The carrousel of mobile blogging

If you haven’t been to the Carnival of the Mobilists before, you should give it a spin. Every week the Carnival is hosting a page-long summary of the best of mobile blogging on the web, a one-stop destination for catching up on what’s been happening in the world of mobile phones and wireless services. The Carnival enjoys a faithful community of frequent bloggers who keep the carrousel spinning – mostly industry insiders and analysts – and is compiled each week by a different member of this vibrant community. The Carnival is an exemplary, self-sustained collection of informal but highly informational blogging, thriving on quality reporting and educated opinion that in turn warrants peer recognition and blogosphere visibility.

Here at the VisionMobile Forum we have been fortunate to have been featured in the Carnival several times in the last few months, most notably on:

Cheers to the Carnival !


P.S. The Forum is back online after suffering some downtime over the past weekend. Lesson learned: dependable support from web hosts is hard to find. Hopefully our new home will live up to its reputation.

Read my mind: adding recommendation to the mobile search mix

Understanding users can’t buy content if they can’t find it, an increasing number of mobile operators and content providers are scrambling to offer mobile search capabilities as well as an array of tools that will encourage users to explore more of the content at their fingertips.

The raft of recent announcements, involving tier-1 mobile operators and market giants such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and a growing number of white-label search providers, including InfoSpace, Fast Search & Transfer, Medio Systems and JumpTap, as well as mobile search platform provider, Mobile Content Networks (MCN), shows carriers and content companies are clearly excited about mobile search.

But operators that merely retrofit Web search solutions for the mobile Internet ultimately short change themselves and their users. Popular Web search engines such as Google are fatally flawed. They were designed to treat all searches – and searchers – equal. While the approach consistently delivers the same list of links in response to key words, it fails to recognize the need of individual searchers for relevant results that really matter.

Push vs pull business models
More importantly, such search schemes patently ignore the shift in the business model from user-pull to content-push. Pull is built on the premise that users know what they want and are prepared to go look for it. That’s quite an assumption when it comes to fast-paced content such as entertainment and multimedia which changes faster than users can keep up. The pull model also ignores the rise of empowered customers who increasingly expect – even demand – content and services consistently tailored to their individual needs and in tune with their lifestyles and life stages.

The new paradigm is personalized content-push based on a deep understanding of the individual’s purchases, passions and past click-behavior. It’s even more compelling if the technology can learn users’ likes and dislikes over time to dynamically and consistently deliver the right content mix.

The message is getting through, which is why this year will see the usual suspects experimenting with techniques and technologies to deliver personalized mobile search. Perhaps the most vocal on the market is Yahoo!.

Personalized search and relevant results are concepts that run like a leitmotiv through the company’s new product offer and its future roadmap. A prime example of this new direction is Yahoo! oneSearch, a Web 2.0-type search engine picks up on users’ intent, intuits the information they want and then presents the relevant content, grouped by subject, in synopsis form. A sports search on oneSearch, for example, will return a relevant bundle of scores from a team’s most recent game, along with game schedules, team rosters, photos, local results, and so on.

Adding user choice to the mix
While search does assist in delivering a better end-user experience, the much more lucrative business opportunity may be in combining search, personalization and recommendation to provide users personalized and relevant results – as well as the tools to discover other content they might not have otherwise known existed.

An increasing number of vendors are clued into recommendations and are lining up to wield the power of the analytics they generate. Some, like Medio Systems, are borrowing from the approach to suggest content on the basis of the individual user’s past preferences or on the basis of what a user’s peers consumed, or both. Others including MyStrands, Gracenote and ChoiceStream, making the transition from online to mobile, have cleverly combined their music recommender capabilities and social networking to help users connect with both content and the like-minded members of their community who share the same tastes.

