or whether it would also be accessible from another mobile operator's network.

It got me thinking about this notion that the handset's "social graph" is a better map of personal communications and relationships than an online equivalent. And I stopped to think - I've probably met about 100 new friends and acquaintances in my social life since the beginning of 2009. I've added about 80 of these to Facebook, maybe 30 via email address.... but about 15 mobile numbers. I now have a significant number of friends I *only* communicate with via Facebook. I also have 3 mobile devices with different operator SIMs, multiple email accounts, fixed line, Skype etc.

The notion that any of my mobile operators has a handle on my social network and communications behaviour is completely false. And would I trust any of them not to try to lock me in to their access network if I uploaded my contacts?

Now to be fair, I'm in a particular demographic - urban, single, socially-active. Most of my communications are with friends, not family. And I recognise that trying to "churn" my social network from Facebook could be tricky.

But while I hope they don't read this, I'd be prepared to pay for Facebook now. It's proven its worth to me, and its accessible from any device, any operator and any network.

I think mobile operators (and handset vendors) are about to face closing window of opportunity for their goal of putting themselves at the centre of personal communications. Some may be able to shoehorn themselves into this role if they're fast. One thing is certain to me though: IMS won't be the right technical architecture if they do.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What's the point in paying for QoS if you don't need it?

I regularly get vendors suggesting ways to monetise networks by providing higher guarantees of QoS, either offering users a "turbo button", or perhaps suggesting that an online video provider might want to pay extra for a partitioned part of a broadband pipe.

Sounds fair-enough in principle... but how would it actually work in practice?

I'm reminded of two roads that go through the centre of the UK - the main M6 Motorway, and a "sister" road called the M6 Toll which bypasses Birmingham. One charges for "quality of service" and the other is "best efforts". That's great - if you're a busy haulier delivering refrigerated goods, or perhaps a salesman trying to get to Liverpool in a hurry, you can avoid the endless roadworks & hordes of slow caravan-draggers on the main road.

But if you were driving at 3am... would you still pay extra to use it? Unsurprisingly, the overnight rates are cheaper. But if you had realtime traffic reports, and you knew that the free road was completely clear, why would you bother?

Something similar will happen with the various policy and QoS initiatives being discussed now. At certain times, best-effort will be perfectly good. At other time, it will be almost good enough. And at peak periods, it will be congested and pretty useless.

I think that there will need to be a good amount of intelligence in applications to know when it's necessary to pay the toll, or when the network is clear enough to use without goldplating the service.

Of course, it's possible that the operators might try to impose differential speed restrictions or place "speed humps" on the best-efforts route. But frankly, if everyone knows that these are simply money-gouging tactics, they'll get dealt with harshly by the highwaymen of competition (OK, I'll stop the overextended analogy there).

All of this is going to be difficult to apply to mobile anyway, as the gating factor in QoS is usually going to be the radio network. Having 99.9% QoS is worthless if it's only available 70% of the time.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Apple iPhone 3G S - quick thoughts

Just had a quick glance at the new iPhone specs.

Interesting that it's just an incremental advance rather than a serious overhaul - I was expecting either a mini/nano version, or a souped-up one.

Things that are in it: MMS, cut & paste, 3MP camera, more battery life, compass, video, more memory, faster processor

Things that aren't in it: HSUPA, flash, 5 or 8MP camera, WVGA screen (800x480), multitasking (I think), slide-out QWERTY pad

My take is that it's probably enough for many existing owners of the 2G iPhone to upgrade (most of the 3G owners still have another 12 months contract to run anyway). Also looks like it's been priced to compete against some specific rivals (notably the Palm Pre) and extend market reach, rather than be the ultimate heavyweight ultra-spec superphone.

Probably makes a lot of commercial sense, as I suspect Apple would rather have 50 million normal midrange users, rather than 20 million ubergeeks. Given the economy, they probably made some pragmatic decisions about designing it down to a price, rather than going the Nokia route and putting in everything but the kitchen sink.

