i-mode dropped by O2 UK & Telstra

Today's a busy day, and here comes the next piece: we read that O2 UK will stop selling i-mode handsets from the end of this month, so that the service it licensed from NTT DoCoMo will probably soon come to an end. Elsewhere was reported that Australia's Telstra will close the service in December of this year.

O2 UK spent £10m in marketing which yielded a mere 260,000 users over the past 2 years. Telstra is believed to have gathered less than 60,000 followers of the service. Not impressive and only the last examples of i-mode's failures outside of Japan (and some pockets in Europe, namely with Bouygues in France and O2 in Ireland).

The woes continue as some other markets either pulled the service already or did not even launch it: following the disappointment in the UK and presumably closely monitoring the struggle of E-Plus O2 did not launch it in Germany. MTS Russia generated a mere $150,000 per month from it. In India, the launch on Hutchison Essar was pulled "in part" because Vodafone invested in the company. Exact numbers are hard to come by but as one does not hear booming statements of its overwhelming success, conclusions can probably be drawn...

What is it then that made i-mode such a success in Japan and such a failure nearly elsewhere? Is it the change of the mobile landscape with more and more operators abolishing usage-driven data charges, the general increase in bandwidth on phones which allows users to access more rich content more easily (this used to be an advantage of i-mode), or the lack of support from handset vendors (often cited)? It probably is a bit of everything really but quite possibly the old and overcome model of making money by letting the meter run: users outside of Japan are neither used to this anymore nor do they welcome it. And rightly so: the value is not in the time I spend browsing. The value is in a specific application, service, game, etc. Being charged for this would appear to be eminently sensible: I buy a product and I pay for it. Paying to use the pavement to go to the shop is less convincing as a concept.

Update: The International Tribune has an i-mode article here. It basically confirms the above but offers some additional viewpoints and quotes and such...

Ubisoft sells Gameloft stake

Console game publisher Ubisoft sold its 18.89% stake in leading mobile game publisher Gameloft for € 81.27m (c. $111m) to Calyon, the investment banking unit of French bank Credit Agricole.

The deal is interestingly crafted and seems to have been driven by financial performance concerns for Ubisoft: it is an equity swap agreement that gives Calyon 24 months to sell the Gameloft shares on the market. Any changes in the Gameloft share price will then be recorded by Ubisoft, so the deal will only affect Ubisoft’s income statement when Calyon sells the Gameloft shares. "Ubisoft said the equity swap enables it to stagger the placement of the Gameloft shares so that Ubisoft can keep benefiting from the company’s development potential over the next two years."

No need to get all hyped up though: the Ubisoft brands will remain safely where they are: The two companies said (other sources said "hinted") that they will continue to collaborate, especially when it comes to utilizing Ubisoft’s brands on mobile phones.

The fact that the license ties and collaboration will remain, that it will still be the Guillemot brothers at the helm of both companies and, last but not least, the way the deal mechanics work would suggest that this was more a piece of corporate and financial housekeeping for Ubisoft rather than an aggressive new move for Gameloft. On the other hand, even mighty Gameloft may have felt the need to position itself slightly more independently in order to be able to move in a market that has seen continuous consolidation waves and aggressively pushing market players.

Cellcom's ad-funded game trial: the Results

It is probably because they read here my criticism of their somewhat cryptic information policy back in April (well they probably didn't) but - one way or another - Cellcom, the Israeli carrier that entered into a comprehensive ad-funded mobile game trial has provided insight in the results. Kudos!

So what do we learn? Here's some of the highlights:
* 44% click-through rate
* 19% acquisition rate
* 10x higher game downloads per user (compared to downloads prior to the trial)
* 24% of the participants had not downloaded a game in the preceding 6 months, and 54% had not done so in the preceding 3 months.
* Take-up appears to have been particularly high amongst the youngest (9-20 years). No surprise here. The sentence reporting that is a bit mumbled, so not sure if they want to tell us that 65% of the users in this segment downloaded at least one game during the trial...

