2009-05-29

New posts on vhirsch.com/blog

Here's a new post for you (on Android device deployments this year).

2009-05-25

2009-05-21

A new Home for My Blog...

After nearly 2 years on here, I have decided to grow up and start using my very own domain. I will continue blogging at:



All posts and comments have been transferred although I will keep this live. All feeds are being re-directed, so if you subscribe via e-mail, RSS, etc, you should be continuing to receive updates. However, you might want to bookmark the new location and tell all your friends about it, too!

2009-05-19

Handset Choice: Ease of Use Rules!

A lot of iPhones later, the industry now also has it black on white: Ease of use is the primary reason influencing the choice of a handset for users. Or so we are being told. It is not that surprising, is it? Here's the top answers users gave on what they look at when buying a new phone. It is taken from 1,500 interviews that were conducted for Nuance, a top sponsor of MEX (which is, you guessed it, a conference on Mobile User Experience).


So any vested interests aside, here's the top results:
  1. Ease of use (69.0%)
  2. Screen Size (61.4%)
  3. Coolness Factor (61.1%)
  4. Camera (60.8%)
  5. Range of Accessories (58.4%)
  6. Keyboard (58.1%)
  7. Battery Life (56.6%)
  8. Music Playback (50.9%)

Qualcomm slowly admitting defeat?

I know this is a contentious headline but one could interpret the news that Qualcomm is opening its very own app store (which is probably the oldest one!) to any device on any platform on any carrier this way. The provider will open its Plaza service to non-BREW devices (BREW is proprietary to Qualcomm). This could be seen as an admission of defeat in the platform war, which it appears to be losing against GSM platforms.


However, I plead to see the bright side of this: it is a remarkable move to highlight and capitalize on a piece in its arsenal that has long been industry-leading: Qualcomm has long been offering merchandising solutions that do not have to shy away of the cutting-edge app stores of today. The new Plaza Retail will now bring to Java, BREW, Blackberry and Flash (Android , Windows Mobile, Palm, Symbian and Linux Mobile are apparently to follow) what BREW users have had for a while: a storefront, great device integration and flexible billing (micro-billing, subscriptions, etc). It also allows personalization and a recommendation engine (courtesy of last year's acquisition of Xiam Technologies). And it is a very proven platform that has showed its worth on many a bill to developers (the content-lock is much better than Apples; which may anger some users but will be welcomed by developers) This is quite cool!

2009-05-18

Vodafone's App Store: Bigger than Apple?

It was only a question of time before the first carriers would release themselves from the iPhone-imposed stare and come out all action, and the biggest of them all (by sales), Vodafone, has now raised the curtains on its very own app store. It is the biggest app store to date: Vodafone has more than 289m customers who will - eventually - all be able to access the store (which makes it a cool 8x or so larger than Apple's). Unlike on Apple's App Store, you also do not need a credit card (which, however, you are likely to have anyway when you can afford an iPhone) whereas Vodafone, being a carrier, will bill to their customer's phone bills directly. Very, very cool, huh?


So imagine the power of an app that would go live on Vodafone's carriers all at once. But before we get carried away, let's have a look at the numbers:

Orange UK (in its recently released Digital Media Index; see here) suggested that 4.87% of its users downloaded one game in 2008 (770,000 downloads p.a./ 15.8m users) but this is without an app store but with the traditional catalogue-style offerings.

For Vodafone Group, this would equate to 38,500 downloads per day (289m x 4.87% / 365). If (or when) it includes this offering beyond its own 27 local carriers to its 40 network partners (including Verizon Wireless!), one would be looking at North of 1bn users and, hence, 100,000+ downloads per day. Now, with an app store, this should - theoretically - be further boosted, let's say doubled, arriving at 200,000 downloads per day.

How does this compare with everyone's darling/nemesis (delete as appropriate), the iPhone: I had previously calculated that Apple's app store sees some 4,000 per minute or 5.7m per day... This however includes all those free downloads (about 22% of all apps are for free), so let's say the ratio is 1 paid: for 40 free (which is on the high end of assumptions) or 1:15. This would equate to 144,000 to 380,000 paid downloads per day. So Vodafone's 200,000 wouldn't look completely out of order, would it?

