Oberon plays mobile with I-Play

Finally... I-Play and Oberon today announced that the former would be acquired by the latter, allegedly for $110-120m. A deal involving I-Play had been rumoured to happen for quite some time, so good for Gosen and his team that they found a suitor. And not a bad one either: Oberon is an online gaming powerhouse, so a move across to mobile makes sense (and they had probably realised that their acquisition of Blaze (which itself was the combination of Synergenix and Kayak Interactive) last year wasn't getting them anywhere close to where they need to be). I-Play with its CEO David Gosen certainly showed stamina. They published some pretty cool titles (including Gamevil's critically acclaimed "Skipping Stone" and hit series "The Fast & The Furious") and in spite of oft rumoured shortage of cash just hung in there.

Oberon also raised some fresh money from investors Goldman Sachs, Oak Investments and Lehman Brothers, so all looks good for them, I suppose.

UPDATE: Today (12 Sept 2007) I-Play announced 11 new games all drawn from Oberon's back catalogue. They are Hexic and Mozaki Blocks (apparently from the creator of Tetris), Flowerz, Slinky, Fish Tycoon, Spin & Win, Bricks of Egypt, Bricks of Atlantis, Magic Match, Bubble Town and Saints & Sinners Bingo. It will be interesting to see what will win in the current battle of big brands and casual games; both are frequently cited as two of the key components of breaking into the mass market.


Verizon strikes back (or does it?): Prada phone vs. iPhone

It does remain interesting, doesn’t it? Days after AT&T was confirmed to have the iPhone for a minimum of 5 years exclusively, Verizon comes back to announce the launch of the ultimate fashion device (in a rather literal sense), namely the Prada phone (or LG KE 850). Verizon was keen to stress that this will not be the only music phone they will offer but this seems to being the current main contender of the iPhone: it has similarly sleek looks, both have a touch screen and even the LG UI is somewhat Apple-esque (See review here).

One of the interesting things is to see how a phone that – in Europe – runs on the trusted MIDP 2.0 platform (and will, for Verizon, presumably run on the no less trusted BREW platform) will perform against the first one utilising Apple’s OS X. If Apple manages to have their OS run as smoothly and matter-of-factly as it does on their computers, we will all be up for a ride: whilst phones may not be as buggy as some of Microsoft’s earlier (or indeed current?) operating systems, Apple’s OS X is one hell of an elegant OS and supposedly superior to anything I have seen on the currently available systems. However, OS X requires quite a bit more in computing power than these, and this poses (at least) two challenges, namely a) battery life and b) speed.

LG’s Prada phone on the other hand has shown in the UK that it is a proper everyday device that works well (and looks good). It also comes with 3G (other than the iPhone) although of course it lacks WiFi. LG has recently shown that it has a nifty hand for great look-and-feel: the Chocolate, the Shine and the Prada phone all show a fantastically slick approach to handset design. Since LG phones run on a “usual” OS, all applications and games, etc that run on “normal” phones, also work for them. And Apple? Nothing I heard of. Even the iPod games have already been cracked (see here).

If one would assume that the iPhone performs well, it would however be sad if that was only for one operator/carrier. Will Apple make the same mistake it made on its superior Mac OS in the mid-80s, i.e. kill its market prospects by being to exclusive? One would hope that they have learned but perhaps their more recent success with a similar approach for the iPod has overshadowed the no doubt painful learnings they must have taken from being erased by Micrsosoft and the inferior DOS on the computer OS front. Let’s see…


Cingular or American Telephone & Telegraph Company? My 2p

It get's boring, I know. But after the flurry over AT&T's announcement that they will now step up their re-branding another notch in order to be eye-level to the uber-spin doctors from Apple for the launch of the iPhone, I cannot keep myself from making yet another comment on the branding debate: which one is better, AT&T or Cingular?

A lot has been argued and said about it (see e.g. here, here and here) but let's stick to one simple fact (OK, there'll be another one later): Millward Brown, the brand gurus who publish the annual "Brandz" ranking, something like the Forbes List (or the Times Rich List when you live in the UK) for brands showed that "Cingular" gained 39% year-on-year and slotted in at #70 with a brand value of $9.2bn. AT&T, well, didn't make the top 100. Even if it was on #101, it would mean that its value would be at least $4bn less than Cingular's.

What is REALLY concerning though is that the brand they abandon actually gained value to the tune the Cingular brand did (3rd biggest climber overall). The fact that the Cingular brand is younger, more dynamic, does not conjure up memories of the old wretched monopoly the old AT&T once was - well, I leave that to the real marketing freaks but you really cannot argue with that, huh?

