UK Mobile Coverage

telecoms.pngUK mobile coverage is in the news today with the Government and network operators claiming it’s a win for consumers. However, as the article says, the money is "unlikely to be any more than the operators were going to spend anyway in that time period".

From a consumer angle, I have suffered from the network operators trying to get away with a minimal rather than comprehensive coverage. I don’t even live in a rural area or "not spot" as they call it. I live in an semi-urban area close to London.

The main problem at the moment is that operators are swapping out or moving 3G masts for 4G masts. At one time, my home, where I mainly work and hence use mobile data for testing apps, was well covered by T-Mobile. 18 months ago, the low signal became unusable. After a 45 mins talk with 4 people at EE (T-Mobile and Orange are now EE), I got through to someone technical who told me the 3G mast had been reconfigured for 4G and even the new projected 4G coverage didn’t look that good at my location. I obtained/purchased SIMs from all the non-MVNO UK network operators and did a survey. Vodafone came out best so I moved all my test SIMs.

18 months later, I am back where I was. The Vodafone signal is poorer, I suspect due to 4G ‘improvements’. The difference this time is that 4G SIMs are not extortionately priced any more and the 4G signal is actually excellent. The cynical side of me wonders if poorer 3G signals are being used to gradually move people to 4G.

Back to the article and it says the money will "provide reliable signal for voice over 2G, 3G or 4G, all by 2017". On all of these? I don’t think so. Also, what about data?

Network Operators as Innovators

chetansharma.gifThere’s a new free whitepaper, Mobile Internet 3.0 How Operators can Become Service Innovators and Drive Profitability at Jupiter Networks (pdf) written by Chetan Sharma. The focus of the whitepaper is that operators that choose to remain a utility will see margins pushed downwards by 30-50%. Instead, they need to compete and collaborate to bring added-value to data.

While the whitepaper is immensely useful, there’s one area on which I am less convinced. Chetan talks about the need for innovation, "starting with the mobile packet core" and building out new APIs that developers can use to create products and services that can create new value via collaboration. As Chetan says "opening up of the network for innovation necessitates re-architecting the network elements".

Having worked in a network operator (Vodafone) myself, I am not sure this is practical. There are huge technical and logistical problems. Most of the network elements are supplied by third parties and cannot be re-architected by the network operators themselves. They are very complex products in themselves, often contain lots of legacy code and aren’t amenable to re-construction to create new apis or provide new data for (network operator) customers.

Then there’s the network operators themselves. They move very slowly. They tend to be so huge that adding just one product requires cooperation between so many departments that it becomes an gargantuan task. Operators know a lot about service provision, billing and customer care but very few have the aptitude or skills to manage complex value added services.

Even when these APIs appear, they will find that unless they are the same across all network operators, it’s unlikely developers will use them due to the complexity of supporting too many interfaces.

So what should network operators do? What should mobile developers be doing?

It’s still possible to provide new APIs at the fringes of the network as BlueVia are ably doing. Network operators need to buy-in or acquire, largely self-running, services that can sit on top of the smartphone platforms and provide personalisation that not only provides added revenue but also dissuades consumers from moving to other network operators.

There’s a large opportunity for mobile developers to create these services. Only a few years ago, it was very difficult for a developer to get heard by network operators. When they were heard, negotiations took literally years. Today, the more forward-thinking network operators are more welcoming and want to get things done quicker. So who are these network operators? This is where the whitepaper becomes immensely useful. There’s a chart showing their relative use of mobile data…

leadingnetworkoperators.png 

Also look for operators such as Telephonica and their BlueVia who are already innovating at the fringes of the network and by implication are looking for complementary services to buy-in or acquire.

I also recommend you take a look at the whitepaper to discover the key mobile application and service areas that are ripe for network operator innovation.

Vodafone Android Operator Billing

vodafone.jpgVodafone have announced the European rollout of their operator billing for the Android Market. It starts in the UK and Germany where consumers, who have purchased their devices through Vodafone online and retail channels, can pay for Android applications either via their monthly bill or via prepay (Pay as you go). Vodafone is the first in Europe to provide for operator billing. I believe it’s already available in the US via AT&T and Sprint.

While ease of billing and a subsequent increase in purchasers will be attractive to developers it’s not yet clear to me if there’s going to be a large hidden cost for developers. Google recently changed the Market T&Cs to allow a transaction fee, on top of the 30% taken by Google, to be taken by carriers.

I have asked Vodafone to clarify the affect of operator billing on the transaction fee applied to sales. I’ll update this post if and when I get a reply. Let’s hope it’s the same as Sprint who have negotiated something with Google such that the 30% remains the same.

One other strange anomaly is that, according to the Android Market help, "direct carrier billing is only available as an accepted payment method for applications sold in your country’s local currency".

Operator Giants Mull Creation of New OS

gsmamobilebusinessbriefing.gifThere’s a report on the GSM Business Briefing site that mentions that "Operator giants mull creation of new OS". They will be thinking about a… "common platform for mobile devices""motivated by a view that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have become a “Trojan horse” for these companies to establish their own relationships with mobile customers"

The article mentions this might be either an entirely new platform, a custom version of OS platform (Symbian, LiMo, MeeGo or Android) or a middleware layer like the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC). Note that… "all of the operators involved in the talks are also involved in WAC to varying degrees".

