Paramount gets game

Viacom's Paramount announced to enter the sphere of video game publishing, and they want to concentrate on "casual, hand-held and mobile" because of the lower production cost compared to "proper" consoles. The latter would, it seems, remain reserved to sister company MTV, which recently entered the space with Rock Band, a title that sold a respectable 1.8m units since November 2007.

Paramount still seems to be looking around for the right models though: Sandi Isaacs, its SVP Interactive & Mobile said that they "are entering into deals now where we will be publishing games this year. There's going to be a slate where in some cases we're publishing, in some cases we're co-publishing, or in others we're funding development and another publisher buys it. It's important for us to have a flexible model." She also said that the studio might use external finance to fund video game development, which would be closer to business models widely applied in the film industry but which is still relatively nascent in games (although there are a select few project finance companies out there that also take on game development).

Irrespective of the relatively cloudy nature of the announcements, it is good to see that a major studio starts putting more emphasis on gaming as a way to capitalize on their IP besides (relatively speaking) shabby guarantees and advances for licensing their rights to others. For mobile, the most exciting bit may well be a co-publishing model: Paramount does not and - at least for a while - will not have the distribution footprint of many mobile publishers, so a partnership there might be mutually fruitful for both parties. Should this become a successful example, it might well help to break open the somewhat old-school business models that sometimes tend to strangle developers and publishers in the mobile space: they are required to cough up money that they would really require to put into game development, marketing, sales and promotions rather than contributing what is a relatively tiny percentage to a movie's overall revenue. Encouraging!


R.I.P. European i-mode: one more down

Following last year's drop of i-mode by O2 UK and Telstra (see here), Germany's third-largest carrier E-Plus is now dropping the service, too. I saw the cause last year in the ways of the data charges (through which NTT DoCoMo makes most of its money for the service) and noted that this wasn't too compelling for users and this seems to hold true, in particular in view of the move towards flat-rate data plans introduced in recent months by a lot of carriers, which will continue in the coming months, too.

Outside Bouygues in France and, seemingly, O2 in Ireland, it never took off over here. Rotten subscriber numbers in spite of huge marketing budgets. R.I.P. Nuff' said.

Micro-Blogging et al... Are they Really There Yet?

I've been a fan of those "bloggers on speed" of the likes of Jaiku, Twitter, etc for a while but I am not entirely happy with the interfaces yet: the services live of proximity and timeliness in that is then that they unfold their true power. Otherwise, the old-fashioned web accessed from an old-fashioned computer with 10x more bandwidth and a proper keyboard might actually be superior. Mobile blogging however is relatively clunky so far. There are a few guys out there who offer mobile little J2ME apps, (mobile) browser plug-ins, widgets, you name it (see for some solutions here) but, let's face it, they're not really as slick and seamless as they could (and should?!) be. Tellingly therefore, both Twitter and (now Google-owned) Jaiku use SMS as the prevailing interface to communicate with the world through their networks via your mobile phone. Is that really it? Look at the Facebook Blackberry app: so slick in comparison!

UI, accessability and discovery are the key drivers for mass user adoption - and this what all social media lives of (apart, perhaps of the institution of marriage, which seemingly works best in micro-communities of 2), so why do they not tackle this bit more aggressively? The answer might be that, whilst they realize that mobile is a major contributor to their value-add when compared to other web apps, they are not actually mobile companies; they are web companies.

The idea of utilising the power of web 2.0 and its wealth of widgets and applets contributed by a gazillion of independent developers and fan boys might all be very well but it slows adoption: Facebook apps only became successful after Facebook itself was such a huge community, they did not drive that growth (although they now arguably contribute significantly). Therefore, it would seem to me, it would be required that the originators/owners of those networks contribute more energy and resource into optimizing the user interfaces to use the actual service before falling back on third-party add-ons. Alas, it is impossible to find a Google widget (for iGoogle or Google Desktop) even for Jaiku, which Google acquired. Tellingly, the only available widget was produced by fans... There's quite a bit to be done, I think...


iPhone 2.0 - it is not only the Enterprise, baby, it's the mix!

