Month: March 2008 (Page 1 of 2)

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!

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