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Posts from August 2009

The Mobile Operator Dichotomy-Product vs... Service Approach

With now almost three months of operating from various places in Europe and with more than almost sixty percent of my time load this year spent traveling or being in either the UK, or just being on the road at home, I’ve found that for both professional and personal reasons I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with mobile phones, visiting various shops and talking with the various operators, all the while increasing my share of knowledge from first hand, user based experienced.

Without a doubt the most intense market in the western world for Mobile is the UK. Not by number of operators, as the MVNO explosion in places like Spain, the Netherlands and even France has provided more consumers more in the way of “choice”, but encouraged by the the dramatic rise of the retail mobile chain Carphone Warehouse (their sibling in the USA is Best Buy) and their almost on every block in major cities EU siblings, PhoneHouse, has literally created the most intense competitive set and in turn spurred a culture where customer facing knowledge is the kind of battle usually reserved for the cricket, football-soccer or rugby pitch.

Make no mistake, competition at retail in the UK is fierce for the mobile customer’s pound, and what’s more it’s no longer just for voice and “plans” but ever increasingly we’re seeing the fight shift to the mobile broadband data world as well.

With MVNO’s like Virgin, Lebara and a bunch of cheap minute plays too, consumers in the UK, unlike in the USA really do have choice in plans, prices and provider, just as they do with broadband data in most of the country. And, it’s these wide ranging number of service options that are available that have also made the more competitive price war possible, while still maintaining margins. But it’s more than just walking in and asking questions. I’ve gone forward and put my money on the table and become a customer, in multiple markets in order to learn first hand more about the UK market and elsewhere.

As background in the UK I’ve signed up for and used no less than four mobile operators (T-Mobile, 3, Vodafone and Orange). Working through some half dozen countries or more in the last 20 months, has led to the purchase of Wi-Fi, 3G data or mobile phone services in most-France (Transatel, SFR and Orange), Spain (Orange, Movistar/Telefonica, Yoigo and MasMovil), Portugal (Vodafone), Germany (T-Mobile and Vodafone), Belgium (Mobistar) and even Italy with TIM. On earlier trips to Sweden and Denmark as well from both 3 and Telia-Sonera.

With Wi-Fi the connectivity has been better, with higher speeds and much less latency too. The same has held true with most hotels where the speeds may not be as high as in some USA hotels, but the upload has been better, allowing for more T-Mobile UMA, Truphone and Skype calls over WiFi without any hiccups.

One observation though came this week in Austria though, when it became obvious to me that in the USA mobile phone operators sell products, while in the EU and UK they sell service.

The differences are telling:

USA - 1) Walking into a store in the USA means having to sign in, wait and then get called, then referred to a “specialist” if one is available or hope and pray the “rep” can answer questions professionally about more than what’s being promoted-often times they can’t. Average time in a USA store is 15-30 minutes and this does not always end in a sale. The only recent difference to this has been Sprint in Encinitas, CA where the rep was whip-rocket smart and had me in and out in less than ten minutes. (She was so good and so unlike any other USA based store clerk I wanted to hire her on the spot.)

EU/UK-1) Walk into a shop in the EU or UK means you may have to take a number, but not often. The staff is very much aware of what is needed, and when buying pre-paid, even when dealing with a language barrier the transaction is truly painless.

In the EU and UK the sale of data plans, and SIMs, data dongles, etc. is simple and efficient. The knowledge of locked and unlocked devices is very high, and how and where to go to get the device unlocked is common knowledge and not kept secret. Most of all the average time spent in a store in the EU or UK is under ten minutes and usually less than five with a sale. This is a dramatic change from a few years ago where pre-paid data was few and far between, but in a scant 24 months I’ve seen it became as plentiful as water.

USA-2) They want to sell you a phone and lock you into an two year agreement. The plan is secondary.

UK-EU-2) They want to sell you a plan, and the device and length of agreement is secondary. If you Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) they don’t care.

USA-3) Prepaid-Rates in the USA for Prepaid are much higher than the lowest, or even so called unlimited rates. Prepaid data is limited and those lower priced value carriers like Cricket and Metro PCS don’t easily enable roaming.