To end it: here's what GigaOM's readers think:


ESPN Mobile 2.0

So ESPN Mobile is being reborn, this time as EPSN MVP and exclusive to Verizon V-Cast. To remind you: ESPN Mobile 1.0 was an MVNO that was mothballed 9 months after launch with an undisclosed but presumably low number of subscribers. The new ESPN Mobile is an application available on a couple of Motorola and LG phones (including all the very fashionable ones) and is apparently a pimped up version of the original application that had come pre-installed on the former MVNO's phones. Apparently BREW and some more dev makes it faster and sexier than the original Java app did.

The new MVP application is available for free to VZW’s high-end data subscribers, which are those who subscribe to the V-Cast service and buy its $15-monthly VPak subscription.

Learnings anyone?


Games shine on Orange

Mobile games outsell other types of content, including ringtones and wallpapers on Orange UK, we read. Orange published its first digital media index which also showed that Orange customers send 872m text messages a month, with most sent between 4pm and 8pm as people plan a night out.

In Q1/2007, almost 750,000 games were downloaded. This compares to only 65,000 and 250,000 tracks, ringtones and music video. This is rather noteworthy. So why is it?

Games are the only category of the above that is tied to the commercial ecosphere of today (be it via carrier deck or from a D2C portal, etc): I can download a picture from the web and bluetooth it or sideload it to my phone and it will work. Phones understand jpeg. I can do the same with a music track. Phones understand mp3. I cannot do the same with a Java game. Phones do understand Java but it is an executable, so you need an installer file, etc. Higher complexity. Too complicated to do it for me, buy it then...

Games have an additional particularity and that is that they need to be thoroughly adapted to the small screen. A song sounds the same (assuming you have a good pair of headphones), a picture will be, well, smaller on a small screen but otherwise undistorted. A game requires interaction, and this is being done very differently on a phone. So we may well see the above numbers drifting further apart...

Real Networks buys Sony NetServices

Real steps it up again: After their acquisition of WiderThan last year (ring-backs, music-on-demand, etc) catapulted them to the forefront of mobile music services, they have now acquired Sony's NetServices division that runs Vodafone's audio-streaming services in Germany, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Romania and the UK as well as the one for TeliaSonera in Finland.

The whole audio-streaming thing still puzzles me though: the original commercial model for ringtones was clear but it was based on hardware barriers and constraints rather than the fantastic content (let's face it, monophonic ringtones were pretty horrific). However, with Bluetooth and memory cards now being on virtually every phone and storage of 1GB and more not raising an eyebrow anymore, this would seem doomed (also see my post on declining sales here).

One could argue that it is sensible to then move on to streaming but can anyone explain to me why I should pay for what basically is radio when even a shabby old Nokia 6230 comes with a stereo FM receiver that does the trick, too, and for free? That, I believe, is the difference to ringtones: I do have alternatives to getting to basically the same content - it then comes down to packaging, ease of use, etc and carriers haven't been particularly good at that, have they?

Buongiorno buys Flytxt... and it goes on...

Consolidation of the mobile marketing sector seems to happen faster than people can blog: Italian mobile content distributor Buongiorno has acquired UK and US operations of Flytxt for c. $ 5.4m. With Buongiorno's platform and D2C focus and Flytxt's background (they provide a tool that allows marketing types to run their own campaigns), this is a somewhat different twist to the approach Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and others have been taking. A D2C player should really be better positioned to bridge the gap between advertiser and consumer as they are much closer to the latter.

Here's what they say: "Mobiles allow marketers to reach individuals in new ways, which are not possible with other media and open up dramatic new opportunities for marketers to interact with consumers. Flytxt's work with Orange on its 'Orange Wednesdays' campaign is testament to how powerful the use of mobile can be as a marketing and advertising tool". By way of background: Orange Wednesdays are a BOGOF cinema service that has mobile ticketing components (i.e. you can sign up/participate via mobile), and if we get this right, the mobile component is based on Flytxt's propositions...

No numbers on usage and/or take-up though, and that is a pity... Other than that, this combination could be intriguing. Bring it on, folks!

Does RIM move from Hardware to Software Model?

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) pushes into Windows Mobile reports Telephony Online. As it sets out to create a BlackBerry Virtual Machine, this would imply a move from a hardware-driven to a software-driven business model but RIM is playing this down: they say they will continue to build their Blackberry devices and merely react to market demand.

Analysts seem sceptical as loading the BlackBerry software onto a Windows-powered phone is apparently tougher than it sounds. They also claim that vendors may be reluctant to include it in their phone's basic software stack, and carriers may be reluctant to support it.

And that seems logical: a few years ago there had not been any alternative, so everyone might have played along. However, now alternatives, most prominently from mighty MSFT itself (Microsoft ActiveSync), are here, and one wonders if it will be just as easy. Given Blackberry's cult following and the wariness towards Microsoft's dominance, one cannot help but wish for a powerful competitor. However, it might very well be that RIM fell for the old Apple mistake, i.e. trying to marry hardware and software for too long: once the real world has moved on and worked around proprietary systems (even if they are superior), there is no winning anymore.


