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Monday, November 30, 2009

Does anyone really want to converge mobile social networks?

I'm losing count of the times I've heard people come out with a variation on the theme of:

"Here's a single piece of software that aggregates all your social networks into one convenient application or screen".

However, I most certainly have not lost count of the number of times I've heard people tell me:

"I wish I had a single piece of software that aggregates all my social networks"....

....because the total number of people who've told me that is a big round zero.

Am I missing something, or does this Emperor really have no clothes? This problem just doesn't seem to exist - and indeed potentially it introduces massive risks to the average end user, who is probably not as stupid as many of the proponents of the concept seem to think.

Why would I want my operator / device vendor / OS provider / application shop to act as a front end and filter for my other services? I specifically don't want my contacts or addressbook converged - I keep separate lists for very good reasons. I don't want any one organisation to be able to aggregate all the info about my multiple online personae - I'm very happy having my LinkedIn and FaceBook profiles as separate as possible, and neither linked into my Yahoo contacts or Skype friends, nor my handset's contact list. The aggregation point is in my head, which is pretty good at multi-tasking.

All the people I know who are active on multiple networks do so for very good reasons, usually that they want to segregate separate groups of individuals. I do the same with IM services, using Yahoo, Skype and Facebook messaging for different sets of work / personal / family contacts. I don't want a multi-headed IM client.

Plus, most of the "converged networks" businesses seem to be predicated about adding another layer of lock-in or advertising, often with some spurious marketing verbiage and trust and security. Surely one of the nicest things about widgets and mobile web applications is that they can *diverge* easily and simply? It just strikes me that attempting to shoe-horn all these disparate networks and communications methods together risks destroying the unique "social value" of each one, not adding to it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tethering and mobile connection-sharing. Microsoft's thinking about it too

I wrote a few weeks ago about Joiku's new connection-sharing application Boost, which connects smartphones into local groups via WiFi, allowing them to combine and load-balance across multiple mobile data connections. I talked about the potential for "operator diversity", where you might have a number of people sharing multiple connections on different networks, and perhaps using different frequency bands and technologies.

Basically, it's software-defined-radio at the application layer. Not easy, but not impossible either - and with huge disruptive potential.

What's really interesting is that it's not just Joiku that's been playing with this concept. After seeing an article in New Scientis, I've found this really interesting paper from Microsoft on what it cools the "Cool-Tether" concept, which has lots of detail about the power management implications of this as well.

Some of the possibilities around this area are so interesting, I'm hesitant to write about them. In fact, if anyone wants to discuss commercial opportunities for collaboration around applications or IPR, let me know.....

Friday, November 27, 2009

SMS spam advertising - completely unacceptable

I have an almost irrational hatred of SMS-based advertising, which is shared by quite a number of other people I know. It's deeply intrusive, interruptive and time-consuming - and the idea that I should take even more of my time to send STOP messages to something unsolicited in the first place makes me shudder with disgust at the perpetrator.

Case in point: I got a random, unsolicited SMS from Virgin Atlantic today. I've been a member of their frequent flyer scheme for some time, and unfortunately they do not have a method to allow you to discriminate about how you receive information. The "communications preferences" page just says "Communications will be either by email, post, telephone or SMS. By opting in you will be agreeing to receive communications from us." No way to specify which you are willing to accept. It may well have changed since I first signed up, I'm normally pretty careful about this.

I don't mind emails as I don't have to take time to read them - I can see the headers. But on my personal phone, I absolutely, never, ever want spam. Yes I know I could get some fancy client for filtering SMS on an iPhone or whatever, but I do not care. SMS adverts = spam = unacceptable, as far as my personal life is concerned.

Too late for Virgin anyway - I won't be using the airline again, and I've told customer service to delete me from the frequent flyer database. No second chances.