EU-UK-3) Prepaid-it was pretty much invented in the EU and UK and more and more offers are for either pre-paid or contract less, monthly rolling terms. The knowledge of the staff regarding which option a customer should choose are far deeper than what I see in the USA, and even in countries where producing proof of your identity is required (Spain for one) the time it takes to get turned on is usually less than five minutes. The same in Austria, Belgium and the UK. What’s more the options for Prepaid data are plentiful as are the range of dongles, with the only rub being many operators want to sell the dongle too due to the rebates from the manufacturers, which seems to be two from China, Huawai and ZTE.

USA-4) Topping Up is a subject I wrote about earlier this week, explaining just how easy it was to top up in Austria, or as the convenience store clerk called it, AutoLoad. In the USA it’s not so easy. Finding a scratch off credit is not as easy and last I checked there’s no voucher system in the USA like there is in the rest of the world. Adding credit means setting up a credit card or finding the scratch cards. For the USA operators, the coming in late to the party in the pre-paid market is mainly because it was viewed as the market for the “unbanked,” but in reality the approach reduced the ease of trial and adoption that foreigners can have even beyond having to know where to find the scratch offs, vs. finding Top Up terminals in supermarkets, convenience stores or even via the ATM with a local credit or debit card.

The unbanked were the segment of the market that was the first to use Tracfone (own by TeleMex’s Carlos Slim) which may be the most successful pre-paid program going in the USA. That may be because Slim and Company figured out how to make the process of adding call-credit easy for a public that wants simplicity in their service, and is willing to pay a slight premium for it.

EU-UK-4) Topping up in the EU or UK is as simple as finding one of literally thousands of top up locations. The big difference is in the approach. The EU and UK mobile operators see themselves as selling a service. That’s one of the reasons for a better retail experience. But it goes deeper than that. The EU and UK operators also set out from the beginning to make sure what they sell works. Other than when my iPhone roams on O2 in the UK, I have never experienced a service related issue. Speeds are as promised on the data side. Calls placed complete as long as there is coverage, and what’s more the overall ease in which things work, ranging from adding short term services (as I do each trip with T-Mobile in the UK) for mobile data on the Nokia E71 or topping up credit on either my Vodafone or 3 data dongles takes no time at all.

Nothing is so complicated, even in foreign languages that can’t be figured out (even if sometimes Google Translate is required). Only once in memory has anyone really tried to “sell me” a phone, and that was because the pre-paid SIM from Orange was free with the phone in France, than without it saving me some 30 Euros that day. To me, that’s not selling a product, that’s knowing how to better service the customer.

And, when it does come to devices, the product knowledge on the sales floor, especially with the SmartPhones is always far higher.

A few years ago, when starting the Nokia Blogger Relations Program, we decided to use AT&T prepaid SIMs. The process was laborious and at one point in time, only I could do the top ups. In the UK or EU if we wanted 30 – 50 prepaid SIMs today, it would be easy to just walk into any Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile or 3 store or Carphone Warehouse and the would hand us the SIMs charge really what is for the top up, not the SIM, activate each one and quickly sell me any more of the vouchers that would be needed to continue to top the SIM’s up. Thinking back to the hours my staff and I spent on that process just four years ago and my own personal experience again last year with the AT&T GoPhone, it’s reminiscent of nails on a blackboard, versus a skate on fresh ice, or a run down the slopes on fresh powder.

But that’s what happens when you have a product culture, taught in business school, honed by Coke, Pepsi, GE, P&G, Levi’s and Miller Brewing driving the customer experience today. Even Starbucks, which has fallen over the past few years has too lost it’s market leading edge because it became all about the product and not the service experience that got them to the top. When you look at McDonalds, or Dominos, they are in the food service industry and yet, even in down economies they find ways to thrive. So while they may continue to bring out new products to stay ahead of the competition, they still remember to make every experience about the “servicing” of the customer. When you think about it, they really don’t try to “sell” you the product, the service experience is what does that itself.

To put it another way, the world’s oldest profession, has never been productized, and those that practice it, always “service” the client. Given how long that industry has been around, one has to think that being service oriented, versus product oriented, sure keeps the business going, and the customer “happy” in the end. Given the product centric approach we find in the USA being so rampant we also know one more thing from experience, that being “just who is getting screwed in the end” vs. the more service oriented approach, where the customer can leave, and when they do, know they left either doing the proverbial screwing or knowing they can by simply taking their business elsewhere.

