Google beats mobile operators at the customer care game

[Mind the gap! Are mobile operators allowing Google to take over territory in customer (self) care? Guest blogger Wouter Deelman looks at the present situation and what mobile operators can do to regain lost territory.]

Google support

You might not have noticed, but behind the scenes mobile operators are quickly losing territory in customer (self) care to Google. Operators consider customer ownership one of their primary assets, and make great strides in reinforcing their brand at each and every customer touchpoint, from logos on the handset plastic, to on-device portals, branded retail stores and exclusive handsets. Such marketing moves are very visible and make industry news headlines. Yet, mobile operators don’t seem to be aware that Google is staking out territory in the field of customer self care.

Traditionally, customer support was provided by operators through call centers. But with costs of on average 10-15 EUR per phone call (source: Mobile Handset Analyst, November 2007) and decreasing ARPU levels, operators have been reducing call center resources in favour of web based customer self care. But most end-users don’t bother visiting the website of their mobile provider for support, let alone dialing its call center. Finding relevant information on a mobile operator website is is challenge, despite significant investments in staffing, content management systems and good looking website designs.

In response, consumers just apply the survival strategy they learned when dealing with a crashing program on their computer: just Google! So what is today’s situation, how are mobile operators faring when it comes to customer (self) care? Qelp conducted a small, simple test for six of the UK’s largest mobile operators.

Suppose you’d like to get email working on your Nokia N96. More and more consumers just Google the error message or for example “Nokia N96 email set-up”. The table below summarizes your experience when you are based in the UK: searching the operator’s website versus a search with Google.

Option A: Search operator website for “Nokia N96 email setup”
Website results Help section results
O2 Generic email instructions Generic email instructions
Vodafone Commercial product offers “We couldn’t find any pages etc.”
Orange Commercial product offers Generic email instructions
T-Mobile Mostly commercial offers Mostly commercial offers
3 No results Blackberry and generic email
Virgin Mobile No results No results
Option B: Search with Google for “Nokia N96 email setup” + operator name. What are the results on Page 1?
O2 No results for
Vodafone Result nr. 3, forum: “Go to for internet settings”
Orange No results for
T-Mobile Result nr. 1: product offer for Nokia N96 from
3 No results for
Virgin Mobile No results for

The above results speak for themselves. For an end-user seeking help to get a service up and running on his mobile phone the answer is not just a few clicks away. Also the mobile operator seems ‘invisible’ for Google, unless it comes to commercial offers. If one looks somewhat closer at the Google results, result nr. 1 at page 1, lists a site called ‘Know Your Mobile’ with detailed instructions for email setup on a Nokia N96, almost exactly what we are looking for. (however the instructions are still generic and we still need to find the correct settings to access the mobile network).

Vodafone and O2 use forums, apparently in an attempt to let customers sort out their issues among themselves, facilitated by a moderator. But, is it good marketing for a mobile operator if a customer is overloaded with the frustrations of other customers while he is trying to hook up his shiny new smartphone to the network?

The stats behind the chaos
To appreciate why customer service is such a complex issue for mobile operators, it is worth looking at the following stats:

– For the first time in mobile history the handset market is shrinking. Yet smartphones, abundant with complex functionality, are still a growing segment which now represents 13.5% of the global market.

– A study by Mformation revealed that “Set-up issues prevented 45% of people from upgrading to new, more sophisticated phones” while “61% said phone set-up is as frustrating as changing a bank account.”

– The complexity of mobile internet set-up on a new mobile phone is illustrated by this top-10 device management challenges which Qelp put together based on experience with multiple operators.

– “Only 20% of a phone’s services and features are used regularly” found a study by WDS Global in September 2008.

– Already in 2005 a study by Olista reported that only “2% of end-users would seek assistance from their mobile provider” to get mobile internet working.

Recently Google has been rolling out a new search feature called Options, allowing users to filter results more quickly. Our test for the search “Nokia N96 email setup” now shows “Forums”, “Reviews” and “Videos” as filters. These options do not bring us any closer to a meaningful answer for our issue today, but one can expect web shops, forums and blogs to act upon this change and ensure that they rank even higher when applying these filters.