There's even more: Vodafone's decision to bill to the phone bill is only one potential booster since it minimizes friction for the user (Apple: credit card/iTunes account, Blackberry: PayPal, Nokia Ovi: a mix?, etc). The other - and longer-term potentially even bigger one - is geo-awareness: since Vodafone owns the network, it knows where any of "its" users' mobile is at any given time. Now link app usage with geographical location and you could be on to something fairly unique. There is little in the market so far but then: had Apple run its campaign of "bettering life's little problems" in June 2008, it would have looked fairly bleak, too!

So: huge potential but where are the pitfalls?

There's UI and handset fragmentation, if I dare say so. Even though it probably hurts by now, let me repeat: Apple has one model and one deployment method and it nailed content discovery (not perfectly but better than anyone else). Job done. Vodafone has hundreds of handsets on its "to be supported" list. Some are like the Porsche's of their trade ("first available on s60 devices"; ooooh), others are the equivalent to a pedal-powered toy car. The costs for developers to support all these is significant, the cost of management is arguably, too.

Most importantly though, it takes the simplicity and thus ease of use out of the game. And I would posit that this is a big contributor to the (Apple) app store's success: simplicity from entry (ingest an app into the store), management (price, etc) to consumption (download and active use). This will be a tough one for Vodafone to overcome, and it is indeed the one point where OEMs have much better opportunities to "get it right". That the relationship between carriers and OEMs is not always without strain has only recently been proven again, sooooo: the jury is probably still out on that one.

Having said this, Vodafone is better positioned than most carriers though because of its sheer size and footprint. Smaller carriers might struggle to offer developers similar incentives to support their respective offering because they don't scale as well.

For Vodafone, I am concerned that the multi-level complexities they have to deal with (number of handsets x number of operating companies x number of languages x all additional info [geographical and otherwise]) might pose a strain on its ability to roll out quickly and decisively. It might not be as huge and life-changing as Apple's app store but it would certainly lift the "mainstream" of app downloads to whole new level. I am an optimist, so, come on, Voda!

Carnival of the Mobilists #174

Here's another Carnival of the Mobilists, this week hosted by Ram Krishnan on his Mobile Broadband Blog. As usual, lots of goodies: a look at Blyk (check also my 2p here), Tomi Ahonen's reasoning on why the iPhone is better than a laptop, the wider implications of Facebook Connect (yes, there are phones are than the iPhone in this world!) and lots more. Go, go, read it now here!

2009-05-17

Blyk scraps it! No, it doesn't!

Blyk, the ad-funded MVNO for 16-24 year-olds has been in the news lately a lot. The trigger was a piece by NMA according to which Blyk had announced it would scrap its consumer offering and concentrate on selling its technology/concept/both to other operators. This was quickly refuted by Blyk. The "final" position appears to being a little unclear.


Now, quite a while ago, I issued concerns about the viability of their business model as a stand-alone ad-funded MVNO (see here), and I stand by it (even if they have varied their model a little recently: from 217 free messages and 43 minutes of free calls per month to a £15 discount voucher). If they now claim that this was "only" a proof of concept, I must say that this smacks more than a bit of hopeful PR although this may just be semantics:

The pitfalls of an MVNO-only model aside, their approach is rather intriguing: if you can segment the market as they do and thus create consumer (or people) clusters that are much more homogenous than most media will be able to assemble (18-49-year-olds anyone?), you have a fairly powerful opportunity to interact with your people more directly, more intensely and - most importantly - more relevant messages than you otherwise could. And this has value, and lots of it!

Combine this now with the headaches of your ordinary operator, of which the biggest one probably (still) is churn. I am lacking current accurate numbers but, historically, an operator's churn rate (the percentage of users it would lose in 12 months) was up to 1/3. And this is painful, very painful! So get a tool that allows to reduce that churn significantly and you're off to the races. Combine this with a (functioning because highly targeted) advertising model and you can even increase your margins on this model. Sounds good? Certainly does to me!

And so it is not a big surprise that other operators are said to have shown a lot of interest in the model. Vodafone, for one, have had their own advertising-related announcement in the last week, and the use of Blyk's model and expertise could be quite compelling to them (as some voices already suggest). From Blyk's point of view, such a model is also easier and more quickly scalable than a stand-alone expansion and it should therefore greatly aid Blyk to build the critical mass it needs to stay (or become) relevant to advertisers.

It might still fly, you know...

Image credit: http://asetcenter.net/images/article/mobile_adv.jpg

2009-05-15

Orange UK: Mobile Broadband Roars!