Indeed, the sheer variety of personalization and recommendation solutions enables a multiplicity of business models the mobile industry is only beginning to explore. Moving forward, personalization and recommendation will be must-have features of mobile content services.

mPortal, for example, creates personalized recommendations based on users’ billing records, download history and purchase habits. The company is taking this analysis to the next level, drilling down in the customer data to create ‘content referrals’, and so allow users to share content tips with their friends and family.

Given the highly personalized nature of the mobile phone and the way people use it, there is a high probability that people will buy content and services if they know a friend – and not an operator – is making the suggestion. It’s clearly in operators’ interests to deliver effective and targeted commerce experiences to their customers. While recommendations based on customer information such as page views and downloads will be an important part of this strategy, it will be the recommendations from the tight-knit communities users know and trust that clinch the sale.

Mapping mobile Linux: from Lego bricks to castles

Mobile Linux is a fascinating topic. As an operating system for mobile handsets, Linux commands responses ranging across dismissal, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and admiration. Mobile Linux is often dismissed as an immature operating system for handsets, being sometimes likened to Lego bricks, i.e. a loose set of components that comes nowhere near a complete product. FUD comes about when companies consider the repercussions of GPL licenses (note: the Linux kernel is licensed under GPL v2) which are sometimes likened to IPR contamination. At the same time, Linux as the basis for handset operating systems must be admired for its market penetration, particularly in Japan and China. For 3Q06 Canalys estimates Linux to be powering close to 40% of the smartphones shipped in China and Japan, second only to Symbian.

However, it should be noted that Linux-based mobile operating systems are far more than Lego bricks today. In fact what is emerging is a clear taxonomy of Linux vendor offerings, which I would separate in five types, ranging from support packages, to complete handset products.

A) Linux support packages (LSPs): these consist of the Linux kernel, hardware drivers and core OS functionality. LSPs are today provided by the incumbent MontaVista and the newer WindRiver (of VxWorks fame). The vendors provide LSPs with integration and professional services to help manufacturers like Motorola, NEC and Panasonic go to market with Linux-based handsets more quickly. Other manufacturers like Nokia (see 770 and N800) have opted to build their own Linux-based OS distribution from scratch, with the help of external communities.

B) Complete software stacks: In 2006 a number of vendors announced complete software stacks based on Linux, combining an LSP with an application framework, graphics subsystem, middleware libraries and core applications. Following the incumbent Korean vendor Mizi Research and Chinese HOpen, Trolltech followed with Greensuite and ALP (Access Linux Platform) announced their offering.

C) Productised software stacks: while a complete software stack may include all the software code a handset manufacturer needs, it still lacks interoperability testing, operator acceptance testing and other integration services which today are offered by A la Mobile, Aplix (with their BTO product) and Celunite which is still in stealth mode.

D) Moving a step further towards productisation, a range of vendors today offer complete hardware and software design services for Linux-based handsets. PurpleLabs, SysOpenDigia, Elektrobit, Cellon and Flextronics combine a Linux-based software stack with a hardware design optimised for Linux that can be licensed by the handset manufacturer and taken to market.

E) Finally, a new type of vendor has emerged that combines white-label hardware and software productisation with marketing and distribution: the example here is FIC, the Taiwan-based vendor who made the headlines in late 2006 with their OpenMoko fully open Linux platform. FIC produces Linux-based handsets both under its own brand, as well as under white-label business model.

For reviews of mobile Linux vendors such as MontaVista, A la Mobile, Trolltech and Mizi Research, you can downlad a white paper I wrote recently titled: Mobile Operating Systems: The New Generation.

Conclusively the mobile Linux market today consists of the entire gamut of offerings from LSPs (the Lego bricks) to complete Linux-based handset products (the castles). Undoubtedly, this market is still very volatile and competitive. Chipset vendors are increasingly pre-packaging their own LSPs with their hardware reference designs, manufacturers are in some case in-sourcing and in other cases outsouring Linux operating systems for their handsets. Finally operators like Orange and Vodafone are promising commitment to Linux platforms, while industry consortiums such as the X-foundation are hoping to provide a route to market for Linux-handsets.