I know, I know, I know: it is all a bit tiring and I just wrote about the iPhone vs Blackberry thingee a couple of weeks ago but there is a nice new piece by one of my favourite columnists on this, namely the NY Times' David Pogue. He considers the software update (nick-named iPhone 2.0) as more significant as the phone itself as it opens the thing up into 2 dimensions:

1. An attack on the enterprise market with MS Exchange support, push-e-mail and everything else RIM's Blackberry, Palm's Treo and all the others already have (although Pogue also readily concedes that the absence of a QWERTY keyboard might mar its success a bit; see here for Apple's intro on it)

2. the awakening of a mobile phone as a true multi-purpose entertainment device (through the introduction of the developer programme and release of the iPhone's SDK - which, incidentally - also extends to the iPod Touch).

Now, I have covered the first point but the let the latter one on the wayside. And, one could say, rightly so: all existing phones, J2ME, BREW, i-mode and all, have had - more or less - readily available SDK's for (wireless industry's) eons. And did it make it a mass market tool? No, it did not. Also today with all the super-powerful phones around, only a (growing) fraction of users actually make use of these things. Why should this change with the iPhone? Well, possibly for the same reasons that made the iPod such a success - in conjunction with iTunes that was.

What Apple managed with the iPod was two things: it brought a device to the market that even my mum could use (and she is rather technophobic) and it provided a clear-cut, transparent, easy-to-use retail model for the contents to be meant to be stored and played on that thing, and that was iTunes.

Now, incidentally, these two challenges are indeed the very ones mobile content often faces today: intuitive UI on mobile phones is still only to be found rarely ("the application you are trying to download is untrusted. Do you want to continue?") and the retail space is cluttered and dominated by companies who excelled in building highly evolved technical networks but have rarely sparkled with superior consumer understanding. Apple is good at both...

Number 3 would then be discovery and here Apple's novel business model with tight integration and control may actually bear rich fruit: because of the huge amount of influence (and commercial participation) Apple apparently retains with its chosen carrier partners, it is much easier for it to guarantee the placement of the app store on its phones. Other OEMs have a much harder battle at hand there: carriers routinely request that any number of applications, games, etc are being removed for phones they order; because of the huge power the large carriers have (in most countries handsets are subsidised by the carrier), OEMs struggle to assert themselves (although Nokia seems to be making at least some headway with its Ovi portal; see e.g. here and here). For Apple this is a home-run though, which is a significant advantage.

The only relief would then be that Nokia would still appear to be selling the amount of handsets Apple sells in a year within one week or so. Still...

Modu is raising a big round

One of the quirky stars of this year's Mobile World Congress, Modu, is apparently scoring a large round of funding, namely to the tune of $100m. The company adds to $20m funding previously raised from its founder Dov Moran (who had sold his previous business for $1.6bn to SanDisk), two Israeli funds, namely Genesis Partners and Gemini, and indeed SanDisk. The round values modu pre-money at $150m, which is healthy for an 18-month-old company but, according to the press, still $50m less of what Mr Moran had hoped to score.

Modu is an interesting concept that shrinks the key bit of the phone (including SIM card, address book, etc to a matchbox size, which then can be slipped into a variety of so-called "jackets", fancy phones that can be adapted to whichever occasion the user might find appropriate or indeed "mates", which enable other consumer electronics devices with the bliss of connectivity and the like.

The challenge may well be that the jackets and mates are supposed to be developed by third parties, and to convince enough players to do that (which is arguably required to create a compelling offering) might be the biggest challenge.

In time for Barcelona, Modu had announced a number of partnerships, including operators Vimpelcom (Russia), Cellcom (Israel) and TIM (Italy). Blaupunkt, GPS specialists Magellan Navigations and - again - SanDisk have apparently pledged support, too. On the content side, the world's largest music company Universal Music, navigation service provider TeleAtlas and a few more are in the mix.

I really do like it and I really hope that they'll pull it off. Somewhat clearly thought out of the box here, and that deserves praise!

Update: Modu has just received recognition of a Guinness World Record for the lightest mobile phone (at 40.1 grams and dimensions of 72.1mm x 37.6mm x 7.8mm).


Flash or Silverlight or both?

Microsoft scored an important success with a recently announced a deal that will see its Flash competitor Silverlight (with the most Apple-esque logo ever issued in Redmond) installed on the mighty Nokia's s60 and - low-end - s40 devices (or multimedia terminals as the good folks from Finland like their posher phones to be called). Interestingly of course, Nokia also embeds Adobe's Flash Lite... Tasty!