Edit - I'm dismayed that the UK's Telephone Preference Service which acts as a central "do not call" database for telemarketing, does not extend to preventing SMS spam as well. There ought to be a centralised mechanism for opting out of all marketing-related text messages, enforced in law so that all bulk-SMS providers need to validate against it. Alternatively, I'm wondering if there are any applications for Android, iPhone or other platforms that use the same sort of Bayesian approach that PC email antispam software exploits.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A quick way of deciding if you're being ripped off for data roaming fees

A lighthearted thought experiment:

.... visit a city in a new country. Plan a journey from your hotel to a typical "point of interest" perhaps a mile (1.6km) distant.

Is it cheaper to:

(a) Walk, using Google Maps or a similar mapping product on your phone, consuming roaming data to show you the city's layout and plot a route as you stroll across town.
(b) Jump in a taxi. the driver worry about the route instead, and pay based on the meter

If the cost of the data roaming > cost of a local taxi, I think you can be fairly confident that you're paying your operator too much. Or else you're somewhere with really cheap taxis.

Is it worth going to MWC next February?

I'm currently trying to decide whether or not to take my normal week's trip to Barcelona in 2010.

At one level, it's "obvious" - it's what everyone does, isn't it? And certainly I usually have an intense week of briefings, conference-style sessions, client meetings, dinners and (of course) late nights. Bits of it are fun, and bits of it are simply a hard slog.

I think last year I ended up having about 50-60 engagements of one form or another, plus extra ones at another conference (NetEvents) that started 2 days' earlier. I managed to find some quite cheap accommodation and flights, and I had at least one "paid gig" while I was there, so that made it worth my time financially. On the other hand, I spent a good % of the preceding month playing email and phone hockey, to set everything up - and probably turning down another 100+ invitations, having pre-MWC briefings and so forth. It's hard to work out the fully-loaded ROI.

This time, I'm debating whether it's worth it at all. I meet lots of companies and individuals at smaller conferences year-round, usually without their PR minders and carefully-messaged analyst-facing slides. Maybe a couple more of those - I get no shortage of invites to speak. And I don't usually go to CTIA Wireless or one of the Asian events, so maybe I should take a week out for one of those instead?

I'm not the only one thinking this - quite a few other firms and individuals either pass entirely (Apple?) or have scaled back their presence. This isn't because of travel budget either - it's just a hard-nosed view on what & where is the most effective use of *time* rather than cash. (The answer isn't in "virtual conferences" either in my view - they're uniformly dreadful and I usually switch off after the first hour, if that). And for all those traditionalists out there - sorry, if MWC went back to being 3GSM Cannes, it'd be a *definite* no from me.

I think I'm going to give it another couple of weeks. If by then I've got a few things lined up that are direct revenue-earners (moderating panel sessions, giving customer presentations, using it as a basis for a specific research effort) then it's a no-brainer. Otherwise, maybe I'll try an experiment and skip it for once and just set up an auto-responder on my email saying "sorry, not going".

(Oh and if anyone *does* need a thought-provoking speaker or lively moderator, please email information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com)

Monday, November 23, 2009

The quadplay myth

One of the perpetual themes I encounter at the moment is the notion that the world is moving towards a "converged" situation in which individuals or families purchase all their communications services from a single operator.

In particular, there is a fervent belief that people will choose the same cellular providers and fixed broadband providers, tempted by bundling deals and wondrous "three screen" content and entertainment services.

Not only that, but these ultra-loyal users will happily spend more in aggregate, persuade their entire families to follow their lead, churn less and will be happy to have femtocells or WiFi to offload "mobile broadband" onto their own paid-for fixed connections.

For the larger hybrid operators, that is a Utopian ideal. And to be fair, in some circumstances it will actually happen.

But realistically, it strikes me as a 10-20% thing whichever way you slice it.