Amidst the turmoil of volatility of vendor offerings and the hype of market demand, one can only refer to the age-old rhetoric: watch this space.

Thoughts ?

iPhone delivers a genuinely disruptive UI

As an interaction designer working in the mobile space and as someone who follows Apple’s products with interest, the iPhone announcement has been something that I have been eagerly anticipating ever since rumours of its existence started to circulate. Given Apple’s reputation for innovation, I was excited to discover whether Apple could bring some fresh approaches to tired old mobile device UI paradigms and the announcement has certainly not disappointed. Not only was the much-rumoured full touch screen present, but here was a genuinely disruptive UI that was optimised to finger gestures, one that incorporated several sensing technologies and that brought the graphical elegance of Mac OS X to the mobile device.

Apple’s introduction of a solid-state scroll wheel to the iPod in July 2002 helped to stimulate a debate on the use of touch technologies for mobile phones. Capacitive sensing technologies brought the promise of adaptable UIs that could dynamically change touch controls to fit different contexts and thereby remove the need for physical buttons, evolving into concepts such as Synaptics’ Onyx phone. It is fitting therefore that the concept has reached its full realisation in the iPhone. For the first time on a mobile device, we have seen multi-touch input put to use to allow users to intuitively zoom the UI without the need for zoom buttons or other controls. Steve Jobs said during his Macworld keynote to much cheering that multi-touch gesturing is part of what provides the magic to the iPhone and that it has been patented, but it is worth noting that Bill Buxton, one of Human-Computer Interaction’s father figures, has been encouraging exploration into multi-touch input for over 20 years, and the technology has been demonstrated to impressive effect already in this video by Jeff Han.

Another strikingly intuitive interaction in the iPhone’s UI is in the use of the device’s accelerometer to detect the orientation of the device and to rotate the UI accordingly to allow users, for example, to view a landscape image fullscreen by simply rotating the device to a landscape orientation. This is a classic example of how Apple humanises high technology to cut away needless interaction and provide highly accessible and delightful user experiences.

Redefining the rules of operator engagement
But, speaking as a designer of mobile devices who has had to trawl through reams of operator requirements, perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the Macworld keynote was to see how the iPhone is pushing operators to meet its design vision rather than the other way around and refuses to be tied to requirements can befuddle the UI and lead to an incoherent user experience. Stan Sigman (CEO of Cingular) revealed that Cingular had entered into a contractual agreement with Apple two years ago without ever seeing the product, based purely on the strength of the design vision. This is unheard of – Apple have truly struck a blow by mobilising the value chain in their and the end user’s favour. It remains to be seen if other manufacturers will be able to follow suit.

Since the iPhone’s announcement, reactions to it from people I have spoken to and from across the web have been varied and interesting. Some have been unfazed by the hype and argue that the device contains nothing truly new or innovative either technically or in the UI. However, to have this view is surely missing the point. When it was released back in 2001, the iPod was not particularly revolutionary in terms of its specifications either, as other mass storage MP3 players were already on the market. The innovation came in its commitment to delivering an uncompromised design vision by focussing on the total user experience of the product. The ripple effect caused by the iPod’s success on raising the profile of user experience in the industry has been truly significant. Hopefully, the iPhone’s announcement will also bring about a change in attitude that will allow UI designers to unleash their creativity.

Retail idea #3: Selling hardware features

Another idea for mobile phone retail stores is selling hardware features – imagine buying a phone and then adding an FM radio capability to it at the point of sale for a modest surcharge. Although feasible, this concept can be realised mostly in the long term. For more here-and-now ideas on retail stores see previous posts on a visual approach to selling data services and differentiating at retail with a mobile phone health index.