I have had a quick think about this and here are some factors I think they should be considering…

  • Consumer confusion – what exactly am I buying?
  • Hardware manufacturer buy-in – Why should they?
  • Complexity of creating a wholly new platform – Huge cost and effort?
  • Inertia to get operator engineering departments on board – Have they the resource?
  • Developer community – Do developers want another platform?
  • Developer ecosystem – It’s not just the SDK. Think about tools, web sites, forums, support, tutorials, app store, payment, multiple currencies/countries.
  • Difficulty to get several large operator organisations to meet let alone make decisions – Is it possible in a respectable time scale?
  • WAC Success – Is it going anywhere?
  • Standards – What standards should be used?
  • Open source vs closed source – Does it matter?
  • Web vs App based – What’s best? User experience? Developer experience? Cross platform?
  • Branding – What/who will be the ‘brand’?
  • Marketing – Who is responsible for marketing?

My initial take on all of this is that it’s all so complex and tied up in inter- and intra- company politics that it’s unlikely to ever get off the ground. Even if it gets airborne, with so many other compelling mobile operating systems and ecosystems, I doubt many phone OEMs or developers will go along for the ride.

Instead, I believe operators should be thinking about how to innovate on top of the open (and non-open) operating systems, to ensure they provide added-value, improve customer service and thus provide for a level of customer lock-in.

UK Hutchison 3 Blogger Event

three.gifI have just come back from an evening UK Hutchison 3 blogger event in London. 3 have decided to move their social media efforts in-house with the help of Brando. Expect to see new twitter channels for 3 news and support in the near future.

From a developer viewpoint, I learnt about a new ‘3’ tab that will be appearing on Hutchison 3 Android phones. The idea is that this tab will provide app recommendations, for example, UK specific apps or apps provided by 3. More specifically, it was hinted that an app version of the ‘My 3′ web interface might become available. I hadn’t previously known about operator specific tabs in the Android Market but it seems it’s common in the US (even if the end users question why it’s there).

I got to handle a production-ready Samung P1 (Galaxy Tab), running Android 2.2 (Froyo) for the first time. It seemed heavy for its size but worked well and felt a solid bit of kit. A limited experiment playing some flash from the Adobe site worked well. It also worked ok with the 3 MiFi access points used to provide Internet access for the event. We were given the opportunity to trial a MiFi so I have brought one home. I’ll report on my findings after I have used it with a variety of devices in different situations. Back to the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the screen (7") isn’t large enough to cause current 3rd party applications to look out of place, unlike new (some larger) Android 3.0 Tablets coming next year that will need app re-writes to make best use of the extra screen area.

Personally, I am still not sure where Android 7" tablets sit. They are too large to be used as phones and won’t fit in the pocket. They also aren’t as compelling (but will probably be a similar price) as the iPad. I am more hopeful for the larger tablets that will be as good as, if not better (due to flash) than, the iPad.

Speaking to the people from 3, I learnt that things have moved on since earlier this year when 3 UK’s network data capacity was suffering due to the use of 3G dongles. Since then, there has been a significant investment in network upgrades and I was told these problems have been overcome.

If you follow this blog you will know I have almost written off Windows Phone 7 (WP7). Hence, I was surprised to hear that 3, based on their initial analysis of manufacturer phones, are more upbeat about the prospects for WP7. So, look out for WP7, it might surprise us all.

O2 and Oracle Java Event

oracle.gifYesterday evening I went to the O2 Litmus/Oracle Java Developer Event. While the event was advertised as "bringing together some of the best and brightest in web and mobile to share their experiences and discuss the rich and relevant tools available today", I was a bit disappointed there were no new announcements or presentations by Oracle with respect to the future of Java ME.

As with the MoMo London event last year, Sun/Oracle weren’t happy about talking of the future, despite the more recent announcements that followed the completion of the acquisition of Sun by Oracle.

Here are a few insights from the event…

  • Fragmentation (of Java) is less of a problem when using it for enterprise applications as the number phone types is limited and usually known
  • Feature phones (i.e. non-smartphones) running Java ME are still the de facto business phone for the majority of employees
  • People’s expectations of Java ME apps, post iPhone, are now much higher

From my point of view I am now seeing very few requirements coming in for Java ME apps. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of programmable phones are still Java ME. Smartphones still have a long way to go to reach the mass market and there are still opportunities for the current (or even new) platforms to take significant market shares.

I sense time is running out and may have already run out for Java ME or its successor. Oracle really needs to ramp up its ‘Java on mobile’ efforts and re-engage developers and handset OEMs if it wants to be part of the new mobile renaissance.

Freemium for Carriers

funambol_1.gifFunambol has a new free (registration required) white paper on ‘Using Free-nomics to Avoid Pipe-ification. It considers the freemium model for carriers who are "battling deep-pocketed competitors who deploy freemium-based mobile services".

Strategies for making money from free services include…

  • Try-then-buy (as used by Apple)
  • Premium content (as used by Apple, Nokia, Vodafone)
  • Premium and ancillary services (as used by Microsoft)
  • Advertising (as used by Google)
  • Selling hardware/mobile phones (as used by Apple, Nokia, Palm)
  • Lowered cost of customer retention (as used by Nokia, Palm)

This paper shows that mobile developers are the only people having to adjust to an end-user expectation for free applications and services.

Wholesale Applications Community

wholesaleapplicationscommunity.gifThe news from WMC about the new Wholesale Applications Community sounds a lot like an extension of the news from last November.

While this is all very well meaning (I sincerely hope it would come to fruition), I still can’t help but question how browsers will evolve sufficiently (and together) to allow this to happen. There has been talk about web-based phone APIs for many years now and very little has really happened. Also, how will so many parties agree on anything? How does this mix with Nokia’s, Apple’s and Google’s aspirations in the browser space as well as application space?

As I mentioned in 2007, just because you have a web browser, doesn’t mean you remove fragmentation. The deeper you get into the phone, the more features you expose, the greater the number of differences you will expose (and inadvertently create). Also, as mentioned a year ago, it might also be difficult for the web-based phone API itself to maintain backward compatibility.

While all this might look great from a high level perspective, when you look at the details, it’s all very messy and not very achievable.