On the topic of which, I should be getting a shiny N97 to play with soon. I also need to change my "normal" voice/SMS phone (currently an S-E C902) as it seems to be getting progressively less reliable & crashing a lot. Assuming O2 keeps the Apple contract, I'm probably tempted by the iPhone S, assuming I'm not hammered too much for an early upgrade.

Forget lobbyists, this is how Net Neutrality gets enacted in law....

I've long held that the Internet will always find ways around any blocking/filtering mechanisms for certain types of application, especially in competitive markets.

What I didn't expect was that democracy can do the same as well.

This week's European Elections have thrown up an interesting anomaly - in Sweden, the Pirate Party, which advocates filesharing and new copyright regimes, has just won representation in the European Parliament.

How long before we get candidates standing for the VoIP Party.....

T-Mobile highlights why customers should not trust operator-sold notebooks

T-Mobile can be a paradox from an analyst's viewpoint. At one level, it pushes hard on mobile Internet access, with its early provision of Web'n'Walk, and its significant pace in evolving its network to HSUPA and eventually LTE. It also has a sizeable WiFi hotspot presence, albeit as over-priced as many of its peers. It is probably the most evangelical of Europe's operators when it comes to selling embedded-3G notebooks, with 7 models from 6 vendors on its German arm's website (It's UK business is more dongle-centric).

Yet at an application level, it confuses. It has pretty much embraced the open-Internet worldview - when was the last time you heard anyone discuss on-portal T-Zones stuff? I've seen a demo of some sort of Facebook/Ovi cross-platform portal it is pitching, although it's not obvious that it will be accessible to non-T access customers.

And it has an absolute blind-spot when it comes to Skype. It blocks its use on the German iPhone, even over WiFi. If I'm reading it right, Skype will work on home WiFi or non-T-mobile hotspots, but the explanation that "the high level of traffic would hinder our network performance, and because if the Skype program didn’t work properly, customers would make us responsible for it" is an even more transparent fib than most of Gordon Brown's.

Initially I'd thought they'd teamed up with Apple for a German-specific version of the AppStore, which had different local approvals for apps, but it doesn't appear to be that bad, yet. But I have little doubt that any future T-Mo administered appstores would likely have some fairly draconian policies on which applications could be displayed.

Now, lets think back to the previous paragraph. How do you think that smartphone app-censorship might impact an operator's new image as being the PC retail store of choice?

Do you really think that consumers will want to buy PCs from a company that "has previous" in terms of such arbitrary policies? Maybe it might want to exercise similarly arbitrary decisions about what you can and can't install on your new computer? How do you know what software's been pre-loaded on it in the store? Can it be trusted not to interfere with the OS and BIOS? Hmm, why not play it safe and get one from XYZ Electronics down the road, then just get a dongle? At least you can trust those guys not to monkey around with the OS....

OK, I know that most corporate employees are not allowed to download .exe files, on pain of excommunication by their IT departments. But that's not your PC, it's the firm's.

At the moment, all the mobile operators I speak to are salivating over the prospect of selling netbooks with data plans. Even leaving aside the issue of payment plans and subsidies, I think they need to articulate very clearly what their future policies are on apps. The moment someone gets a pop-up saying "Sorry, you are not allowed to install that software" is the point at which the wheels fall off the whole operator-sold notebook phenomenon. Even Apple doesn't stop you installing "unapproved" apps on your iBook....

If T-Mo wants to avoid being labelled as "applicationist", it needs to start being more sensible about things like this. Its shortsightedness is also hastening the day that someone (Google?) just funnels everything through a VPN tunnel and away from the prying eyes of the packet inspection boxes. Or maybe Skype will just start doing realtime steganographic encoding of voice into images or other data streams....

Footnote: yes, I know T-Mo isn't the only operator with draconian policies of this type. However, it is the one that's pushing PC sales the hardest. And that's what doesn't fit about the blending of the two worlds of computing and mobile phones.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Quick anecdotes on mobile broadband

A couple of quick comments, based on recent discussions:

1) Some people in the US are using the term "aircard" (Sierra Wireless' brand) as a generic term for 3G/WiMAX modem, rather than "dongle"

2) Some people (also mostly from the US or Canada) are still under the impression that most mobile broadband users are corporate "road warriors", and have very limited awareness of the huge massmarket of consumer dongle buyers around the world.