Selling hardware features
The consumer purchase criteria for handsets today are the style & design of the handset, the price, the features and the bundle offered by the mobile operator (in order of importance) – the importance ranking of these criteria is roughly the same globally. When it comes to features, the consumer will often ask how good the camera is (the more megapixels the better!), whether the handset can play mp3, whether you can use a stereo bluetooth headset with it, whether it has FM radio on, etc. Business users might ask for HSDPA capability or hardware-based security.

Often the over-segmentation of handsets and features based on the manufacturer market segmentation plan will mean that one particular handset may appeal to the user in terms of style, but may lack some important functionality. OEMs today are pretty sophisticated when it comes to figuring out their lifestyle-based segmentation plans (with 50+ segments in the case of Nokia), but then again you can’t fit everyone in the same box and give them a label. In addition, consumers in developed markets are pretty demanding and could easily be spoiled for choice.

Software-only add-on features like games, ringtones and wallpapers are pretty commonplace today – you can grab them at the point of sale, through WAP, web or even SMS (and they make a several billion dollar industry). But what about selling hardware features at the point of sale ? Why ? Because post-sales activation of hardware features can mean money for the operator or manufacturer who can charge the user for activation.

Hardware flexing
One technology that can be used to enable selling of hardware features is hardware flexing. This topic was discussed at a meeting organised by the OTA Flash Forum (OTAFF) in Athens in October 2006, where I was invited as an independent analyst. This article is based on the discussions at the OTAFF meeting.

So what is hardware flexing? Handset manufacturers today tend to use a single hardware platform for a series of handsets, with some of the features flexed off (i.e. embedded but disabled). The reason is that by using a single hardware platform for multiple market segments with differentiated products, manufacturers can exploit economies of scale, tighten supply chain management and repurpose handsets for different regions. A single hardware platform keeps costs down and allows manufacturers to finalise handset hardware features just-in-time.

Naturally, the handset software has to support in-life activation of hardware features. If the necessary software is already ‘baked’ into the handset, this is fine, otherwise firmware reflashing has to be involved (either over-the-air or over-the-cable). To avoid having to manage countless permutations of software images for each combination of hardware features, updating of specific software features can be used. On mass-market (non-modular device software), the only company claiming a solution to this is Red Bend as far as I know.

Let’s look at some practicalities, in particular, which features to sell, how to make money, and the barriers to adoption.

Post-sales activation of hardware features has to deliver a tangible benefit to the end user. Boosting the camera quality is somewhat suspicious (were you trying to sell me a sub-standard product before?), but enabling video playback, mp3 capability, FM radio or bluetooth is ok. In other words, post-sales activation of hardware features must deliver features which are ‘on-off’ or are otherwise clearly perceived by the user as an add-on.

How you make money? There are two options:
a) The manufacturer makes money from selling the feature, while the operator makes money from airtime traffic, or
b) The manufacturer sells the device to the operator/distribution channel with the option to enable a hardware feature. The operator then sells the handset and optionally sells the feature.

As for barriers to adoption, there are a few issues although not critical. The cost of equiping a hardware platform with additional features is not great (at least it’s cheaper than having to create a new hardware platform with the extra features). Commodity hardware capabilities are pretty cheap today with bluetooth coming at a cost of sub- $0.5 and FM radio at sub- $0.2.

An important challenge I can see is that post-sales features have to be incorporated into the manufacturer’s strategic plan for each platform, which requires long-term planning (12-15 months) and thus carries execution inertia. The retail processes and the mobile operator channel strategies will have to be adapted to handle this capability. If you want to also sell hardware features OTA (via web, WAP and customer care) the process complexity increases.

The benefits to mobile operators, handset manufacturers and users alike would be substantial though. For operators it’s an extra source of revenue, as it is for manufacturers who are today redeveloping their strategies for post-sales incremental revenue (for example see Nokia’s Loudeye acquisition and Nokia Content Discoverer). As for users, they would be much less restrained in their choices . Why not pay a bit extra for the handset with perfect style and the perfect feature set ?

Thoughts ?