- Maybe 10-20% of households will have a single family plan for all mobile devices coupled to the same provider's DSL or cable or fibre
- Maybe 10-20% of fixed broadband subscriptions will incorporate a bundled "for free" mobile extension (perhaps with a detachable dongle in the gateway)
- Maybe 10-20% of triple-play (voice/Internet/TV) subscriptions will expand to quad-play with mobile as well

There are too many factors driving *divergence* here, not convergence. A partial list:

- Operator-exclusive devices like the iPhone and Motorola Droid will often drive operator choice, not the other way around.
- Some mobile operators have no fixed arms (eg 3, or some T-Mobile properties)
- Some mobile operators only have fixed coverage in certain places (eg AT&T)
- Some mobile operators have lousy coverage in certain places (or certain buildings) where their fixed arms are strong
- Devices like the Amazon Kindle and laptop/dongle combinations will proliferate with an unknown "Brand X" mobile operator behind the scenes, thus non-connectable into an existing household plan
- Prepay-centric markets tend to have many people with multiple devices, specifically chosen to be on different operators to enable tariff arbitrage
- Many users have company-issued devices on a different network to their personal devices and broadband
- Few users are ever willing to churn fixed broadband provider for a variety of reasons (unique content / IPTV, difficulties in switching phone numbers or email address, perception of disruption etc)
- Unusual households (flat-sharers, students in accommodation blocks etc)
- Preference of children to buy own devices / services with pocket money rather than as part of a family plan

You get the picture.

Now, the 10-20% of quadplay-receptive households are definitely a target worth pursuing. But let's not kid ourselves that they represent the *typical* future household rather than the ideal telco-dream segment. Yes, the picture will vary substantially by country and specific operator, but overall it's worth betting on divergence and not convergence (as per usual in the telecoms industry).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Some thoughts on Android

I'm slowly starting to become a bit more positive about Android. I've been in the US for most of the last week, and it was interesting to see how many "normal" people had Android devices, compared with the UK where it's still viewed as geektastic. Google's introduction of free turn-by-turn navigation is a bit of a smart move too: this article makes a fascinating read about the Google business model evolving.

It seems to me that the OS is maturing faster than anticipated, and certainly more quickly than Symbian and Windows Mobile. It looks as though Google will take a leaf out of Microsoft's book and jump all over its rivals if they make a mis-step (which certainly seems to be true of recent S60 and WM6.5 devices). It will be interesting to see if Maemo steps up to the plate, given Nokia's announcement this week.

I had a quick play with a Motorola Droid and was fairly impressed. Fast, comes with a QWERTY, decent-seeming camera etc. I could see myself possibly using one as a work device, if it's possible to buy one unlocked for a sensible price, although I wouldn't want to use it as a personal voice/SMS device.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Operators should push vendors & silicon companies to support 2.6GHz HSPA+ as an alternative to LTE

Following up on my post from two weeks ago about HSPA / HSPA+ in 2.6GHz, I'm now more sure that this is a becoming a wise option - and operators and device vendors should start pushing their suppliers to support it. I'm becoming increasingly sceptical about the short-term case for LTE, especially for GSM/UMTS operators in developed markets like Western Europe.

The received wisdom suggests that "new spectrum = new technology". I can certainly see the appeal and elegance for radio network engineers to put the newest, shiniest kit into the spanking-new bits of frequency in 2.6GHz and the digital dividend.

But I think that for current HSPA operators, they should think twice. Even the theoretical gains in efficiency for LTE vs. Release 8 or Release 9 HSPA+ are relatively modest. With 64QAM and 2x2 MIMO, I've heard figures of 20-30% *might* be achievable. However, given views of contrarians like Moray Rumney from Agilent, these gains may well not be attainable in the real world - or at least, only for a certain proportion of the time under specific user/cell scenarios. In terms of actual *average* throughput in normal usage, there may well be only a wafer-thin margin between them.

Yes, LTE has better latency (in theory), a flatter and maybe cheaper network, and the ability to use thin slivers of spectrum.

But this needs to be set against the need to run LTE as an overlay on HSPA anyway (3 sets of network opex....), plus the extra cost and complexity in handsets, the huge testing and optimisation costs, the probable flaky hand-offs between LTE and 3G/2G, the ongoing issue of voice support and numerous other unknowns. Add to this the fact that LTE does not appear to offer any obvious new business models compared with HSPA+ (especially if only used in limited "hotspots") and the business case dissipates even further.

