Posted by: Mark Hawkins | January 6, 2010

Nexus One reignites smart pipe debate

The neverending debate surrounding whether mobile network operators should be dumb-pipes or smart-pipes has been reignited in this highly mobile newsy first week of 2010.

In very short: the debate concerns whether mobile networks should concentrate first and foremost on supplying robust, reliable connectivity to their customers, and relegate the priority of services which they wrap around this. Some argue that such services are not their bread and butter, they don’t do them well so they shouldn’t try.

With the long term evolution of connectivity heading towards IP rather than cellular networks, it’s understandable if networks want to get their fingers rammed in as many pies as possible, as soon as possible, whilst never losing focus of the connectivity issue. With O2 investing £100M to improve its smartphone squeezed 3G network, and main revenues still resoundingly being voice and SMS, this won’t be neglected anytime soon.

But yesterday key threat Google bared its gleamingly sharp teeth. A physical unveiling of their Nexus One handset at The Big G’s California HQ was complemented with an online launch of the device which was so potentially complicated, yet so exceptionally clean and clear, you could almost bathe in it.

Consumers can order the new handset in a mere six clicks directly from http://www.google.com/phone. Given the choice to either buy the device outright and insert your own SIM card, or get it financed by a compatible mobile operator or carrier who supplies your connectivity, the operator is effectively demoted in the purchasing process.

Commentators have suggested that the shrugging off mobile operators is a byproduct of Google’s renewed focus on mobile advertising – as hinted at by their acquisition of Admob before Christmas and newly countered by Apple’s acquisition of Quattro Wireless just yesterday. That’s where the bucks are; not so much in device sales. And mobile advertising is another area where some argue that mobile networks have tried to play smart, but not yet to cover themselves in glory.

So we return to the dumb-pipe / smart-pipe debate.

O2’s original exclusivity of the iPhone helped it earn Apple shine by osmosis. The festive period just gone has seen another joint venture in Apple iTunes’s 12 Days Of Christmas promotion, whereby a single piece of iPhone / iPod friendly content is given away each day: a music track or video, a television episode, a game or application.

Personally I’ve enjoyed it and found the experience pretty smooth, receiving daily push notifications to the application on my iPod Touch, connected via WiFi. Some of the content hasn’t floated my boat, some has, yet it has seemed reasonably wide in appeal, as far as the i-userbase goes.

However, my understanding is that the 12 Days of promotional giving hasn’t fostered much true love with O2 customers. The UK mobile network has been promoting the piece of content each day via SMS messages to its iPhone customers, but the key opt-out or unsubscribe mechanism: “Reply STOP to stop receiving these messages,” seems not to be working. This is a basic regulation which must be adhered in the running of any SMS promotions, and a full working mechanism should always be in place. It’s an area UK Premium rate phone-paid services regulator, PhonepayPlus is especially concerned about.

When something like this goes awry on such a scale, not only does it fundamentally sting, but it damages the credibility of other similar future campaigns, makes consumers hesitant about opting in and volunteering their mobile numbers in future promotions. This is compounded by the fact that a decent fraction of iPhone users will be appropriately equipped and inclined to broadcast their disgruntlement, spreading negative messages still further.

And it gives fuel to those who claim that mobile networks shouldn’t even try to be smart and add such services and campaigns around their bread and butter of providing reliable connectivity.

So you can see why Google, Apple and perhaps even Microsoft (at the back), might be whetting their lips: mobile advertising, services, and fairly long-term evolution of connectivity.

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Posted by: Mark Hawkins | December 11, 2009

Scrooge: a fan of 2010 tech?

Zooming out

“..every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens

Sitting in the audience of a West End theatre for the first time in a long time this week, I was struck by the relative timelessness of the setting, the medium’s removal from technology.

Functioning almost exclusively within a single domain can make it difficult to see out. A necessary predominant focus on your business and its industry inevitably means other worlds can get blurrily peripheral: like an in-law you can just about stumble through a conversation with by knowing they like snooker.