Orange UK, one of the large carriers in the country with 15.8m mobile subscribers, has released its "Fifth Digital Media Index", containing a set of interesting numbers on the data uptake on their network, and it makes for intriguing reading!


The carrier recorded a whopping 4,125% (!) increase in data use over dongles using their mobile network in the last 12 months with dongle subscriptions growing by 504%. Data use from handset increased by 108% and that, I might add, without the help of the iPhone (which is exclusive to O2 in the UK). The increase from dongles will be connected to a big push this offering has seen in the UK (as in other countries) over the past period. Carriers have been and are promoting these aggressively, helping uptake of mobile broadband significantly.

Here are some highlights from the report:
  • Music and video downloads increased both by 38%.
  • Games only grew by 8% (but at least they grew; anecdotally, some other carriers recorded sometimes dramatic drops in take-up) to a total of 770,000 downloaded games, which equates to a market share of 23% of all UK games downloads (the total UK games market would hence be 3.35m downloads for the year with Orange claiming top spot). From the top 10 downloaded games in 2008, 8 were part of the carrier's embed programme, which shows - again - that users appear more comfortable if they can try it out before (embedded games normally are trial versions).
  • Social network use over mobile increased by 129% in page impressions per month and 48% in unique users. The monthly average number of pages per user was 397. In terms of popularity of social networks, Orange's Mark Watt-Jones (@MWJ) fed us additional bits via the Twittersphere: Facebook dominates, Bebo is significant, MySpace less so and Twitter grows very quickly (what was the Oprah moment in the UK?)
  • An average of 386,000 GB of data have been transferred via dongles and handsets per month.
  • Mobile search grew by 120% with 45% of the results being "off-portal", i.e. outside Orange's domains.
  • Good old SMS still looking good, too: 19% growth with 1.7bn sent every month.
Another key point Mark brought us via Twitter: 99% of access to social network sites came from non-smartphones. This is quite noteworthy indeed as it arguably shows that mobile data usage now transcends beyond the power users on sophisticated handsets and also that content leads the uptake: give people compelling content, and they'll use it. Mobile data for the masses seems to have arrived!

2009-05-14

T-Mobile, Nokia & Skype

Nokia's deal with Skype did not go down too favourably with German carriers T-Mobile and Vodafone, and there had been threats that they would drop the respective Nokia devices (including the long-awaited hero handset N97) from their device roadmaps. Today, T-Mobile provided some "clarification" on the issue: according to a spokesperson, T-Mobile apparently wants to ship the N97 but not with the Skype VoIP client installed ("it is up to us to decide what is on the device").


It was also said that the carrier was looking into options on how to deal with VoIP but that it was still early days. However, T-Mobile does apparently not block VoIP clients, neither Skype nor others... Hm, this does not sound like a convincing policy to me...


Android to grow 900% in 2009

There are reports and there are reports. From the latter category, we are being enlightened with the latest growth predictions for Android and they come out at a whopping 900% for 2009, compared to "only" 79% for the iPhone. The report does not hide the fact that the calculatory basis may not be fully comparable as it is expanding from a low base.


Moreover though, when looking at the models applied by Apple and the Google-led Open Handset Alliance, these are quite different and it is therefore to be fully expected that Android-powered handsets will overtake iPhone numbers sooner rather than later. Would they not, it would simply reflect on extremely poor performance: Apple has always applied a model that combined hardware and OS: both came from the same mould and from one hand. This is a huge contributor to its superior usability: it can be woven in a seamless way.

However, on the other hand, this is also what arguably cost Apple the war over the desktop: Microsoft-powered systems grew exponentially, last but not least because the OS was available on hardware from any number of manufacturers whereas Apple's OS was only available on, well, Macs. The same applies now to the iPhone. Apple's one product that bucked that trend was the iPod, which commands an impressive share around 70%. This however is the exception rather than the norm. And it is unsurprising, too: it is extremely unlikely that one manufacturer and the limited number of models it can bring out will be able to cater to the needs and tastes of any number of people and demands equally.

The above does of course not mean that Apple did much wrong: the model seems to be working beautifully. The app store might only have contributed $20-45m or so in profit (or revenue?) to Apple (which is not that much considering that this is the harvest from more than 1 bn apps) but it also sold 13.7m iPhones and 22.7m iPods in 2008 alone, and this will have contributed nicely. Now, take this together with the Mac boom (which still only equates to c. 10% market share), which arguably is partly to "blame" on the popularity of iPhones and iPods (many users will experience the legendary UI only on one of these devices), and you have a good company.