A little aside I noticed was that they call advertisers - somewhat carefully - sponsors: does that mean they didn't get any return for their money? Anyway, they advertisers/sponsors included quite a few of the biggies, e.g. Nokia, McDonalds, Diadora, Samsung, Adidas and Walt Disney. All the agency powerhouses tinkered with it, too, with McCann, Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO all involved.

I have praised above Cellcom's information policy but two crucial data points are (somewhat unsurprisingly) left out, namely CPM and pay-out to the game publishers. For a 1-month trial, everyone will be in for the ride, and be only to show that they are in the midst of the flavour of the month, mobile advertising. However, only if advertisers are that (and not sponsors), i.e. if CPM will be at levels comparable to other media (or better), will it work. The above click-through numbers suggest that this might well be the case, and the added value of extreme targeting (the mobile screen is a user's most personal one: it is not shared with others to the extent the TV or computer is) will improve that further.

The question will then remain if big mobile game publishers who regularly spend hundreds of thousands dollars on a game will provide for in-game ads in these games and if licensors for such games will allow advertising that will then factually be endorsed by their brands. Finally, operators must make sure that the consumer is not charged for the data transferred to feed the ads. This can make for an incredibly complex business model, and perhaps one that will not make it worthwhile for one or more of the parties in it to participate. Much easier of course if there is no third-party licensor involved. The result could then likely be a two-fold structure: high-powered branded premium games for a price and unbranded, ad-funded games for free.


Oberon plays iTV now, too: Pixelplay joins the family

Our recently very acquisitive friends from Oberon Media struck again to create one of the first truly focussed triple-play gaming houses. They now acquired Pixelplay, one of the giants on the interactive TV (iTV) sector. This together with their own online activities (Oberon powers e.g. MSN Games) and their recent acquisitions of Blaze and I-Play creates a rather explosive mix.

It will be interesting to see how they will manage to consolidate the whole thing with a view to the - at this time - still somewhat disparate portfolio: Pixelplay boasts the iTV licenses for the likes of Monopoly, Luxor, the World Poker Tour, etc, whilst I-Play excelled inter alia with "The Fast and the Furious". Oberon's ability to exploit titles now across three platforms may well give it some edge in the market, which - arguably - all the single parts urgently needed.

The move shows an impressively stringent move on the part of Oberon into building a casual-games-focussed powerhouse that extends its strengths across the three main consumer screens of today, i.e. the computer, the TV and the mobile phone.


Only Jamba does the Simpsons

Jamba struck a remarkable deal, we read: in the US, content for Fox's cult TV series "The Simpsons" will be exclusively available via Jamba (or Jamster as it is known there). This will mean that consumers will NOT be able to download it from carrier decks. A major push for the D2C business (and only a day after we mused the consolidation of the sector). They introduce a new subscription plan ("Yellow Plan") for $9.99 a month, which offers credit for six downloads from a selection of The Simpsons content, including the Simpsons' mobile game which is produced by EA. No word if EA is prohibited from selling the game elsewhere; I doubt it.

The really interesting point is however the way Jamba positions itself with this: the company had been struggling and was indeed hit by lawsuits (class actions and all; there are even dedicated hate websites for it) over what many people found questionable business conduct, namely by allegedly luring people into relatively costly subscriptions (e.g. in the UK £4.50 per week; for games even £6.00) by offering - at first sight - free content.

Whether or not a consumer feels ripped off depends on the perceived value they receive. When I want to purchase a ringtone and end up paying £22.00 in the first month because I did not realise that I was entering a subscription, then the perceived value does not add up. If, on the other hand, I enter into a $9.99 per month subscription to obtain free access to my favourite TV show, then that might well be a different story: perceived value adequate equals happy consumers equals return customers equals a very successful and - more importantly - sustainable business.