You go to watch a play, retreat back home, or are displaced somewhere and remember that although technology (or whatever it is) is vital to you, although you break out in sweats if separated from your iPhone for half hour, it’s not really that important to others.

Chatting to a team-mate in a couple of weeks ago, I had one of those rare “so what do you do for a living then?” chats.

He was a successful tradesman, carpenter, decorator with a good team of loyal workers. He’d never advertised his business anywhere. Word Of Mouth apparently remains the most pervasively powerful recommendation tool for anything or anyone.

I almost found it quaint that such businesses could thrive when divorced with much that’s considered standard about business communication: the apparent social media revolution et al. And curious that there are such small business ways of working which have never much been defined by technology.

Having a mobile phone which enables you to make voice calls on the go: that’s probably as far as it reaches. I didn’t ask, but I doubt he uses the spirit level iPhone app.

He returned the same question and admirably feigned a level of interest in my answer.

After trying to explain and enthuse about Augmented Reality as an example of a new mobile technology, I was met with the response:

“Why point a phone at a shop, or packet or landmark, and wait for the information to load on a screen? Why not walk up to a person and ask them the question? – If you’re really that fussed?”

Attitudes and behaviours change with new generations and youthful adoption of new media methods, different ways of interacting. They’re the ones who influencers and technologists are most interested in listening to; they hold the key, we’re told. Yet for a flickering moment I empathised with my team-mate’s technological apathy.

Taken a step further, you could even suggest an unavoidable degree of dehumanisation comes with the development of technology. Are we making it harder, or somehow less acceptable to physically speak to each other? To interact at the most basic level? To ask people questions over counters? To borrow and lend?

Technology can divide and segregate groups as much as it can bring them together. The rift between sniffy non Tweeters and Tweeters has become pronounced this year.

Blinking out of the theatre and into the heaving festive West End, conversation of the show slowly ebbed and attention turned to respective mobile devices: reflecting the continued and unthinking wave of dependence. However heavily we invest, most modern world dwellers will be affected by the contents of that portable little box you carry around and how you interact with it.

Could a long term effect be of slapping us firmly into neat, taggable demographic, geolocated bubbles where we can float along blissfully, remotely controlling everything we need without ever having to consider other people? Unless we want to.

How Ebenezer Scrooge would have loved such a world. He wouldn’t have cared for social media of course, unless ranting in a Charlie Brooker style. But with the number of online services at his fingertips, Ocado could’ve delivered his Turkey, he might have got rid of that simpering Cratchett and had less need to speak to others. Or even ever venture outside.

‘Merry Christmas’. I’m away to get boiled with my pudding.

Posted by: Mark Hawkins | December 4, 2009

Mobile apps: which shop?

A Mobile Data Association event on Wednesday offered further proof of the allure of the mobile application, if not its widespread practice. An impressive turnout at the RSS venue amassed to hear folk from Vodafone 360, Nokia Ovi, Bright AI, Juniper, Materna and Kisky Media.

One of the most insightful came from a developer at the coalface in the form of Bright AI MD, David Lane. After recently scoring a mobile application package for a number of top flight football clubs, and with a number of cross platform credits to their name, David asked the audience how many had successfully submitted to Apple’s App Store. Roughly four hands were raised. This might have been most reflective of one particular audience, but it once again underlined the disparity in interest, those eagerly waiting to board the bandwagon, and those already successfully doing it.

Nokia’s Ovi and Vodafone 360 opened their arms to developers and partners, with obvious attractions a global reach wider than the iPhone, despite still lacking penetrable personality and somehow exuding a rather stiffer air than Apple effortlessly give off. Their massive existing infrastructure, networks and commercial biases seem less innately bendy and malleable than Apple. On subjective appearance, if not in truth.