That's not to say LTE won't be improved - after all, HSDPA has proven a superb "bug fix" for WCDMA, only 5 years after it was introduced. Prior to that point, 3G was pretty pointless - in hindsight, operators would have been better off leaving the 2.1GHz spectrum unused, or perhaps temporarily putting EDGE in it, although under old regulatory regimes that probably wouldn't have been allowed.

This time, there are more options.

I think that operators should give serious consideration to the scenario of continued upgrades to HSPA, including putting it in new spectrum bands like 2.6GHz. Much of the new radio equipment could be easily upgraded to LTE at a later date - if required. There's possibly an argument to skip current LTE entirely and wait for real 4G - LTE Advanced - as an eventual migration path.

Given that operators are currently starting to put HSPA in refarmed 900MHz (surely also a "new band" effectively?), why not also 2.6GHz?

Either way - I think that operators should start leaning on their suppliers, both infrastructure- and device-side - to support HSPA2600 as an option at least.

Edit: any game-theorists reading this might also want to ponder on the competitive impact of those most benefiting from early scale economies for LTE devices (on any band). In particular, CDMA operators moving to LTE will likely be disproportionately affected if their HSPA peers don't follow suit at about same time. Will LTE enable a marketing win vs. HSPA+? Given that neither is 4G I can't really see why - 3.75G vs. 3.9G isn't really a great headline-maker. In fact, if WiMAX and LTE operators can use 4G as a branding device, I see no reason why HSPA+ operators shouldn't too.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thought experiment - two-sided broadband models

I've just seen another vendor presentation suggesting that broadband operators might be able to charge "upstream" content or Internet companies for differentiated QoS, enabling them to "monetise the pipe".

It's a common refrain, underlined as usual by the 2008-era reference to "over the top players".

Even leaving aside the realities of Net Neutrality legislation for a minute, there simply seem to be almost no real-world examples of "cold hard cash" changing hands for differentiated broadband in this way.

Some of the recent work I've been doing with Telco 2.0 on broadband business models has suggested a few possible niche options here - but there will need to be a lot of work to wrap them with integration and customisation. I'll be talking about these in coming weeks and months.

But every time someone suggests operators might charge the BBC or YouTube or Facebook for access to "their pipes" I can't but help wondering if the reality will be the exact opposite.

I can imagine Facebook, with its 400m users, starting to reverse the proposition. "Dear Mr Broadband operator, forget about trying to charge us per GB of data. Instead, we'd like *you to pay us* $1 per user per month for access to the latest version of Facebook's web platform. PS you can also buy adverts to target users on your rivals' access connections"

Saturday, November 07, 2009

OneVoice for LTE + IMS : Necessary but not sufficient

EDIT: If you are interested in learning more about the Future of Voice, I am running a series of small-group Masterclasses together with Martin Geddes, as well as providing private internal workshops. Email me at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for more details

 This will surprise a few people: I'm actually quite impressed with the announcement the other day about the OneVoice profile for defining an IMS-based approach to voice on LTE. I've now had a chance to read through the full document.

It essentially de-options a lot of the implementation vagueness and distracting flexibility around using IMS for mobile voice, creating a lowest common denominator "Profile" from the existing standards. It strips away a lot of the unnecessary fripperies and boils it all down to what amounts to the minimum set of requirements for basic telephony to work - if you happen to be an operator bought into the IMS world-view, that is.

Exactly two years ago I published a report on VoIPo3G (which included an analysis of the role of VoIP on LTE, HSPA and EVDO). I wrote "Too much emphasis is placed by 3GPP on unproven ‘multimedia’ telephony concepts rather than ‘plain’ VoIPo3G". More than three years ago I wrote another report on IMS-capable handsets (or the lack thereof) in which I wrote "There is little consensus on the answer to the question "What exactly is an IMS phone?""

Well, this document is an IMS-centric take on "Plain VoIPo3G", and it does go a little further in defining the capabilities of an IMS phone. It makes it very clear that "other media types" like video are not essential, for initial deployment at least. There is not a single mention of the word "presence" in the whole document. It talks about AMR codecs and not the "HD" wideband version AMR-WB.