Can operators get their act together?
Is there anything mobile operators can do to stop Google’s invasion of their territory? Shouldn’t operators have the ambition to help customers get any service up and running at first attempt within 3 minutes? Smartphones represent only 13.5% of the market, what if this number grows to 20 or 30%? How are mobile operators going to stay “in touch” with customers and deal with the growing complexity of their questions?

There are still options, but operators will have to get their act together. Here’s a few suggestions:

1. Significantly improve the user experience of their websites. For example, by using better site search and helping visualise complex user instructions. End-users love YouTube, Maps, Streetview, Flickr and  know a how picture tells a thousand words. Operators already use such tools in marketing, so why not in customer self care as well?

2. Ensure that mobile operator websites are discoverable for Google by applying search engine optimization (SEO) techniques. Mobile operator KPN has been optimizing parts of their website for Google indexing. A recent experiment of KPN showed that some 30% of end-users try Google first to get their phone problems sorted out. (disclosure: KPN is a Qelp customer).

3. Be present in social networks, forums, blogs, even on an experimental basis – this would give give operators bonus points with early adopters. See for example how Comcast is using Twitter.

4. Provide on-device, mobile phone based, customer self care. Voice search and device based solutions are becoming available from companies like Nuance (SnapIn), Ydilo/Movidilo as well as Qelp. But also Google is entering the game with voice search for iPhone and of course Android phones.

Some of the above would even help operators obtain a first mover advantage rather than remaining in a defensive mode. A mobile operator is in the best position to know the user’s phone number, their device, voice/data usage and their location. Who would be in a better position to address the user’s need for support?

– Wouter

[Wouter Deelman is founder and CEO of Qelp. Qelp delivers mobile operators on-demand software to help increase revenues per user and reduce call center costs.]

The Mechanics Behind the Mobile User Interface

[What makes up the mobile user experience and what are the mechanics behind it? Research Director Andreas Constantinou introduces several important concepts behind the mechanics of the user experience; the user journey, core vs downloadable apps and the future of power apps]

The user experience (UX) has been probably the most talked-about topic in the mobile industry, mostly because we all know that the UX suffers and we all have suggestions of how it can be improved, especially in the post-iPhone era. The (graphical) user interface has been the aspect of the UX which has garnered most attention historically, and countless software vendors have demonstrated solutions to improve the UI, from better text engines to gesture-based widget navigation.

However, few have actually suggested what the UI really is or how it works. What are its mechanics, or what makes the UI tick?. Here I ‘ll attempt to do just that.

User interface = user-facing applications
A fundamental fact is that the user interface is made of a series of software applications; the idle screen, the menu app, the inbox, the camera app, the browser, the music player, a games or other downloaded application, etc. The ‘user journey’ is comprised of navigating in and out of different applications all of which collectively make up our perception of the phone’s UI. The handset OEM integrates the applications horizontally into each other, so that the end result is a seamless flow that hides the application boundaries. The following diagram is a graphical illustration of the user journey in the form of a circle, with selected core apps shown as an example.


The diagram illustrates several important properties of the user journey across the UI:
– The idle screen forms the beginning and end of each usage ‘trip’
– The idle screen, dialer, menu and sms/inbox applications take up the lion’s share of the user journey. We ‘ve used arc lengths to illustrate the percentage of time each application is active, but it is by no means exact; in fact it is oversimplified in purpose. There are few published studies into the topic of application usage as a proportion of the user journey, with a notable one being Nokia’s 360 programme (see this presentation for example).
– The arc length is proportional to the commercial importance of each application; the more an application is used, the more is the ‘usage surface’ and the commercial value of the inventory which it exposes. Among other things, this explains why Google opted for an operating system (Android) and not a browser for mobile phones, since the browser only makes up circa 5% or less of the user journey (see our earlier analysis).

Core vs Downloadable applications
Another important notion in the mechanics of the user interface is the distinction between core (embedded) and downloadable apps. By core apps we refer to the set of applications which:
a) form the vast majority of the user journey and
b) are pre-loaded or embedded into the handset ROM at the point of manufacture.

Core applications are typically the idle screen, dialer, main menu, settings menu, browser, inbox, calendar, contacts, camera and multimedia player. Downloadable applications are all apps which can be downloaded post-sales, i.e. by the user. There are fundamental differences between core and downloadable apps, which impact the developer audience, commercial relationships, technical integration, accessibility and overal commercial importance of these applications. The next table summarises the fundamental differences between core and downloadable applications.

