Friday, 15 June 2007

The cost of SpinVox

Maybe I was naive but I didn't consider that I would be charged for forwarding calls to the SpinVox voicemail system. Found this on their site after noticing the calls on my bill:

Divert charges may be used by Carriers when you are diverting your calls to your Spin-my-Vmail voicemail number. Normally, these charges will come out of your inclusive minutes, if applicable to your tariff. If these charges are not being deducted from your bundled minutes, you should contact your Carrier to find out why.

Still a great service but you pay your operator for using it as well SpinVox for getting the messages.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Sea Dragon - The Internet Goes Visual

This video is amazing. Make sure you watch it through to the bit about Notre Dame Cathedral.

This technology takes the Internet from a predominantly text medium into a visual web of the human experience. Imagine searching the Internet by loading a picture of something rather than typing in search terms, phenomenal.

I need to go an lie in a darkened room for a while, my head hurts.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Training in the art of extreme programming

One of the challenges we face when new developers start with us is introducing them to the wonders of Extreme Programming (XP).

For the un-initiated, XP is a set of development principles and methodologies first formalised by Kent Beck in his book Extreme Programming Explained.

This approach to development has dramatically reduced our defect count so when we release new features into our system they just work. This has served to increase confidence in our service not only with our customers but also internally. Our sales and customer support teams know that they are unlikely to be fire-fighting on the front line while the technical teams are fixing the latest release. I'm not saying nothing ever goes wrong, but it is most definitely the exception.

All this has been achieved while maintaining the agility of the development team. They can respond quickly to requirements or enhancements within weeks rather than months. Given the complexity of our system now, multiple message formats, routing features, multiple languages, multi-currency billing, real-time monitoring, etc, etc this is great news for the business.

We can add new services and features without breaking the existing system.

However, this isn't possible without a very different development approach. Pair Programming is probably the most obviously different element. This is whereby development is completed with two people side-by-side on the same computer. But Test Driven Development, the The Planning Game and the other practicies can all be quite daunting for someone new to the approach.

We have a couple of new developers starting with us in July so this is particularly pertinent. Previously I have thrust a copy of Extreme Programming Explained into the hands of the new guys and then immersed them in the process straight away. Nicholas, one of the senior members of the development team, has found an alternative in the book Extreme Programming Adventures in C#. He's highly recommended it as a book that explains how as well as why in the context if C# development rather than something more abstract.

So I'm off to buy some copies, will let you know how we get on.

Mobile Phone Applications, when will they ever take off?

Mobile phone apps are not successful. I have no doubt that there are exceptions to this assertion but I would suggest they're only in a niche context. Successful among a set of tech-savvy early adopters but not in the subscriber base as a whole. Is it that mobile phone apps are not providing a compelling user experience or are the barriers to using the applications too great?

A lot has been written and talked about the issues of downloading applications to the phone. Once I've managed to get over the hurdles of downloading and installing the application, I've then got to start it up.

First I have to remember where the app is installed. probably somwhere deep in the phone's menu system in obscurely named folders. Secondly if this application is going to be monitoring or waiting for an event before alerting me, I've got to remember to start it up when I switch on my phone.

I realised writing this that it's been ages since I've downloaded a phone app and things could have moved on, I thought I should probably try again. So I downloaded one of the IP-based mobile messaging applications, it was the first application I could think of I would want it starting up when I started the phone.

It was a nightmare, it didn't work. I think I selected the wrong GPRS settings on my Sony Ericsson K800i. But really who knows and if I was interested in the application before, I certainly wasn't now.

As for launching the application, it's hidden in an Applications folder under the Organiser menu option. The shortcut facility should have been my saviour but it would appear that you can't save links to individual applications.

PC operating systems provide all sorts of hooks and facilities to make it easier for me to use my applications and get them ready for me. Startup menu, system tray, quick launch bar are all in place to support me and get the PC ready for me to use. Is it too much to ask that my phone does the same?

So why has it come to this? I think it's down to the operating systems.

For a start their are lot's of them, Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson all ship their devices with proprietary operating systems. In the PC world for better or worse we've got Windows, well for the most part. Windows provides an essentially standard platform that developers can leverage to provide applications.