The Android model is the opposite of this: here, a large number of companies get together to build an OS, which can then go (and be customized) on a myriad of devices from a myriad of manufacturers. At the start of the initiative, it was Google and 34 others, including China Mobile, KDDI, Sprint, TIM, T-Mobile, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Intel and eBay (cf. here). Today, the alliance boasts (if I counted correctly) 47 members. As per the above equation, it would be very surprising if the numbers from this model would not exceed the ones from Apple's. In 2009, we will be seeing Android devices from HTC (the front runners on this with the G1 and the Magic) as well as from Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and probably dozens more. Can they sell more? Yes. Will they sell more Android devices than iPhones in 2009? I don't know. Maybe not. Will they still grow by 900%? Yes, of course, as we are still looking at small numbers at this time: if I make $100 turnover in year 1 and $900 in year 2, I still cannot live of that but I will have grown 900%... Will they be able to grow by 900% in 2010? That will be more difficult as their starting point will be different. Very wise insights, huh? ;-)

2009-05-11

To Skype or not to Skype: Nokia vs Carriers

The most excellent German blog Mobile Zeitgeist alerted me (in German) to a little battle that illustrates the pitfalls of creating the seamless user experience: Nokia appears to being in a tussle with (at least) the German arms of Vodafone and T-Mobile over the pre-installation of Skype clients on some of its forthcoming handset models (including the long-awaited iPhone competitor, N97).


Vodafone and T-Mobile Germany (who have a combined subscriber base of close to 80m) have now publicly stated that they will not include any Nokia models into their catalogues, which will have Skype installed. Now, there's a market gone dead then... For other models, look to 3 in the UK (and my post on the Skypephone there...).

T-Mobile said that they "would not let their business be destroyed" by this. Their terms and conditions prohibited VoIP clients already but the carriers did anecdotally turn a blind eye towards this in the past. Nokia's push however now is apparently too much for the carriers who fear network issues. Interestingly, this surfaces on the same day where, in anther part of the world, some queried the sustainability of free data plans for the iPhone (namely the Wall Street Journal on AT&T's policies in respect of the iPhone). Predictably, Skype lambasted the move as "unfair practice".

The name of the game is - of course - the pipe (not new: see e.g. here and here): the WSJ quotes from an Alcatel-Lucent analysis of North American networks during the midday hour of one day, which apparently shows that web browsing consumed 32% of data-related airtime but 69% of bandwidth whereas e-mail used 30% of data airtime but only 4% of bandwidth. The reasoning goes that increased data traffic impacts the networks' capex whilst remaining - at best - ARPU-neutral (AT&T ponders to drop its data plan for the iPhone by $10), cutting down margins and hurting the carrier more than is healthy. Voice and SMS services are - on a bit for bit basis - very, very profitable as they use very little bandwidth.

To conclude though - as the WSJ does - that unlimited data plans should be abandoned "in the short term", pours the baby out with the bathwater: smartphones are paving the way into the wireless future (20% of US households are completely wirefree already!) and it is a space where the carriers have great gains to make; maybe not on the sumptuous margins they were used to but healthy and viable nonetheless. To do as the WSJ asks would be as if one would have asked ISPs to please stop flat-rate plans for Internet access; and look what has become of the Internet!

Accordingly, other voices argue that a) slowing voice ARPU is at least being part set-off by increasing data ARPU (which grew a healthy 32% year-on-year in Q1 and saw more than $10bn in wireless data plans being sold in the US for the first time), and b) that the carriers actually know this for a while now and, accordingly, upgrade their networks to better cope with higher bandwidth demands in order to make the move to data pipes; the fight is arguably now "only" about whether these would be dumb or smart: with app stores, VAS and business-to-business (and machine-to-machine) solutions opening up vast new segments that have been completely unexploited to date, one should think that there is room for the smart pipe operator. So fear not!

Carnival of the Mobilists #173

This week's Carnival of the Mobilists, the weekly summary of the best and brightest from mobile blogs around the world, is being hosted by Tsahi Levent-Levi on his VoIP Survivor blog. You can read it here. This week brings you gems from some of the heavyweights, like Tomi Ahonen (on mobile data), Andrew Grill (looking at Google Latitude), Russell Buckley (on an SMS/MMS ad service that works) plus many, many more! Well worth a read - as always really!