Now, is Silverlight really this good? Or is it only another product the people from Microsoft thought they should have on their shelves (arguably not being too happy that Adobe carved out for itself a nice niche for some)? I don't know and I won't be able to answer that without embarrassing myself. So: the news tonight is simply that Nokia is a good catch for Microsoft. And, now, the weather...

One small piece of advice to MS though: choose your showcase sites carefully. The Yugoslav maker of one of them (I don't really know what they're doing) does not really offer the latest and greatest in web design and functionality...

LiveWire in the Groove

LiveWire Mobile (part of Nasdaq-listed NMS Communications Corp) acquired former ringtone and now full-track platform provider Groove Mobile for $14.5m in what commentators call an "unexpected swoop" (why? because they waited with the PR until the deal was closed?).

Groove Mobile runs the music decks for 12 carriers, including most notably Sprint in the US and 3 UK. It also holds contracts with all major music labels.

Now, why should this be unexpected? The press release lays out the "strategic reasons" for the acquisition and, whilst it is all a bit embellished in the usual PR blurp, it is relatively plain to see: LiveWire Mobile are - or so I understand - specialising in ringback services (their website says they are deployed on 30 carriers with that). However, those carriers do not seem to give them too big a footprint: the release states that the acquisition triples their "addressable market".

Also, ringbacks are a bit of a beast to run as they require deep integration with the carrier on which it is deployed (you need to be on network level to integrate this), and the relationships of a company that runs the music platforms for some carriers are naturally quite valuable to someone like that (although someone still needs to explain to me what turn-key means in mobile telecommunications terms). So: you get someone who is already integrated with a carrier, you increase your chances that that carrier will choose more services from you. Compelling, huh?

If it is a good acquisition remains to be seen: ringbacks are utter flops in some countries (people query the value of a service that the person paying for it never experiences...) and huge hits in others; not consistent though... Also, digital music distribution seems to be a field with utterly low margins; great if you can deliver VERY efficiently and to enough consumers but tough as you always face margin pressure from every side you are involved with: the labels that are struggling to replace retail sales and the carriers (and, increasingly web players and OEM) who want to be amply "reimbursed" for allowing you to sell to their customers. If the above considerations can deliver, it should have been a good buy: at about 2 x revenues, it was at a relatively sane valuation multiple.

Good luck, folks!

Mobile Content on the move!?

According to a report, mobile content is moving off-deck. The consumer survey (presumably for the US market only) found out that today's consumers use a mix of sources for their mobile content, namely the web, side-loading (called "their own collections") and the carriers.

When it comes to watching video on their phone, 35% of the consumers would choose YouTube vs 31% who would go for the carrier's own offering and 28% who side-load.

For music, side-loading leads overall with 48% of the total followed by 35% who bought off the carrier deck.

With games, the situation is yet different: 60% of consumers would only play the games that are pre-installed on their phones.

The report expects this diversification of content sources for mobile phones to increase, which sounds reasonable: just look at what Thumbplay does in the US or Jamba and Zed in Europe! Check out Nokia's Ovi initiative (including "Comes with Music") or Sony Ericsson's PlayNow Arena. Falling walled gardens and a general move to flat-rate data will contribute to consumers looking for alternative shop fronts, in particular as carriers have not always shown to be the best retailers out there - at least not for content... No big surprises then.


Is the iPhone the new Black(berry)?

Here's an interesting one: we will soon all be Cupertino-loving black turle-neck fashionistas whilst going on about our cold-nosed business. This is at least what this article ponders (following Apple's announcement to add "business features"; could it really get push-e-mail?) .

The article has some interesting facts to offer: user satisfaction for Apple's iPhone is dramatically better than for anyone else (a distant first at 59% "very satisfied" users). And, somewhat noteworthy, the Blackberry had a drop of 8% in "very satisfied" users (47%) according to a recent survey -- the first decline in its history. Nokia follows with 40% with the others behind.

