Month: October 2007 (Page 1 of 3)

3 with dedicated Skypephone

Hutchison’s 3 has had a Skype service under its X-Series for a while now but they have now announced the launch of a dedicated Skypephone, which they developed jointly with Qualcomm (to make use of some specific CDMA features) and Skype and which has dedicated Skype buttons. It is said to being produced by Chinese manufacturer Amoi. The service rolls out in the UK and Ireland from this week and will move to 3’s other territories (Austria, Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, Italy and Switzerland) thereafter.

The move manifests where 3 sees the future value, and it is not in being paid by minute of voice used. The value clearly lies in mobile data. Now, granted, this is easier for 3 to achieve than for many other operators: 3 started as a 3G operators straight away. Their entire network is high-speed, they don’t have any old black-and-white devices hanging around anywhere, etc, etc. However, what it does show is a gutsy approach to break with tradition amongst network operators.

Can the situation be compared with the change from dial-up, pay-per-minute Internet to unlimited broadband? It probably can to an extent. What was the result of that? The change of a commodity-driven business model (bandwidth) to a service and product-driven one (e-commerce, advertising, etc) with the subsequent reduction of previously mighty ISP to mere bit pipes that delivered the data but were otherwise largely interchangeable. This is also the sore spot for network providers because they fear that this will happen to them, too. According to reports, a Skype spokesman reported that Skype was usually told to “go away” by operators, noting “obvious tension”.

I would submit though that there is actually less to fear for network operators than there was for the traditional Internet ISP because the billing relationship is – as yet – harder to replace for mobile customers than it was for the Internet customer. I believe this to being the case because of two reasons, namely a) the perceived security (perceived because it does not necessarily reflect reality), and b) the limited input mechanisms of mobile devices (punching in credit card details via your mobile’s number pad is a proper pain in the neck and nothing consumers will like to do). Due to restrictions of the screen and device size, this remains the case even if one uses smartphones with a Qwerty keyboard or touch-screen devices.

The above will not guarantee the operators’ spot forever but it will certainly make life easier for another couple of years. But then? Well, you better be well-positioned for when the inevitable happens: with most operators already starting to open data services, it can surely only be a question of time until a more liberal approach to what their customers are and are not allowed to use will appear; consumers may well ask what added value an operator had to offer.

3 UK CEO, Kevin Russell, does then expect initial “detractions” from its revenue but hopes to make up for it by adding incremental customers, not only through new additions but also reduction of churn and increased loyalty.

3 does what it has shown to be good at, namely leading change from the front: it has shown that it can sell more content than competitors with many times its market share, and whilst it might all be born frmo sheer necessity (where else would 3 turn to survice), it is good of them to again putting pressure onto the others.

Focus on Nokia

This is less of a commentary of the way you would normally find here but more a reference to a rather good Forbes article on Nokia. It is a glowing review for one but it also recapitulates Nokia’s changing fortunes in particular in two areas, namely its various attempts to converting itself into a media company (or a hardware company with a powerful media side to it) and its dealings in the US market (where Nokia has fallen to an astonishingly low market share of only 10% by failing to realise that US Americans love clamshells; its global market share is 39.2%).

On the media front, Nokia has been rather busy recently, both on the buy side (Enpocket, Navteq) as well as with another internally conceived programme (Ovi) and some new investments through the fresh Nokia Growth Partners fund, such as Vollee (streaming rich PC games to mobile phones) and Kyte (in short a multi-platform YouTube). And, as Forbes reports, it now also seems to make strides in the US market: it has entered a deal to supply phones to AT&T (starting with the 6555 tailormade for the US market), and also seems to work with Verizon on improving its footprint there.

Nokia will apparently ship 430m units this year alone. In doing so it grabs 80% of the industry’s profits on 39.2% of the market share. Going from strength to strength, it seems.

End2End buys Terraplay

Not too much is being divulged about the latest deal in the consolidation of the mobile sector other than that it happened: The Danish mobile platform company End2End has acquired the Swedish multi-player enabler Terraplay. If well-managed, this could be a smart move: End2End has shown some strength recently in managing the mobile content platforms for a couple of operators whilst Terraplay had quite a few wins in the early land-grab to becoming the operators’ partner for the facilitation of multi-player gaming. Combining the two propositions is an imminent win: the true value of mobile games (beside killing time) is its always-on, anytime, anywhere nature. A mobile phone is a communication device, and connected gaming makes use of just that – communication.

Given that most operators/carriers seem to choose an outsourced solution (presumably because they have no internal bandwidth for this – relatively speaking – niche opportunity), the combination of a platform provider with a connected applications enabler is a great move. End2End had a need to ramp up their footprint to avoid becoming a little shadow player in the big land-grab. They have just added this little extra now!

Facebook for Blackberry

At CTIA, Facebook, the new $15bn company, and Blackberry maker RIM presented a downloadable application that powers Facebook on Blackberry devices. This is noteworthy for two reasons:

1. It shows the significance Facebook as gained in older age segments. Facebook is recording incredibly high numbers of new users from “older” segments, and these coincide nicely with Blackberry users who traditionally tend to come from the group of “mobile professionals”. At the same time, RIM will certainly try to add to its cool factor for non-business use, and what better thing to waste your data allowance than Facebook?