3) The phenomenon of prepaid mobile broadband remains quite low in awareness among people "in the industry"

4) I heard of a European operator subsidising *unlocked* embedded-3G modules in notebooks sold through *retail* channels. In other words, you open the box, get a note saying something like "Congratulations! Your laptop has 3G! We're giving you a SIM and a month's access for free...." but you can still subsequently swap it and use a competitor's SIM if you decide to, after the trial. (This is unconfirmed - but it sounds to me like an extremely expensive version of AOL's old CD-in-the-PC-box promotion technique from the 1990s)

Dissecting mobile broadband stats

I noticed that the other day that the GSMA put out a press release stating

"Today, there are 245 commercially available HSPA networks supporting more than 125 million live connections in 107 countries. A further 65 HSPA networks are either being deployed, in trial or planned with an average of four million Mobile Broadband connections being added globally on a monthly basis. "

I followed up to get a better definition of what's in that 125m - it turns out that it's a combination of 3G SIM + HSPA device, but does not reflect actual usage. So for example, today I'm accounting for 3 of those connections, with my ZTE HSPA dongle, my Nokia E71 with data SIM, and my SonyEricsson C902 (which is permanently switched to 2G-only for extended battery-life).

I'm wondering what the make-up of that 125m is, in more detail, in a way which suggests actual usage.

My quick and very rough estimates are:

Laptop dongles & embedded modems (actively used) - 35m
Laptop dongles & embedded modems (dormant or inactive) - 5m
3G iPhones (with active data usage, NB most have flatrate data) - 20m
Other HSPA smartphones (active HSPA data usage with flatrate or "decent" data plans) - 20m
Other HSPA smartphones (dormant or without decent data plans / 3G SIM) - 35m
HSPA featurephones (mostly minimal data usage) - 10m

I'm fairly confident about the active laptop use numbers as they originate in my Mobile Broadband Computing research report from a few months ago. I reckon that virtually all 3G iPhones are used "in anger" with HSPA.

But the bulk of other HSPA-enabled smartphones are not used "aggressively", as unlike the Apple they are not always sold with the flatrate data plan as a default option. There's an awful lot of older Nokia N95's, HTC WinMob handsets and similar devices around, used without heavy (or any) data consumption. Newer models like E71's, or Android G1's or BlackBerry Bolds are more-used for data, albeit with lower consumption than most iPhones.

(One variable I'm not too sure about is exactly how to categorise the DoCoMo and Softbank HSPA phones).

Thoughts and comments welcome - this is really just a first pass.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

WiMAX and LTE - a tale of two conferences

I've been in Amsterdam with the WiMAX Forum for the past couple of days, at their global summit event. It's been an interesting contrast with the LTE Summit in Berlin a fortnight ago.

In format terms, the LTE event was more of a traditional conference, with bigger plenary sessions. The WiMAX event was more of a trade show, with more exhibition visitors than delegates to the speaker sessions.

The LTE event felt as though the wheels of hype were starting to squeak. There was a palpable feeling that the timelines are overenthusiastic, the wrangling of voice dominated discussions, and there was quite a lot of dissent about business models and how LTE would coexist with/replace HSPA. LTE's definitely still "work in progress" and is unlikely to be deployed in anger outside the US and Japan for some considerable time. Many operators will go via HSPA+ in the short term instead.

Conversely, the WiMAX event showed more signs of positivity I expected. I've long joked that WiMAX goes through a roughly 4-month cycle of oscillating optimism and pessimism - but it seems to hold true.

Although there was still some rhetoric from the Forum, and Intel and cheerleaders like Clearwire presenting WiMAX as some radical high-performance alternative to HSPA, or "4G before LTE is nearly ready", the reality is pretty easy to discern.

Firstly, WiMAX opportunity is largely determined by spectrum availability and regulation. There's still no likelihood of commercial FDD versions of WiMAX in the near future, so the key story is that WiMAX is the technology of choice for any provider that has access to TDD spectrum.

