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.