AOL gets Third Screen Media - The Big Boys & Mobile Advertising

It heats up but remains VERY fragmented: After Microsoft snatched up Massive and bought Screentonic, AOL now acquired Third Screen Media. Google has been invisible on this front but powers ahead with integrating many of its products onto mobile - and they (can) come with ads (see article and interview with their Director of Product Management, Deep Nishar, here). Yahoo! as well is getting its search products onto more and more carriers, a step to keep doors and screens open... Mighty Nokia announced its own service... Various carriers do it on their own (e.g. Sprint as per the report here). And then there's a few first-generation "indies", such as Greystripe and Actionality (indies for how long though?), Exit Games and IDG try the partnering approach - there is certainly a lot going on!

Is this all sensible or is it the silverbacks trying things out and some of the smaller players dressing up for a beauty parade and a big-buck exit by acquisition and/or running after the flavour of the month? AOL seems to think the former: their Chairman & CEO, Randy Falco said that "AOL is one of only four at-scale advertising businesses on the Internet, and the acquisition of Third Screen Media gives us a very strong position in the fast-growing mobile space. It also lets us offer advertisers a more complete set of solutions, from display advertising to search and now a superior set of mobile solutions."

At the moment, the sector is all talk and little money. According to traditionally buoyant analysts Informa, 2006 saw $871m in ad revenue on the mobile platform (and they didn't even tell what was comprised; I assume this includes SMS-based services which we can probably agree are pretty crude), others put it to half that (also see the overview on the fine GigaOM blog here). There is little doubt that the sector will grow exponentially but when, how and through which players is pretty much wide open.

Today, for MSFT, Google, Yahoo! et al, these acquisitions are largely insignificant as regards their impact on the P&L but they may well equip them with a much needed spearhead (and knowhow) in the new ad sector, mobile advertising.

If more and more players try to assert themselves, the question will arise which type of advertising model we will see: will it be syndication-driven as it is on the web or will you need to book your ads with every single media owner (as it is in print and TV). At the moment, even though one would/could argue that the mobile is merely a different iteration of online, it would seem as if they're choosing the latter but then it is very early days.

The big issues are still somewhat unsolved as yet and they will arguably hinder quick implementation: white-listing of data services, so that the end user does not actually have to pay for the delivery of ads to his/her phone, is a big issue that will only be solved once data plans are truly open and not capped at [X] MB (as a few carriers now introduce, e.g. Orange). Many other issues, such as targeting users (relevance) and balancing ads (e.g. in-game; see interesting report here) need more robust solutions, too.

So at present I'd say: congrats to the likes of Massive, Third Screen, Screentonic, etc who have found a deep-pocketed corporate home and good luck and perseverance to all the others.


Smart negotiations OR headaches with widget economics...

Not really mobile but rather noteworthy and juicy, so here goes: According to TechCrunch, MySpace pockets Photobucket, the web's #1 photo site (ahead of Flickr) for some $250m + earn-outs. Photobucket has 40m users, much more than YouTube had when they were acquired by Google. Therefore, TechCrunch contends that MySpace made a killing. So far interesting but not really out of the ordinary. Now, here comes then:

There have been consistent rumours that MySpace briefly flexed its muscles when in later stages of negotiations with Photobucket. In short: it shut the Photobucket links on its sites down (see here). All this was about, well, $$$: MySpace would not benefit from ads that are embedded on Photobucket's widgets. This constitutes a violation of MySpace's terms (rather understandable). So: Shutdown! ... A brief reminder on just how much Photobucket depended on MySpace's platform in order to sustain its user based and value. The site generated lots of traffic for Photobucket-hosted content: according to the Photobucket co-founder and CEO, Alex Welch, quoted in the above posting, 50%+ of all MySpace pages contain Photobucket content... They were between a rock and a hard place as the position of widget makers and their "hosts" is uneasy at best (see the interesting post of Andrew Chen here).

In any case, at that price, it was certainly a deal that looks much healthier than YouTube did ($13 vs. $67 per user) - the numbers again are as per TechCrunch - and I would applaud MySpace on some nifty piece of negotiating! Given the whole interdependancy in the widget world, it was probably a proper win-win, too. Halleluja!


Who's Europe's #2 in games?

Who is Europe's second largest mobile games provider? EA, Gameloft, Glu, Hands-On, Namco, I-Play, THQ? Nah - it is Zenops! Who? Yes, you heard right... That is, at least as per the lead investor in Zenops, who rather boldly stated this in their announcement of the acquisition of formerly high-aiming and recently rather ailing In-Fusio (including Mobile Scope) and niche player Filao.