It appears to have taken a long hard look at the unloved MMTel standard for mobile IMS VoIP and turned it into something more practical. It might even make "bare-bones IMS VoIP" a bit cheaper and easier to implement for some of the operators who are skeptical.

All of which is good. -But the problems it addresses have been obvious for at least 2 years, and this announcement is a start of a process and not its end. This document is just a suggestion, not a standard. It will be forwarded to 3GPP and GSMA and other bodies. It's written on a template that *looks* like a standards document, but for now it's just a helpful suggestion from some interested parties. "this specification defines a common recommended feature set and selects one recommended option when multiple options exist for single functionality"

Hopefully, it will become more widely adopted over time - although it will be interesting to see if any changes are made when other companies have their say. Notable major omissions from the roster of participants are NTT DoCoMo, China Mobile, Huawei, ZTE, LG, Apple, RIM, Motorola, Telecom Italia, T-Mobile, Qualcomm, NEC and quite a few others.

Various other commentators have suggested that this means that OneVoice is "One Ring to Rule Them All" (....and in the darkness bind them), spelling the end for Frodo (aka VoLGA), Gollum (CS Fallback) and all the other hobbit-like contenders for Voice on LTE.

I disagree.

OneVoice is necessary but not sufficient. It makes IMS less painful for mobile voice, but it doesn't make it ideal either. It makes interoperable IMS mobile voice less slow to develop, but it doesn't make it fast. It makes it less cumbersome, but doesn't make it elegant. It makes it less costly, but it doesn't obviously make it profitable. It's an important step, but it isn't the whole journey.

When the OneVoice press release came out, I was at the Telco 2.0 conference listening to Vodafone's Internet Services team discussing 360 and commenting on IMS RCS, saying "it was going in the right direction, but taking too long". They also mentioned they might think about putting a VoIP client into 360 at some point. I initially thought Voda's presence in the press release a bit strange given it seems in no hurry to deploy LTE, but on second thoughts I see no downside for them either: simplifying IMS is either neutral or positive for them, depending on which part of the company you talk to.

Either way, OneVoice isn't going to happen ubiquitously, nor overnight. Handset vendors must be breathing a sigh of relief that they *finally* have bits of a specification to work to for IMS handsets. But it's unlikely to be quick to hit the market or be optimised. And the overall business case for mobile operators to deploy IMS is still not exactly pretty, as it offers no obvious new revenue streams. For fixed IMS, there have at least been some decent arguments around cost-savings. But it's far from clear that the mobile IMS spreadsheets have a similar bottom line benefit.

So there is still likely to be a need for an interim solution for several years - as well as something that works on non-IMS LTE operators' networks. CS fallback is a bit of a train-wreck which nobody seems to like. So I think that VoLGA still makes sense for those wanting to make the most of their circuit-switching assets. And Internet-based voice services like Skype or a future "VodaVoIP" may have appeal for the more 2.0-style operators deploying LTE.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Music industry: stop whingeing

OK, a little off-topic here, but having sat through a lot of hand-wringing during the Media session at the Telco 2.0 event this morning, I thought I'd stick my oar in as well. There was a lot of discussion about banning P2P filesharers, DRM, ISP responsbilities, traffic-shaping and so on, particularly about music. We had the esteemed presence of 1980s singer Feargal Sharkey.

Now don't get me wrong - I produce content myself, and I don't like it when fake spam blogs rip of this site, and I also take steps to protect my published research from illegal copying.

But at the same time, I absolutely disagree that the whole of the Internet industry should be paying much attention to a very small minority, worried about a very small amount of what the Internet is about. I've written before that content is just a small, special sort of application, and the more I think about it, the more my opinion is confirmed.

There is no reasons that music piracy should drive government policy or Internet regulation, any more than software piracy or the online sale of fake pharmaceuticals. However, the entertainment industry tends to enjoy cosier relationships with policy-makers (the French President's wife being a musician, for example, while UK Business Secretary Lord Mandelson is closely linked with the content industry).

Ultimately, the music industry is designed to be (a) noisy, and (b) emotive. That's it's job. So it should be no surprise that they tend to be louder and more emphatic when it comes to shouting about its concerns.