Core applications Downloadable applications
95% of user journey 5% of user journey
Idle screen, dialer, inbox, calendar, contacts, .. Games, utilities, news, business, lifestyle apps,..
Embedded at pre-load phase Downloaded at post-sales phase
Interconnected horizontally Independent / not connected
Open to 2nd parties (OEMs and partners) Open to all 3rd party developers
Native apps Native, but also Flash, Java, Python, etc apps
Deeply integrated into device APIs Lightly integrated into device
Accessed via 0-2 clicks Accessed through menus, i.e. several clicks

There is a lot that can be said about the above attributes, and each one is an article in its own merit. For example, widget-based navigation allows downloadable app usage to take up much more than 5% of the user journey; the limited accessibility of downloadable apps on mass-market phones is what justifies the tiny share of the user journey. Another notable point is that technically all operating systems enforce tight technical boundaries between core and downloadable apps, while Android and WebOS are the new OS generation that is breaking down these technical boundaries. Commercially though, no OEM or operator has yet allowed users to replace core apps with downloadable ones, due to the implied increase in support requirements and related liabilities.

Overall, the difference between pre-load and post-sales installation of applications has huge ramifications in terms of technical and commercial route to market and barriers to entry; for example, any one can write an addressbook application on S60, but only the OEM can make this the default addressbook application, or offer access to otherwise ‘hidden’ APIs for integrating the app horizontally into the other core apps.

Blurring boundaries and the future of power apps
One of the most interesting developments in the mobile handset industry is how the pre-load and post-load boundaries are starting to disappear. For example mobile software management solutions are allowing modular installation and updating of core apps during the post-load phase (see our earlier research report on mobile software management); platforms like BREW MP, Java (on S60), and S60 are featuring modular updating and/or dynamic module loading; Android and WebOS are offering a simplified application environment for core apps open to all 3rd parties; Core apps are increasingly integrated with the network and internet cloud, as is the case with H3G’s INQ1 mobile phone which integrates Facebook, MSN and contacts into the idle screen.

Moving forward we see the development of four ‘power apps’ which will deeply integrate into the service cloud, and will also take up an increasing share of the user journey:
– the idle screen app: idle screen apps are being productised by handset OEMs (see Nokia’s S60 and S40 latest Home screen product) and consolidate an ever increasing amount of local device info (e.g. contacts) as well as service alerts,  status messages and advertising inventory.
– the Phonebook 2.0 app; the addressbook will evolve into offering a people-centric view of the world, with Facebook, MSN, MySpace, Twitter, etc connectivity, but also contact-centric actions (select contact, then click to SMS, call, locate,invite, etc) – see for example Voxmobile’s pioneering work in this field.
– the Calendar 2.0 app; the calendar should evolve into offering a timeline view of your schedule, as well as a history of photos, texts, emails sent (ala Nokia Lifeblog), probably combined with events happening in your area, notices of which contacts happen to be in the same city (via Dopplr or Tripit), weather updates, etc.
– the Location 2.0 app;. currently location apps are map-based, in other words they offer a 2D map-view of the world around you, with related attractions or utlities which are nearby. We can argue that the location apps of the future will have maps as just one of the many views; event-based views are another interesting concept, which would show you what’s happening around you, alert you to promotions, who’s nearby etc.

Ultimately, tomorrow’s mobile applications will offer zillions of alternative mashups of information in the device, network and web; but I would argue that the phonebook, calendar and location apps will form long arcs or cardinal points within the user journey, simply because this is how we humans are used to conceptualise the physical world; by the people, time and space around us.

Comments welcome as always.

– Andreas
twitter: @andreascon

Repeat Webinar: An Introduction to Mobile Open Source

Did you miss our first free webinar on Mobile Open Source in March? We had to turn down lots of attendees, as the 50 places quickly filled up in the first 24 hours leaving many people on our waiting list.

We will be repeating this webinar on Tuesday 19th May at 16:00 CET, and our registration form is now open. The webinar is now closed.

This 30 minute webinar offers insights on open source economics, who’s who in mobile OS, licenses vs governance models and how to leverage open source in your strategy.