Having said that, the Apple process is far from plain sailing. It’s prone to devising laws of its own, such as the one which wouldn’t allow Bright AI to explain in the App Store overview copy that proceeds of an app would go to a museum. Apple’s approval periods can also vary wildly, adding power to the 360 pledge of publishing and Quality Assurance inside 10 working days.

The relative freedom of the open source Android platform was said to have drawbacks too, with the fragmentation brought on by Android’s paid apps said to be prohibiting anyone from making much money.

Opportunities lay, according to David, in highlighting niche audiences with specific solutions based on their interests, such as individual football team content for football fans, while the key challenges included fragmentation, operators’ paid models versus freemium / advertising, and discoverability.

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BBC Picture Messaging Day – Friday 11th December

This week the MDA also announced, in collaboration with the BBC and mobile network operators, the BBC Radio 1 Free Picture Messaging Day.

By bringing together the mobile network operators with the BBC to create this one-off free Picture Messaging Day on Friday 11th December, it’s hoped that a new level of public awareness will be generated. Those who might have never sent a picture message will be encouraged to try by their favourite DJs leading up to the event.

While the free shortcode for the day is clearly an added incentive for consumer use, the hope is that the raised awareness and a potentially surprisingly smooth user experience will generate an uptake in the use of picture and MMS messaging.

The launch of a settings website is meant to ensure that this uptake is not confined to those with the latest handsets. There’s a significant population of dated handsets in circulation and SIM only contracts which are not married to specific devices. Because these mobiles may not be properly configured to send MMS messages, the new website aggregates settings information across mobile network operators, resellers and handset manufacturers to offer consumers easily discoverable access to the relevant information.

There are still sponsorship places available on the site.

Getsettings.org

Posted by: Mark Hawkins | November 24, 2009

Update aggregation = miscommunication?

WHO CARES?

User Generated Content. Remember that? A quickly stale 2008 term which seems to have politely excused itself and scuttled out the back door during this year. Why? Because of its bulkiness? Because UGC suggests static consume-once content when it’s the truly interactive continuous real-time content which has lit 2009’s social media touchpaper?

Real-time transmission and broadcast of limited status updates and links have been at the heart of this. In hindsight it all seems so obvious: look how popular SMS text messaging quickly became. How the mass market gradually got it. Transfer that to a nimble platform, ensure word space is tight, add linking functionality, mix in richer media: pictures and video, sprinkle in celebrity interest and leave to simmer for critical mass. Bob’s your Uncle.

(Just nobody mention money, ok?)

In the quest for wider behavioural knowledge and power, which may eventually lead to money via more sophisticated targetting, social network status updates are getting together. This poses the original question: several fragmented updates across different networks, or just one?

LinkedIn are the latest to climb aboard the live status update party, offering a single update which can be instantly published across Twitter and LinkedIn; as Facebook and Twitter can also be connected. It makes it easier.

If the identity in question is a corporate or FMCG brand which knows it has a relatively samey audience and consistently targets that audience with roughly similar messaging, or if you have an open new media professional identity which lives comfortably across a number of platforms, connecting the dots is fairly straightforward.

But fragmentation can be necessary. It helps conceive a better sense of audience, control and knowledge of who it is that you’re speaking to on a number of levels – The Guardian are trying to figure if they can scrap the print version of their Technology content: will it matter if everyone reads online anyway? Are the technology-reading audiences different?

Uninformed strategy and miscommunication often occurs as a result of not knowing your audience, or through the over unification and liberation of narrow messages. You’re more likely to communicate ineffectively, or simply be boring to one group of people if you scattergun irrelevant or uninteresting unified updates about your dinner. In the same way that marketing messages have minimal effect if they’re not tailored in any way to you; then they can eventually irritate, intrude, bore.

This can happen on a subconscious level too, and have an effect even if your audience take no direct action, so the measurable remains the same.

People in your feed who update in ferociously prolific fashion, those who automatically post updates about every zombie they killed, a charity which desperately labours the same message (give us your money or x will die): your eyes eventually and involuntarily graze their updates. Because audiences learn and filter. Messages then weaken, become less credible, less compelling.