Yet I cannot believe that anyone entering the music industry in the last 10 years has done so expecting to make $$$ from record sales. All the musicians I know are well-aware of the score. They've probably illegally downloaded music themselves. They know the value of live performances, which have been incredibly strong in recent years. If they want to exercise their creativity for purely money-making purposes, they'd be writing iPhone apps instead.

I'm not aware of any decline in the number of bands being formed, despite reducing music sales. A quick glance around the web suggests that musical instrument sales are still pretty robust too.

Bottom line - while piracy is definitely bad news for the record labels, it doesn't seem to be too apocalyptic for performers. But irrespective of the rights and wrongs (and I'm not especially animated one way or the other personally) the noise generated by the music industry is far out of proportion with its overall importance. Turn it down, please.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Finally, an MNO breaks the service/access link. Vodafone 360....

I have long been of the view that the greatest challenge to operators' hold on mobile value-added services will not necessarily come from Google, Skype and other Internet players. It will come from each other.

The unspoken threat has been that other MNOs could represent the scariest so-called "over the top" risk. That they would decouple access from service, and start providing branded services over *each others* networks and handsets.

In particular, I suggested in June this year that Vodafone's acquisition of Zyb might turn into its attempt to break out beyond the narrow confines of its own access-customer base. This follows on from an early warning last year when it launched a cross-operator Facebook SMS app.

I wrote: "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?"

In a nutshell, I was right. Vodafone 360 is available to everyone, not just Voda access subscribers. It's on PCs, there's a client downloadable to other operators' (or vanilla) Symbian or Java devices, plus there's support for other OSs in the pipeline. Yes, the in-house optimised phones from Samsung and others give a *better* 360 experience, but Vodafone has recognised it has to be available as widely as possible to gain traction.

In a way, this is completely intuitive. Businesses like Facebook can succeed because they are addressable by *all* Internet users, not just those confined to a specific broadband provider. This is the way to gain network effects, scale, loyalty and ubiquity. Why would anyone prefer an operator-specific, walled-garden service? The same is true for music (I'm watching Spotify present right now), video (YouTube) or many other services.

One last comment: Vodafone 360 is not based on IMS or RCS, it's. If at some point that changes, I might revise my views on RCS.

Update: just listened to Voda's Director of Internet Services Marketing on a panel talking about 360. RCS was "going in the right direction, but taking too long".... so they used standard web technologies instead.

Obfuscating customer behaviour to maintain privacy

Listening to a discussion about telecom operators aggregating customer data, profiling people based on behavioural software and so on. Not surprisingly, there's the usual questions about privacy, peoples' dislike of personal advert-targetting and so forth.

Don't get me wrong, some of this stuff may be useful in terms of making sure adverts are more interesting and entertaining. But many people (and some countries' legal systems) will take an exceptionally dim view of telco data mining. It fits a bit into what I mentioned last week about the "social web" last week - who really wants all their contacts and behaviour and calls and traffic aggregated and analysed?

For those who do value their privacy, I see a broad set of options emerging to ensure fragmentation will endure. Firstly, the ability to share and federate anonymised connectivity via devices using Joiku Boost or MiFi-type connection sharing. And then I would also expect to see software that makes decoy calls/SMS's with your "spare" minutes and texts, or visits random websites on your flatrate data plan. That should make for some interesting "social graph" analysis.... lastly, I expect a fair amount of messaging or other traffic to be extracted by independent platforms like Facebook (and maybe Vodafone 360)...

Telling anecdote about US views on prepay mobile

I'm at the Telco 2.0 Brainstorm in London this morning. I just heard a comment which, to me, epitomises the difference between US views on prepaid mobile versus most of the rest of the world. It was made by someone who looks at subscriber data management, talking about crunching data for a "hypothetical" prepay provider.

Setting the scene, he referred to the likelihood that c50% of users would be "illegal immigrants or former convicts".

Utterly amazing. I've always recognised that prepaid had a stigma amongst many people in North America, but I hadn't realised it was that bad.