So there you have it. Does you mobile operator sell products, or deliver you service? In my mind as we move to a more services based technology economy, it will be the operator who understands “service” and that it means who will win the hearts, minds and wallets of the customer.

Yahoo Updates Messenger-Video Chat Gets Even Better

Over the years Yahoo Messenger has been really at the forefront of desktop video, and overlooked by many. Even former client SightSpeed, and now Skype, all got the big kudos from the press, as has of late newcomer ooVoo. But all along the folks at Yahoo always just smiled and kept going along their merry way, knowing that their numbers of installed users with video chat capability and consumption was really dwarfing the competition.

Now with Google entering the race with their new web based video chat, Yahoo has made a big move forward and embedded the GIPS Video Codec into Yahoo Messenger 10 on the Windows platform.

For Yahoo video users, many of whom are in Asia, this will really brighten things up. Having seen the GIPS video codec in action at their SF offices (they are a client) I was astounded by the clarity, depth and field of vision. Most of all it handles transitions seamlessly, with no jumping when you're moving in front of the camera. Since Yahoo hates to admit it, but the truth is there, a lot of the video conversations (especially back in the Brad Garlinghouse/Jeff Bonforte era of Messenger) are of the "adult" type (and I doubt it has become any less of their market share) making this all a wonderful picture to see. When you take it in the context that the "adult" technology market has always been the harbinger of things to come, that market in the world of the early adopter and tastemakers is the sector that is constantly seeking a better and more lifelike video experience. Just look at history with adult video, and how it has progressed from film to digital delivery and how the various formats that won out versus those that lost (VHS vs. BetaMax is one example.) have fared.

But to get back out of the gutter and into the mainstream, this is a huge win for both Yahoo and GIPS. Yahoo Messenger represents perhaps the most significant user base the world over, with a major portion of those users on Windows PC laptops and desktops. Given how Yahoo Messenger hasn't gone away, especially outside of the USA, making their video platform better is a significant commitment by Yahoo to the next wave of person to person communications For Global IP Solutions, the back to back wins of both Google and Yahoo are telling the market that leading companies want to work with a non-competitive codec provider vs. using Skype's SILK. This is no different in how companies vote with their dollars for share of wallet, and share of mind, so even though SILK is royalty free, it still is associated with Skype, and to Yahoo and Google, Skype is the competition today.

From Yahoo, the message is clear. They went with a state of the art, market leading technology to deliver a better full screen video experience that they can keep giving away for free, because the underlying part of the message is that Yahoo is all about giving the user the best experience possible. They looked to GIPS for that, and they are getting the key piece of the video communications mix that gives them just that.

The Time Top 50 Web Sites

Time Magazine, known for their annual person of the year, has published a list of the top fifty web sites for 2009. It’s a very compelling and eclectic list of sites that is worth more than a passing glance.

What has me excited though is one of my clients, who advisory board I sit on, and where I’m a minor investor, Fonolo, has also made the list. This is very exciting for a few reasons.

1) Fonolo is really both a consumer and enterprise play. Time is largely a consumer publication but their writers are some of the best and smartest around. This is high praise for such a young company.

2) Fonolo is still at the angel funding round so far, and this mass media validation on top of all the niche media and largely trend or industry press they have received moves them way up in class.

3) Fonolo as a Canadian company, getting recognized by the USA largest circulating news weekly is a major feather in the founding team’s cap.


Where Should Call Vantage Customers Go?

I must say, the number of CallVantage users out there who are not in the AT&T footprint but are happy with their provider amazes me at this point. Despite zero marketing the last few years the service that AT&T’s new masters from SBC killed (only to have another group now working on a replacement of sorts I hear via the VoIP Grapevine) CallVantage has one of the most loyal followings of any VoIP service out there. Not only is the customer base loyal, many like me have been there since the beginning, and are sad to see it go.

Last week the cutover for me happened, and now my cable company is my “landline” provider of sorts. I opted for the Cox bundled offer which includes a hybrid POTS over Cable, but works just like a landline so both my alarm service and E911 work flawlessly, something AT&T could only half deliver on with uVerse as my high end alarm service company, nor AT&T could prove that the alarm service would work over uVerse.