So what? advertisers might reasonably argue. It’s still eyeballs, it doesn’t matter, they’re still reading it on some level. True enough. But if you want more than that: actual penetration, a meaningful relationship and engagement with a message which might result in a call-to-action being realised, then you need to work harder.

Think before connecting status updates. WHO cares?

Posted by: Mark Hawkins | November 20, 2009

WiMAX or LTE – what will connect us in in 2030?

As we slump over our cornflakes browsing a “newspaper” in the future (my bet is it keeps the term in the same way “video” has), how will it be reaching us? On our mobile device via 3G data? Using a Wifi connection? Or with a new adaptation: 4G, WiMAX, or even LTE?

Today WiMAX and LTE (Long Term Evolution) technologies are commonly spoken of with the same sweeping breadth as the digital coverage it hopes to attain. So it can be tricky to get a definitive handle on precisely what they are, how they’re being used and what we hope to achieve with them.

This was what I hoped to address by attending Wednesday’s WiMAX event at City University, London.

Jointly hosted by the MDA and the DCKTN (Digital Communications Knowledge Transfer Network), the line-up included a number of speakers who have been working at the coalface of these technologies for a number of years. Their full presentations can be accessed via the secure members area of the MDA site.

WiMAX Network Operator, Freedom4 opened with a number-heavy discussion of today’s 4G network and how it impacts the speed of CDMA and OFDMA data transmission through Mobile WiMAX, IMT-Advanced and LTE, amongst other media.

Graham Currier described WiMAX as a purpose designed high capacity mobile data access technology, taking advantage of Internet Protocol network scaling, flexibility and low cost.

Graham MacDonald of Intel, who make the enviable claim of being The World’s Largest Semiconductor Manufacturer, outlined the global WiMAX ecosystem.

With eleven globally dispersed Test Sites, Intel is supporting ubiquitous broadband coverage with a preference for today’s 4G, because LTE is not commercially available and won’t be for another two to three years.

Around 500 WiMAX trials and commercial deployments are currently in place across 141 countries in the world, whereas there are no LTE commercial deployments at all.

Spectrum, Intel believe, is the true enabler of a wireless broadband world.

Milton Keynes Council assigned Connect MK with the mission to raise active broadband use from 60-65% in 2007 to over 90% by 2010/11 through broadly enabling access to PCs and broadband. Adepteq, the company behind Connect MK, persuaded Microsoft to produce a Social Software Licensing Model which has led to PCs being loaded with a fully licensed operating system and loaned out at £1.50 per week. Freedom4’s widespread WiMAX solutions enable the service’s users generous connectivity.

Next up, WiMAX network operator, Airspan – a founding member of the WiMAX forum, explained how WiMAX might not be perceived as a 4G technology. And how you might argue that nothing is. It extolled the virtues of next generation technologies converging and accommodating both data and voice services for the masses.

How? Obviously by using Airspan’s cutting edge products.. Its smart applications included machine-to-machine communications, which will become increasingly topical with the approaching smart metering juggernaut, and embedding WiMAX inside devices such as cameras and Sat-Navs.

While the level of audience interaction, extended debate and conjecture was encouraging for the space, it also suggested many competing viewpoints in a space where assertive direction is needed for significantly progressive infrastructure.

Nobody really knows how these technologies and robust infrastructures will develop in the coming years, or how much cash is available to develop them. Or how much of a priority they really are. I left the event with more questions than answers.

– Will the development of voice technologies through LTE have the edge over data and WiMAX?
– Can WiMAX pilot projects encouraging digital social inclusion in marginalised areas, be transposed into larger cities?
– Or do they benefit from more flexible infrastructures allowed by unique, arguably anomalous locations such as the UK’s new town, Milton Keynes?
– Is consumer WiMAX more of an immediately compelling proposition for remote towns and islands than it is for large cities?

These were slightly narrower questions than those which I entered with: the sign of an informative and engaging event.

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