This webinar offers a 10,000ft view of mobile open source, including:

– How open source maps into the mobile industry
– Why does the industry use open source and what are the related business models
– The diversity of community cultures and governance models
– What are the four roles your company can play in OSS?
– When to use open source and when not to
– Why open source is a radical change to how you manage software

Click here to register for this event. The webinar is now closed.

Places are limited to the first 100 registrations and are on a first come, first served basis.

This is a ‘teaser’ webinar with selected extracts from our one day deep-dive 360° workshop on everything that is mobile open source, from economics and business models to license best practices, software management guidelines and 20+ case studies of real world lessons from open source use in the mobile industry.

–    Vanessa
twitter: @visionmobile

Mobile widgets: market review and commercial reality

[Mobile widgets: hype or paradigm shift? Research Director Andreas Constantinou talks about the commercial reality behind widgets and compares and contrasts 8 widget platform solutions to shed more light into this new driver of mobile service adoption].

What’s in a widget? It’s amazing how such small pieces of cute graphics are managing to create such a hype wave in the mobile industry. What widgets lack in size, they gain in terms of market expectations; most European tier-1 operators have deployed or getting in proposals for widget-based solutions, while for handset manufacturers (e.g. N97) widgets are the latest must-have feature to drive up selling price in the footsteps of the iUserExperience.

Widgets everywhere!

The concept has come a long way; widgets as single-purpose, windowed, mini-applications, were introduced by Apple’s Dashboard, popularised by Yahoo’s Konfabulator and mass-adopted through Microsoft’s Vista. Yet while widgets are nice-to-have on PCs, they are a must-have on mobile; in a sense, mobile is the promised land for widgets,since their properties make them ideally suited for this domain; small screen space, limited memory requirements, quick to download due to small size, visually unobtrusive and condensing a diverse set of complex information onto a compact 4×4 grid.

There’s plenty of demand for widget-driven solutions; operator rationale for sourcing widget solutions varies, but generally revolves around three axes:
– a tool to increase mobile Internet usage on mass market handsets (like Opera Mini for everything beyond the web)
– a customer acquisition tool for attracting customers onto a data plan
– a tool to both discover AND deliver operator services

So what about technology supply? The hype wave has triggered the launch of a wide range of solution providers. Beyond the mainstream mobile software providers (ACCESS, Opera, Picsel, Sun, SurfKitchen and Yahoo), there are manufacturer-led solutions (Nokia WebRuntime, WidSets and Motorola WebUI) as well as numerous smaller mobile solution vendors (Insprit, FeedHenry, Streamezzo, Ulocate, ViaMobility, Webwag and Zumobi).

A fun part of what we do here at VisionMobile is vendor comparative analysis (e.g. see last year’s Mobile App Store analysis). We ‘ve spent quite a bit of time talking to widget solution vendors and comparing and contrasting their commercial attributes. For this analysis, we looked at 8 mobile widget products: Nokia WidSets, Nokia WRT, Opera, Access, Motorola WebUI, Yahoo Blueprint, Sun Java ODP and SurfKitchen Widgets. We selected major solution providers; Nokia with two widget solutions (with WidSets now being merged under Ovi), Opera (a strong performer with Vodafone and T-Mobile deals), Access (one of the earliest to roll out widgets with operators in Japan), Motorola WebUI (great vision, albeit slow to execute), Yahoo (impressively executed Yahoo Go! strategy, now extended to widgets, Sun (Internet and Java centric vision, but well resourced) and finally SurfKitchen (veteran in mobile software and ODPs, and recently extending onto widget deals).

We ‘ve summarised our comparative vendor research into the table below. There’s quite a lot of data in this table – so we ‘ve added a PDF version after the click.


So are widgets just another iFad ? We would argue that they are not. Widgets are perfectly suited for discovering and delivering the 100s of operator services that so far remain hidden behind WAP menus, premium SMS shortcodes and cryptic USSD instructions. Equally importantly, we believe that widgets will be also instrumental for exposing network services to third party developers (i.e. using widgets to wrap network APIs) and also engaging users in a social discussion around widgets (including service) discovery and sharing. We ‘ve only seen the tip of the widgets iceberg.

Comments welcome as always.

– Andreas
twitter: @andreascon