Thursday, July 12, 2007

Redefining the “Cloud” (i.e., add wireless)? Too early to tell

So what of the news that the FCC will auction new spectrum under the condition that those who venture into the challenging space of building, maintaining and operating a network keep the last mile open to any device?

Well, for starters, if it comes to fruition this ruling could have a major impact on the wireless industry: more consumer power, less restrictions on proliferation of applications, less device fragmentation with better devices… and on and on. At last, a stride towards an open environment has been taken. Great.

However, while this ruling could result in something bigger than the Telecom Act of ’96, today it is still too early to tell what the real outcome will be. Fully aware of the threat that this poses to the them, the incumbent operators have already been busy at work in Washington for some time, and will continue to be until the fat lady sings. The lobbying (they have been at it since before Sergei and Larry were born) and staying power of the operators is not something to be underestimated.

Finally, even if this ruling were to be successfully implemented by the FCC, the incumbents not only have the deep pockets to compete in the bidding war with Google and co., or whomever. They will fight to the nail and teeth for they have much more to lose. They might even give Google a little bit of its own medicine: pay ludicrous amounts of money for the spectrum and do nothing with it simply to keep the competion out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Access is the problem, but Yahoo Go may be on to something

The most important determinant of user adoption of applications is access. It is a noble (and potentially very profitable) effort for companies to add more applications platforms to increase the number of applications to the mobile device. Yet, the pending need is not the number of applications. There are thousands of BREW and J2MEE aggregate applications. Handango currently sells over 7000 applications for the Symbian platform alone.

Yet the issue of access to those applications that remains unsolved for the most part. Access today remains a major roadblock for consumer adoption and stickiness. I synthesize access into three areas:

Discovery. Given the abundance of mobile applications out there users find themselves overwhelmed. Even when a user has an idea of an application he/she is interested in using, finding it in the operators’ or storefront catalogs can be quite the ordeal. Not to mention when it is done from the device itself.

Adoption. Most existing platforms have actually made the process of trying out and signing up for applications significantly simple. An application download will typically involve a series of authentication and provisioning processes. Most of these processes combined take place in a matter of seconds and are usually invisible to users.

Stickiness is another problem area. Mobile phones have a very limited user interface that has resulted in cumbersome navigation and layers and sub-layers of menus. Frankly, it is easy for consumers to forget about an application they downloaded in the past along with many others. It is easier to stick to the basic applications, like WAP or SMS, which are closely integrated with the physical user interface.

On this front, Yahoo is on to something with Yahoo! Go. It brings potentially thousands of applications to the consumer in a self-contained, seamless and user-friendly experience. The Yahoo Go experience is client based, so reaching a wide device footprint will be a never-ending challenge for Yahoo. However, since the downloading can be initiated from the Web, and through a SMS containing a URL, getting the client to supported devices will be easy for the consumer. The discovery of new applications that are part of the Yahoo! Go experience has been made so simple, thanks to the Yahoo Go user interface that allows for extremely simple navigation. As the number of applications, or widgets as Yahoo calls them increases, however, discovery will become increasingly more challenging. Hopefully Yahoo will add an effective Search and/or Recommendations engine to future versions of Yahoo Go. Yahoo will still have to address the problem of stickiness. Depending on the device, the Yahoo! Go client may be added to the device’s layers and layers of applications. Alerts (opted-in by the user, of course) may be a simple way, for example, for Yahoo to remind users to shift the Mobile Web paradigm to Yahoo Go on an on going fashion. The other, even better and very possible alternative, is the Yahoo Phone through direct relationships with OEM's for device-embedded Yahoo Go.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Who cares as long as it's sexy

I have been interviewing as many fortunate owners of the iPhone as I could come in contact with. What I have observed is either a severe case of herd-mentality denial or simply a slap in the face for the wireless industry that has been decades in the making.

Among many surprises about the iPhone, one that stood out to me the most is that the iPhone does not support picture messaging. The alternative functionality of sending pictures, or anything else for that matter, as email attachments is not supported either. The average iPhone user's response to this was that he/she had no need for pictures on a phone.

A certain iPhone user also described the Internet browsing experience over the EDGE network as “painful”. Another user commented that he would not even attempt to watch a streaming video outside of WiFi, but then added that he “hates YouTube anyway” (he and the rest of the world, right?). An eager user insisted, instead, that streaming video over EDGE was even faster than doing it from his computer over high speed Internet – obviously in denial!!