Despite the bumpy ride through the courts, Jamba has always been very innovative and also quick to react to successes and failures, so it is somewhat unsurprising that they should have come up with this concept now. That they did this with so prominent a license deserves respect. Given that Fox (the owner of the Simpsons brand) owner News Corp holds the majority of Jamba, the deal will not even have been very expensive but be more of an act of cross-leveraging company divisions. It would arguably have been a worthwhile strategic investment geared to driving consumers to off-deck propositions in any event: this is an area where the US somewhat limp behind. This could now well be about to change.

On a sideline, this will also likely benefit the likes of Buongiorno: besides yesterday's announcement of their acquisition of I-Touch, they had previously acquired US firm Rocket Mobile, giving them a substantial footing in this market.

The trophy for deal of the week goes to Jamba though! Hats off!


Closer to telecoms: Google acquires Grand Central

Google has just announced the acquisition of communications service GrandCentral. TechCrunch broke the news about the acquisition last week and now has the price tag at about $50 m.

According to Google's official blog, GrandCentral is "an innovative service that lets users integrate all of their existing phone numbers and voice mailboxes into one account, which can be accessed from the web. We think GrandCentral's technology fits well into Google's efforts to provide services that enhance the collaborative exchange of information between our users." It is bascially the evolution of the one-number concept which people like Accessline and others have been in for 10 years and more.

However, Google can possibly connect this somewhat more sensibly: Gmail and Google Talk fit smoothly and it will also ramp up the increasing interweave between the different media. In the voice area, Google was rather under-represented and Grand Central's very feature-rich product will be most welcome as it could give Google a bit of an edge here. Also, Google is arguably better suited than some others who tried to reach out directly to mainstream consumers (the likes of Accessline are mainly addressing the enterprise market) as it has a much better grip on alternative business models.

They of course have to quickly address capacity constraints: Grand Central has now moved to an "by invitation only" model because of shortages. Google will be able to help out there, I suppose.

Interesting move anyway...

D2C consolidates: Buongiorno buys I-Touch

eSo following LaNetroZed's acquisition of the majority of Monstermob earlier in the year, Buongiorno now played its part in consolidating the face of mobile D2C by acquiring I-Touch, the previously London-listed player (PDF press release here).

Of course, I-Touch had gone through an M&A spree of its own a couple of years back (it bought Spanish Movilisto and Finnish Jippii [meanwhile split up and perished]) before being gobbled up by Japanese giant For-side.com. Then of course all seemed to have gone a bit pair-shaped: when For-Side bought it, it cost a sweet £ 184m. Earlier this year, the management bought it out from its owner for allegedly $100m. Now, Buongiorno only had to pay about half that, namely €141m (incl. €12m in debt), which equals c. £ 95m or $190m. Someone did make money after all...

After the acquisition, the combined company apparently boasts more than 1,100 people in 20 countries and business in more than 40 countries.

What will this mean for the D2C sector? That with LaNetro and Buongiorno, there are now two more multi-national giants to compete with Jamba/Jamster? I wonder... All of these three had territories where they were/are strong and others where they weren't/aren't. The consolidation basically means that the offering will be less scattered and the players involved will stand a better chance to be recognised in the market, reducing volatility of their business.

Buongiorno is said to have been doing reasonably well in the more recent past: as per their last available quarterly report, revenues, EBITDA and profits were all up and rather healthily. But whilst they are amongst the big spenders in e.g. Italy or the US D2C markets, they were more or less absent from some other markets (the UK for instance). I-Touch and the markets it brings to the deal will help to strengthen their market position and they will be able to push their D2C model even harder now. The added footprint will allow them to get a better grip on pricing (which is something their board was sensitive about).

And here I was thinking that they were balancing it out with B2B, namely platform provision, master aggregation and, more recently marketing (Mitsui JV and acquisitions of Flytxt and HotSMS). But Buongiorno clearly has evolved with two equal columns to stand on. Congrats!

Update: Buongiorno CEO Andrea Casalini is certainly not shy: He said in the FT that they "had looked at other targets, including Jamba [...] and [...] LaNetro Zed, too.