Apple has only 5% of the smartphone market but, given it is only out on one carrier per country and only launched some 9 months ago, that is rather honourable. And user satisfaction is absolute key to business phones though: price is, for corporate IT buyers, less an issue than for the consumer. And no IT manager thrives on the thought of a mad manager breathing down their necks over an IT or phone glitch. So user satisfaction might in fact be an important lever to push it higher in the business smartphone sector, which is a sweet one with very high ARPU. The article concludes that there is "anecdotal evidence that Apple's market share is growing. FTN Midwest analyst Bill Fearnley Jr. said that according to his checks, iPhone sales were helped in February by the introduction of a corporate iPhone plan that allows AT&T to bill employers directly."

So an interesting battle at hand. It is also interesting (and may send shivers down open-source spines) as the two leaders in user satisfaction both run on rather contained software ecosystems. But it does show that it helps when things indeed work (comparatively) seamlessly and painlessly on a device.

I am yearning to see Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel in black turtlenecks wielding an iPhone (Sarko and Obama [do I even need a link for him?] are a given of course). Oh brave new world...


Bye bye, fixed line...

I mean, it's nothing new as us mobilists knew it all along but now, alas, someone put their finger in the air and quantified it. So here goes: as early as next year, wireless phone users will outnumber landline users by 3 to 1. Impressive, huh?

Some more somewhat obvious findings are: rich nations are running out of non-users, and in some emerging markets, where rising personal incomes have made wireless affordable, that gap closes quickly, too. Even so, only half the world's population uses mobile phones now. Most subscriber growth over the next five years will quite naturally come from India, China, parts of Asia, and Africa. I think the author might have forgotten Brazil...

And now, dear content lovers, comes the candy: the analysts say that "[f]irms must boost their average monthly revenue per user, or ARPU. Text-messaging has been the biggest moneymaker, along with ring tones and games. Music and video downloads are starting to catch on". By 2011, U.S. carriers will garner 35% of service revenue from data products, more than twice the 2007 share, says the Telecommunications Industry Association.

But in emerging markets, non-voice services are growing, too: "Wireless companies need to evolve their business models because of the changing nature of the industry, not just penetration levels," said Sureyya Ciliv, chief executive of Turkcell. "Communication and information technologies are converging globally.

T-Mobile shuts the door on Nokia's Ovi... Or did it?

Funny little press reports today tell us that T-Mobile "ditched" Nokia handsets that are capable of supporting the Finnish giant's Ovi (Finnish for door) multimedia portal. The German originator of these news is slightly more cautious: they also report that T-Mobile denied this and merely point out that T-Mobile has less Nokia phones on offer than a week ago and has - quite noteworthy indeed - removed all those that were "Ovi-enabled".

The background is of course Nokia's move into the multimedia service area (on which I first wrote about here). Nokia scored some early successes, namely with Telefonica (see here) and Vodafone (see here) but the threat to operator-driven content offerings was clear from the start. Whilst Telefonica and Vodafone were quite content on having the Ovi portal to music, video and games offered from Nokia's platform, on their desktop alongside their own offering, T-Mobile allegedly sees this as a threat to its own plans. It is, hence, yet another iteration of the fight of carriers for their ground in the media sector.

T-Mobile might feel strong in the media space due to its iPhone monopoly in Germany but even if (and I suspect that that is not the case), it would be a somewhat desperate attempt: if such drastic moves as locking out the market leader's handsets are required to keep customers on its own content offerings, is it then not a clear sign that such offerings might not actually be cutting it? In particular when the competitor is an OEM that in itself does not really enjoy a particular flair of creativity and buoyancy in media terms...

I would suggest that Nokia is (only?) a noteworthy competitor because of its market share in the OEM market, and not because it is such a good media company. Constraints with a view to placement on the phone's "desktop" as well as walled gardens and consumer fear for super-high data charges (see an absurd example here) drive people to what is there, not what is best. This is not even disrespectful to the fine folks at Nokia; it merely is to demonstrate that a lot of players are not even there yet, so that it is too early to say who is best. The desperate moves of the carriers as well as historical performance on the content side suggests, however, that carriers may not be the best suited ones. Given that content is only a fraction of their data revenues, this may not actually be a bad thing: could it not be pointing them to do what they're really good at, i.e. operating a network. If you want to call it a pipe, fine, but just make it a very, very smart pipe, and everyone (most importantly your customers) will love you!