So with that in mind, here is my advice on where the orphaned customers should go:

1) If you have cable and your cable company offers voice calling to me that the best option. The reason. One bill. One service provider and a very dedicated team. The folks from Cox have been super all through the process, so as a Cox Business customer, I’m thrilled with the way they handle things.

2) If you’re on DSL or if you’re on FIOS and don’t want Verizon’s voice service I would suggest three proven companies that have demonstrated staying power:

A. Broadvoice

B. VoicePulse

C. InPhonex

A fourth option, especially if you are a SOHO working with a team is client Junction Networks OnSip service.

All offer great support and solid service.

3) A third option is to cut the cord, but you’ll lose 911 with some options. For example, T-Mobile’s @ HOME service that works over WiFi will give you E911, and the price is so low it’s a very worthy option. The key is you want to also be a T-Mobile customer and have a UMA capable device, like the Blackberry Curve or to purchase the UMA capable DECT phones they market for in home use. If you don’t worry about E911, then Truphone on your iPhone or on an unlocked Nokia N or E series phone and a WiFi connection will give you calling at low rates per month.

Bottom line—you may be feeling like you’re losing a friend, with the departure of CallVantage, but now you have a chance to make a new friend to reach out and touch someone.

The No Lines, No waiting Way to Add Pages To You USA Passport-Fast

If you’re someone like me who is regularly on the road, but not always able to predict just when your next trip will be, adding pages to your passport can take a few very time consuming or expensive forms.

First you can make an appointment with the passport offices around the country. That’s great if you reside near by one or want to kill a few hours waiting in line after finally getting an appointment, having proof you have an urgent need or have an upcoming trip.

The second route is to mail your passport in. This is the most cost efficient method, but if an unexpected trip arises, then you are out of luck and at the mercy of whenever the passport is returned to you.

A third option is to use any one of the “rapid” passport services who have daily appointments around the country and pay people to be your surrogate. Here again, you’re sending off your passport and hoping that nothing delays the overnight courier service.

But the best option, and least time consuming is to have your passport updated outside the country. That’s right, out of the country.  Part of the services the USA Embassy and Consular office provide is an array of services to citizens abroad. And, helping out with things like passport renewal, replacement of a lost passport or even something as simple as adding a few more pages is done overnight.

First, there are no lines. No waiting. Second, since they know you’re in need of the passport, the degree of professionalism demonstrated is something we don’t usually expect. My updated passport is proof of that. Realizing on this trip I was running out of squares, and knowing I already have another trip on the calendar in October, I quickly checked the availability of a consular operations office in Vienna. After a quick email, that was replied to overnight, I learned any morning I could bring my passport by, fill out a form, and have it back the next day. To put it simply, the ten minute walk from my hotel both days, or a total of forty minutes was eight times longer than my time spent inside the consulate. The form took the most time, about three minutes, and after handing the passport over, I was told, simply come back tomorrow.

Well today, I went back to the Vienna Embassy/Consular office, and within minutes I had my passport back in my hands, complete with the official acknowledgement and the new pages, and lots of empty squares.

Given it took less than three years to fill up the passport, I’m going to see just how fast I can fill it up again. Using IRIS in the UK helps delay the rapid filling up, as you breeze through the UK Immigration at the major airports in a blink of the eye, so for someone who hates waiting in lines the combination of getting your passport renewed overseas and the fast track immigration friend named IRIS, makes things very easy for all.

It’s Easier To oogle via iGoogle

Have you ever wanted to have a quick video chat with someone? Well most of the services require a full blown application (except SightSpeed which had web based video chat first on Windows machines.) Well Google has teamed up with Videyo and Global IP Solutions and enabled in the browser video chat for both Macs and PCs from within iGoogle.

That’s an ooglers best friend, because now if you want to have a fast face to face that may lead to more, all you need to do is click it.

Mashable’s Pete Cashmore raises some very valid criticisms of Google with regard to their failures in the Social Networking space (Jaiku comes to mind quickly) and points to the future of Google Wave. In part I agree with Pete, as the inability for Google to blend “not invented here” technologies, even Google Voice has to be viewed as a work in progress, points to a cultural issue. On the other hand, Google is constantly tossing out new services that may or may not catch on. In many ways they remind me of the way Yahoo behaved for many years when they were flush with cash from runaway ad sales, little competition and millions upon millions of eyeballs a day. In other ways Google reminds me of AOL-a company trying to do just about everything that allows them to have more of the audiences attention.