Top 10 Mobile Phones - April 2009

Everyone's favourite phone accessory makers, Krusell of Sweden, have released their top-10 list of mobile phone sales, measured by sales of accessories, for April 2009. And here they are:


1. (2) Nokia 3109
2. (1) Samsung SGH-i900/i910 Omnia
3. (8) Nokia 5800
4. (5) Nokia E71
5. (4) HTC Touch HD
6. (7) Nokia 3120
7. (3) Nokia 6300
8. (6) Nokia E51
9. (-) Sony Ericsson C702
10. (-) Sony Ericsson X1 Xperia
() = Last month’s position.

Krusell's CEO was surprised that a "simpleton" such as the 3109 would top the list. Maybe it is a sign of recession that people now start to protect even their not so precious phones with stylish Swedish holsters. Who knows?

Again: iPhone users seem to be too precious to cover their beloved one in holsters and Blackberry users have them already, hence less of a market here. For the remainder: judge by yourself...

2009-05-09

Nokia Ovi's 20,000+

Nokia's interpretation of an app store will be Ovi, and it will launch later this month. This is a biggie since Nokia (according to its own numbers) still commands an imposing market share of - globally - 37%. True to its huge self, it now said it'll come out with all its guns blazing and kick its app store off with no less than 20,000 "items"! This is being compared to Apple's "few hundred" upon launch.


However, that contains of course quite a bit of a PR spin: Nokia does not only include applications in its count but also videos and "mobisodes", and on this definition, one would need to count in the 40,000 or so videos, 3,000 TV shows, etc that the iPhone had on offer via iTunes (numbers via Wikipedia).

So where does Nokia truly stand in May 2009? The company, once famed for cool design (7110 - also known as the "Matrix" phone anyone?) and intuitive UI (yes, really: in the pre-Java age, Nokia's were second to none when it came to usability and interface) seems to have lost a little of its gloss. Its devices still boast technical excellence (the N96 technically outsmarts every iPhone or Android device easily) but the sex-appeal is considerably lower. Nokia anno 2009 has a little more of a Siemens-like flavour: very well engineered but a bit dull and maybe, well, a little over-engineered. At a time when content finally seems to go mainstream, this is more than only unfortunate: Nokia's often announced push into the US (where it holds an uncharacteristically small market share) has faltered (again) but the company also seems to lose market share in regions where it previously was unassailable. Moreover, its incremental products, such as the Navteq business, appear to struggle, too (Navteq recorded net sales of only €132m in Q1/2009; compare that to a purchase price of $8.1bn!), as it is arguably being challenged by the - free - Google Maps (which most people I know prefer over the - paid-for - Navteq services).

Nokia's competition comes less from its traditional foes, Sony Ericsson (struggling itself), Samsung, LG or Motorola but from the newbies like Apple, RIM or HTC, all of which focus on the upper end of the market and leverage this with smart phones that comes - app store or not - with a vastly expanded range of apps and services. Apple has leveraged this in breathtaking ways but one must not forget the gains Blackberry-maker RIM has realized. And while this was not on the back of its app store (Blackberry App World launched only recently), Blackberry devices had always been used for more than only voice and SMS - data services were always at the core of the product.

So where will Ovi sit? Will it revolutionize the mobile phone mass market on the content side, too? Nokia's attempts so far were something of a mixed bag: Preminet must probably considered a failure, its successor NCD (Nokia Content Discoverer) was always a little bit in the shadows, too. N-Gage is a distinctly high-end service (with - anecdotally - 1m or so subscribers, which is small when you look at Nokia's overall market footprint), the P2P service Mosh was known (to the people who actually did know of it) for the piracy taking place on the platform rather than for commercial success. In short: Nokia's moves into content have not been an overwhelming success so far. Ovi has the opportunity to change this. Due to its massive market footprint, Nokia has the opportunity to turn more than 1bn devices into shop windows for content, and this outmuscles anything Apple could even dream of achieving by large margins.

However, the success of an app store is not being defined by the sheer number of content available on or through it but but at least equally by the functionality, the usability and discovery. This is where Apple has been doing so well: the combination and seamless integration of hardware and software and its content strategy out of one mould (with no carrier intervention at all) has lifted the bar for an interface significantly. It might look easy to copy this but it is not. Nokia has also been very (!) late to the game (bear in mind they first announced Ovi in 2007!), and it acknowledges this itself. It will therefore be very interesting to see how Nokia manages to execute it. Be not mistaken: if it succeeds, the content revolution on mobile has truly begun!