Furthermore, while the phone allows music side-loading only (no different than the iPod and not to mention a waste of the benefits of wireless connectivity and money left on the table from consumers' higher willingness to pay to purchase songs while on the go), the iPhone has been praised in the bloggsphere for having the potential to revolutionize the music industry. More denial.

Openness? Don’t even get me started. Besides Safari, nothing else in the device is open to developers: no keypad, no LBS, no codecs, no SMS, no J2MEE/BREW equivalent...

While the phone’s revolutionary touch-screen keypad provides for more and much needed screen real estate, it made it very difficult for me to enter text (my fingers are pretty small, mind you). That was acceptable to the owner of this particular iPhone because I am a newbie, after all, and I need to practice. This same user had been practicing for one week and yet kept fat fingering every other letter.

In terms of memory space, no one has denied that it is definitely a downgrade from the Video iPod. iPhone owners’ response?... They do not need the memory space for video because they can stream video (when sitting in front of their computer at an Internet cafĂ©, of course).

One area where eager iPhone adopters and I can certainly meet is the device’s extremely slick design. It is thin, light, has a relatively large screen, and aesthetically pleasing rounded corners. The UI is a beauty with its large bright colored icons on a dark background. Unlike the iPod, the phone will actually resist the physical abuse of the average mobile user.

So what could this mean to the rest of the mobile industry? For years thousands of competent minds have been trying to second guess what customers really wanted out of their phones. After voice and SMS, we brought users access to information over data networks. It turned out that what we provided (WAP 1.X) was not the Web, so we gave them WAP 2.0 with images, colors, fonts, tables. It was still not enough. With more powerful devices, we were able to provide Internet browsers, but since the limited machines cannot bear to process much of the content that is out there today, this is still not good enough. So we added more bells and whistles (cameras, MMS, LBS. Video, Music)… Not enough because the networks were too slow? Answer: 3G networks. But no. Not enough.

So, could it be that over the course of 20+ years working to improve the mobile device the so-called experts were simply heading in the absolute wrong direction? Could it be that at the end of the day, despite of anything they said, consumers did not really want feature-rich empowering mobility tools after all? Could it be that after all, all the consumer really wants is an overpriced sexy-looking gadget that shouts social status to the world? Hopefully not (and I doubt it), but only time will tell…

For the time being I am holding on to my $600… and holding out for the iPhone 2.0... perhaps.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Off-Carrier LBS platform

Hats off to the folks over at Yahoo! Research Berkeley for developing something truly disruptive!

The Yahoo! Research Berkeley team has come up with an open LBS platform that allows the community to generate and openly obtain the location information. This is in contrast to other LBS platforms, most of which are owned by carriers.

“Fire Eagle”, code name for YRB’s open LBS platform, allows location-based applications to connect to it and 1) post end-users’ location information, and/or 2) get end-users’ location information. Here is an example of how it works: Suppose you, as a developer, come up with the “Totally Rad” Social Networking location-based application and connect to “Fire Eagle” using its soon to be made public API. Now, let’s say one of your users also uses Zone Tag. While out and about, this user takes a picture, tags it, and uploads it to Zone Tag. Zone Tag will determine the user’s location by means of its Cell Site ID database. Zone Tag will then post the user’s location information to the “Fire Eagle” platform. Next, the end-user will log in to the Totally Rad Social Networking application. The Totally Rad application will get the user’s location information from Fire Eagle. With this information Totally Rad will be able to serve your end-users with location information about their friends or love interests, or even highly targeted ads.

So what about the security of users’ privacy?

Privacy has always been the number one concern with location-based services and continues to be. YRB promises the platform will be armed with privacy features. First, the location history of users will not be maintained. Fire Eagle will only cache each user’s latest posted location information. Second, users will be able to manage through a Web UI which applications should or should not have access to their location information. I would add to that the ability to specify windows of time, ability to turn off the disclosure on information from the device, etc.

How good will the information be?

Unlike a carrier supported LBS application, a user’s Latitude and Longitude may not always be available.

What might the carriers say/do?

They may not do anything until a user’s location information is compromised and used in a bad way… or until they see that this significantly eats into their revenues. For now, though, this is probably will be just noise to them.

What’s Fire Eagle’s status?

Currently “Fire Eagle” is about to go through alpha testing. Enter your email address on the Fire Eagle Website to be notified when it becomes open to the public.