Personally, I like the idea of a browser based video client, but right now, Skype is winning the battle on the desktop for video because of one thing. The size of their user base. To firmly win that battle all Skype has to do is become SIP based and then everything works and talks to it. When that day comes, and I predict it will, it will be a big day forward for IP based Communications and Video calling will become as common as voice calls are today.

Topping Up In A Strange Land

On Friday I landed in Vienna, enroute to a weekend in the Austrian wine region near Krems in the town of Langelois. As I left Vienna I stopped in the T-Mobile company store that is on the ground floor of the Austrian HQ just a few minutes from the Autobahn I would be taking as I headed out of town.

I picked up a Pre-Paid SIM with some credit, and added a bit more, but as I knew I’d be on the phone a lot and using data on the E71, I figured 20 Euros would last me until Monday when I’d be back in Vienna for meetings. WRONG.

This morning after checking the balance I saw I had .04 cents left of balance. Now, in the UK with T-Mobile that’s not an issue as my credit card is registered and I simply go to the web site and add credit. Not so here in Austria as even after using Google Translate the need to register your debit or credit card requires a visit to the T-Mobile store. But being Sunday, the nearest store in Krems is closed, but realizing that in the rest of Europe you can find a Top Up or as they call it here in Austria, Auto-Load, at many supermarkets and convenience stores, it was more a matter of finding one that had the E-SERVE top up system.

After about 15 minutes and three stops, the third was the charm, and even with my limited 5th grade era German and some gesturing with my phone and the holding of money up, the clerk quickly figured out what I wanted, said “Auto Load, followed by “10, 20, 40 Euro.” 

Within another 30 seconds I had entered the 14 digit code and the special *105* that precedes it and voila, another 40 Euros on my Nokia E71.

I might be a stranger in a strange land, but with a local number, and a quick learning of how things work, makes me feel, well, Local.

P.S. Another interesting thing, the convenience store was selling the Tele.Ring Willi data card with credit at the counter. Try and find a 3G stick in a convenience store in the USA or Canada.

Is The Mobile PBX In Your Future

In the past I've written about the idea of a Mobile PBX and how it could come to be.

Well it seems I'm not alone in that arena as Network World has an interesting "think piece" on the subject.

With 4G via WiMax and LTE the "mobile PBX" becomes more and more a reality, as fatter wireless bandwidth makes more things possible. This is a big boon to companies who have a clear handle on the "cloud" like Skype, Gizmo, clients Truphone, ifByPhone, Junction Networks, iotum, HiDef Conferencing, wonderkind cloud developer Thomas Howe and a few others out there like Jay and Jason at Adhearsion,

Why? Because with cloud technology, and an open pipe, the mobile device becomes a smart controller, not a dumb end point. That means you can do more things from anywhere. As MIDs and Netbooks become more voice and video endpoints, not simply "data terminals" we end up with very powerful pocket and bag size devices that can do more. Client Nokia with their N900 Linux based device is heading that way, as is Apple. I fully expect Microsoft and Cisco to also be players in this evolving world of connectivity that occurs on demand, not always on all the time.

Is Apple About Technology Oppression

Back in 1984 Apple rebelled with the famed commercial produced by Venice, CA based Chiat-Day. The commercial is a classic and viewed as a model of a great tv spot that aired just once. It was the commercial that introduced the Macintosh to the world.

Now, 25 years later Apple is treading water at possibly becoming exactly what they poked fun at. Technology oppression.

If I was advising Apple, I would find a way to make peace with Google over the GoogleVoice app and lots more and also announce a true "open" initiative. Apple right now is at a cross roads. As the dominant player in music delivery they are rapidly becoming a company with clout in that sector. With the iPhone they have pretty much become the fastest selling handset manufacturer and they sell almost all of what they make, something many others would love to claim, and can't. Most of all, they have a growing share of the laptop market, with more and more MacBook Pros and Mac Book Air's finding their way into the corporate mainstream.

All this means that Apple has to be careful right now, or run the risk of being what they wanted to destroy.