The most interesting thing for me was the upswing of 2.3GHz, rather than just the normal 2.5GHz band that most expect to be the core domain for WiMAX. Coupled with dual- and tri-band equipment (and roaming starting to be offered), this changes the game somewhat. I'm not aware of any HSPA or LTE silicon provide seriously looking at 2.3GHz as an important band, so in that part of the spectrum, WiMAX is pretty much the only game in town. Given that LTE-TDD is even less developed than LTE-FDD, those countries that have licenced 2.5GHz bands are also likely to get at least one WiMAX provider.

There is still a lot of emphasis on using WiMAX as an alternative to DSL in markets that don't have much copper. Given the relatively cheap price of TDD spectrum, it seems that WiMAX is easier to justify than fixed-3G routers. Although numerous companies have HSPA routers, there doesn't appear to have been a huge amount of traction in the market - possibly because of the load that heavy users place on the cells.

My general belief is that mobility-optimised networks like HSPA are too complex and expensive to be wasted on non-mobile users. Obviously this will vary somewhat, but seems to suggest to me that fixed-HSPA and fixed-LTE deployments will struggle in many instances.

One interesting observation has been around backhaul and network dimensioning. Because WiMAX operators are starting from a base of fixed-CPE and high-end nomadic usage, they seem to be anticipating much higher loads. A central planning assumption seems to be that an "average" user could well be using 5-10GB per month, and this is being reflected in pricing plans and also use of high-speed backhaul.

Some other quick notes:

- most WiMAX operators are talking about access to "the real Internet", with no particular messing-about with DPI or application filtering
- there was a fair amount of talk about VoIP, but it's generally intended more for fixed/nomadic usage than true mobility. My assumption is that everyone with a WiMAX device for the next 5 years will also have a separate GSM phone - or else will have a dual-mode WiMAX/GSM handset anyway.
- Lots of interesting stuff happening in Russia, where 3G deployment has been slowed for various reasons (eg military use of spectrum). Comstar, Yota & Enforta had interesting pitches - with Yota being especially aggressive.
- Lots of talk about netbooks, and embedded-WiMAX PCs. It seems likely that embedding modules will be country-specific, perhaps with predominantly WiMAX modules in markets like Russia, but HSPA in markets like Scandinavia. Medium-term, I think a fairly high % of laptops will need to be dual-mode HSPA (or LTE) plus WiMAX, which should pose some interesting challenges for the connection management software.
- There should be some interesting business models emerging, with prepay from Day 1 in many markets. It's still early days for adhoc usage, though
- The UQ proposition in Japan sounds interesting, especially given its part-ownership by KDDI. It looks like it's aiming to be a true, low-cost "pipe" provider, which sounds like a serious differentiator in a market always dominated by operator-managed services for mobile devices.
- I was unconvinced that WiMAX has any chance to compete with cheap massmarket HSPA dongles in Europe - not because of any specific failings, but because bargain-basement HSPA pricing seems to be lossmaking for many operators at the moment, priced at less than the cost-of-production per GB.

Overall, I still don't think that WiMAX is a real "competitor" for LTE. Ultimately, it will probably only address 20-30% of the accessible mobile broadband spectrum in most countries. It still faces challenges getting non-PC/dongle devices to market in sufficient quantities - I'm skeptical we'll see a WiMAX iPhone any time soon. But it fulfills a couple of important roles in various markets, notably for "wireless DSL", and mobile broadband in markets for which HSPA dongles are either unavailable or very expensive (eg US).

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Individual bandwidth management based on radio conditions

Interesting comment from a Danish WiMAX operator I heard at an event yesterday - they actually decide on application throttling / bandwidth management based on individual users' radio channel conditions.

The logic is that if you're in a strong signal area, the modulation is such that you need a smaller % of total base station capacity, compared to a user at the edge of the cell, trying to pull down the same amount of bandwidth.

In other words, they're basing policy decisions on actual capacity & resource usage, not using data transfer rates as a proxy.

Presumably, this needs some sort of realtime API into the air interface part of the network - exactly the sort of thing I had in mind a couple of weeks ago when I asked the LTE folk about programmable networks.