Now, the acquisitions suggest that Zenops aims towards i-mode: this is where it was active in the past, and where Filao has expertise. It probably aims to apply Mobils Scope's and In-Fusio's expertise to expand this onto other platforms. But #2? Come on!

The statement is all too bold, and it gives the whole thing a bit of a stale taste. Do never pretend things you cannot be. To aim for such positions is an honourable and worthy task. To simply assert it without any hint as to where this should be derived from or on what it is based is, well, best left uncommented, in particular if it comes with such humbling clarifications: Zenops' website currently (11 May 2007) says under the download tab: "For non i-mode user, games from ZENOPS will be available in a few months". It gets worse: ex-In-Fusio man Florent Pitoun writes that his "old company has been sold to a small industry player at a really ridculous value, meaning that my shares are now worth nothing." Ouch!

So, dear folks from Zenops-In-Fusio-Mobile-Scope-Filao: send your investor chap to a course in media training and good luck to you all!


Quo Vadis, Microsoft Advertising Strategy?

Mobile Marketing seems hot, even in this young blog where I commented upon it here, here and here already. Now though mighty MS moves again: Microsoft acquired Screentonic, a French mobile advertising firm. This follows their acquisition of leading NY-based in-game advertiser Massive a year ago (see here). Coupled with rumours around this ominous joint venture that sent Yahoo! shares soaring one wonders if MSFT is setting itself up for a true fight with Google.

Google of course has recently bulged up again with its DoubleClick acquisition, in particular as it was said to be interested itself (not that Google hadn't done anything before: remember their Sky and MySpace deals). According to reports, Google is set to take 32% of the digital ad market this year, up 7% from 2006 (the report is not clear if that includes DoubleClick or not). Yahoo! came in at 18% in 2006 and Microsoft at a meagre 7%.

It is a very exciting space. However, when it comes to mobile advertising can I note that Google hasn't really moved there yet? Implementing AdSense and AdWord on mobile might be tough as long as screen resolutions aren't sooo great and data-inclusive plans still the exception but isn't the absence of any action noteworthy? I think not, at least not at current (becasuse, let's not forget, they are rather active when it comes to get themselves onto carrier decks as the search engine of choice).

Any move at current is a gamble: data plans can cost you anywhere from nothing to an arm and three legs, users haven't shown to be taken to ads on the mini screens of mobile phones (unless they get immediate reward: see my blog post here). Microsoft's explanations (which their GM of Digital Advertising Solutions gave to AdAge) aren't uber-convincing, more middle-of-the-road talk about CPM, CPC and CPA... These are horrific for mobile at the moment. And mighty MS doesn't reveal terribly deep insights into the space when they utter things like this when it comes to the carriers: "There's definitely an economic relationship. I can't tell you what those [revenue] shares are. Most of the mobile operators today basically look like a web portal on the mobile phone." It is just that those operators today are more what AOL was in its heydays: they control the whole thing, including the access to the end user. And they do not provide the content, so you will need someone else in there, and, and, and. It might just not be just as profitable and rosy as people often say...

The hope always is that mobiles are the devices that make it easiest to target one-to-one. Fantastic! But the above shows that the jury might very well still be out.

So - as unfashionable as it might have become - Google may just have shown some smart thinking again: sit back (and comfy on their search cushion) unless you see a business unfolding that shows significance impact for your own business - and that would arguably have to be even more to merit such a move for Microsoft (that isn't traditionally basing its business model on ad sales) than Google (that is).

A whole Armada: Nokia, Vodafone, Sony BMG! And for what?

One of my true favourites, Groove Armada, have teamed up with all the heavyweights to bring their music, more specifically, their new album "Soundboy Rocks" to the very cutting edge of digital: whenever you b uy a Nokia N76 in a Vodafone store, you will get 1) a voucher and 2) a PIN to take to 3) a website to 4) download a song (you can store 1 copy on your computer and 1 on your phone, sorry, multimedia device). Easy, isn't it?

I would hope this will work (if only to help the good folks from Groove Armada) but the whole approach would appear a wee bit cumbersome: with every click, you lose consumers. With every change from one media to another (retail to mobile, mobile to web, retail to web, etc.) you lose them tenfold. So why on earth don't they just run and show off a mobile download service and/or pre-install some content to demonstrate the superb capabilities of Nokia's really fine devices? I don't get it...

When one reads on, it becomes clear, that this is clearly more a PR affair for both sides: the remainder is a hilarious marketing blurp: Nokia loves Sony who love Nokia who love everyone else... Vodafone's role, other than providing the retail space and being represented on the rather lame microsite with a logo - below the fold - isn't entirely clear. Executives showing their superiors that they actually do "something" in mobile? Is it just me or does this appear somehow pieced together?