2. The really noteworthy thing however is that the Facebook app for Blackberry shows how connected mobile applications should work: it is slick, quick, with good UI and works. This should be a wake-up call to OS providers, OEM and carriers alike: the Blackberry has a very close environment, and it controls much of the in and out. It is therefore comparatively easy to build an application that actually does what it says on the tin. This however is not god-given. With a unification of the crucial APIs on the carrier side and the platforms on the OS and OEM sides, it should be possible to create a basis for this to happen with all sorts of applications. I am very keen to see the first usage data for this app, and I really hope that FB and RIM will divulge this. They could do the whole industry not only the “next frontier in social networks” (Facebook’s Moskovitz) a huge favour!

GSM Association is on the Money; with Western Union

A lot has been said and heard about the role of mobile telephony to boost the economies of developing and emerging countries, and the same is true for micro-finance, so perhaps this should not come as a surprise: the GSM Association, an umbrella association for 700 GSM operators, has announced a project with Western Union, the money-transfer specialists, under which they will roll out a P2P (peer-to-peer) framework that mobile operators can use to deploy services that enable consumers to send and receive low-denomination, high-frequency money transfers using their mobile phones. The first commercial services that make use of the framework are anticipated to be rolled out beginning in the second quarter of 2008.

Similar services have also been developed by private sector start-ups, such as P2P Cash. However, the combination of a giant like Western Union with more than 300,000 “cash points” around the globe and the dominant trade association of operators shifts the focus, in particular as the project is driven by a host of operator groups with interests in countries that will be on the forefront for such projects. They include Bharti (India), MTN (Africa and Middle-East), Orange (Europe, Caribbean, Africa), Orascom (Africa and Middle-East), Smart (Philippines), Telenor (Norway with interests in Europe and Asia, including a majority stake in Grameenphone in Bangladesh, more of which below) and VimpelCom Apparently, already 35 operators with a reach of more than 800 m customers in more than 100 countries have confirmed their participation in the programme.

The significance of small amounts of money for the development of poorer nations has last but not least been highlighted with the award of the Nobel peace price 2006 to Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank from Bangladesh: it was awarded for “their efforts to create economic and social development from below”. One of Mr Yunus’/the Grameen Foundation’s projects was the so-called “Village Phone“. A sister company of the bank holds a 38% stake in Bangladeshi mobile provider Grameenphone. And thus the circle closes…

The idea is simple: combine the two major development drivers, namely communication and money transfers and you’re on to a potentially very powerful lever for economic growth. Great effort!

Motorola loves UIQ

US handset maker Motorola acquired half the shares in UIQ, the smartphone software unit, from Sony Ericsson. Sony Ericsson had bought UIQ from handset OS maker Symbian last year. UIQ is essentially a graphic interface adding components to the Symbian OS. Symbian in turn is 47.9% owned by Nokia. Under UIQ, native programming can be made in C++ although the software does support the – in the mobile games space – ubiquitous J2ME standard. Motorola’s new flagship Z8 (nicknamed “MotoRzr” as in “riser”) is running on it already. The battle of the OS giants begins…

It is an interesting move since Moto has been the most active OEM for the use of Linux Mobile: it has released a whole range of phones for the open source OS featuring the penguin. It is also one of the founding fathers of the LiMo Foundation, an initiative it embarked on together with industry heavyweights NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone, Samsung, NEC and Panasonic (and which was recently joined by LG, McAfee, Broadcom, Ericsson and others). Now, I understand that Linux and C++ work together but must admit that my knowledge is more than limited here. It is in any event noteworthy that Motorola goes with a UI based on Symbian rather than straight-forward Linux. Motorola was quick to state that UIQ would only be “one of the actions to support [a] strategy” adding more investment in multimedia product segments.

With hundreds of millions in development cost at stake, it is probably too early to tell but it certainly is a new twist in the quest to uproot Nokia‘s top position with the Symbian s60 platform. So, what’s next?

Oasys out of Chapter 11

Oh, the bliss of creditor protection… US mobile publisher Oasys emerged from Chapter 11 after defaulting on a rather sizable $8m debt earlier this year. They had $2m in assets versus $11.8m in debt. Not good. Now they apparently managed to persuade investors to convert debt into equity and off they go again. It was all – more or less – pre-arranged: their investors Associated Partners and Rock Hill Partners had apparently agreed to swap debt for equity, and agreed some interim funding, which apparently allowed them to continue product development. Sitting tight in the interim, they now managed indeed what they had told, namely to emerge as the Phoenix from the flames. For how long? Heaven knows. They have announced a couple of titles but will find arguably not find it easy to compete against the ever tightening battlefield that is mobile game publishing. They had been quick to assure that they would continue “business as usual” and – in particular – would pay licensors pre- and post-restructuring, which will be crucial if they want to see the light of day.

UNO and Phil Hellmuth poker are good titles. Will they be enough though? Their investors seem to think so: the restructuring plan, which the investors apparently supported, foresaw to turn away from their attempts in the D2C market and want to run as a “normal” ASP and publisher. If they can win the carrier decks, this might just work. However, in the poker category, my dear employer’s WPT Texas Hold’Em and Glu’s World Series of Poker titles go strong, and Oasys will face an uphill struggle with their title. UNO could be cool though it won’t be a home run either. Nonetheless: competition is good though! Go on, guys!

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