In the mobile phone world the only standard is really Java and that sits on top of the OS with variable support of base functions because of the variety of devices. It certainly doesn't provide facilities to change menus or automatic startup facilities.

The device manufacturers could make their OSs more flexible but I suspect their biggest customers, the network operators, may be less keen. Their desire to control the experience for their subscribers will probably constrain the experience for a while to come.

Enter Apple, soon to enter the market with a typically disruptive device. The support for Widgets in the iPhone looks especially interesting. Applications able to interact with web services that are available as part of the OS. Further, Apple is providing a developer program to enable 3rd party developers to build innovative new services for the phone.

As I commented in Innovation at the speed of Telecoms they face a real choice as they face up to the demand for the mobile Internet: innovation or control.

Apple may not get it right first time with the iPhone but if it is in any way successful, I hope it drives the other manufacturers to open up their devices so we can see some real innovation.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Network Address Books

There was much talk at Global Messaging about network address books. These are address books hosted by your mobile network provider on your behalf, instead of on your phone or SIM card. Check the Openwave Network Address Book for one of the offerings being touted to operators.

The rationale is that this allows the network to augment the contacts in your address book with an advanced set of features. Presence will be the most obvious feature but also close integration with other services will enrich other messaging and calling services.

It's a great idea from a feature point of view, but are users really going to go for it?

Privacy is the one consideration. Are people going to resist storing the details of who they know and communicate with on their operator's network. Given the success of Hotmail, Yahoo, etc I can't see this being a huge barrier. The convenience of having this access list wherever you're logged seems to have won over the majority.

The vision of the one address book for all time is probably going to be more challenging.

There will probably be a perception of being locked in to the mobile network. What happens when I move? Can I port my address book in the same way I can port my number?

Further, as a business user, my contacts are all in our in-house Exchange server. I can't imagine authorising uploading our internal contact database up to Vodafone's network, however convenient it would be.

So we're stuck with multiple address books, unless we can find an alternative that satisfies both privacy concerns and network functionality.

One route would be for the networks to adopt an open standards approach. Allow your network address book to incorporate both their database as well as other address books using open protocol standards like LDAP.

A request to your network address book would make an subsequent request to our corporate address book and add the network value, like presence, location on the way through.

While this would still expose our corporate address book to outside world it would be in a controlled manner to a trusted party (the network operator) and allow us to switch off or change networks as required.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Heckled by the Man from Hotxt

I bumped into Mike Grenville from 160 Characters on the train last night on the way back from Monte Carlo. We had a long chat about all things messaging and how there seemed to be a real buzz around the conference, at least on the messaging side.

The feeling is that mobile messaging has still a long way to go. Person to person traffic may be peaking and the chat traffic favoured by younger mobile users may move to Instant Messaging. However machines are starting to talk more and more and mobile messaging is being used as the bearer for a whole host of applications that need to push and receive information from mobile devices.

In an industry that is desperately running after the new things trying to catch the next wave, I lost count of the number of times I heard YouTube, MySpace, et al. referred to, the core services are continuing to defy the projections.

The services that really work, the stuff that people really can’t live without, the services that differentiate the mobile telecoms market from the fixed telecoms or internet markets, continue to grow and grow.

Mike also said that Andrew Bud, mBlox, had mentioned to him about being heckled by the man from Hotxt. After a bit of discussion, it turns out it was me. I had asked a question along the lines of my post Innovation at the speed of Telecoms during a panel session Andrew was sitting on. I must admit I thought his responses were a little prickly but I put that down to his style.

So Andrew, if you’re reading, it was me, Adam from Esendex. Not sure if that turns the heckle into an incisive line of questioning ;-)

UPDATE: Andrew was reading and it wasn't me, it's all covered in the comments. So that's cleared up then.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Innovation at the speed of Telecoms

A big subject of debate today at the messaging congress was collaboration and how that will stimulate innovation in the telecoms sector.

Paulo Simões of Portugal Telecom is ready to embrace the Internet, he proclaimed the walled garden to be dead, real innovation would come from outside the telecoms companies like it has in the Internet world.

In response, Andrew Bud of mBlox made a typically candid assertion about the choice the telecoms industry faced.

Why, he asked, was a $700B industry (Telecoms) trying to emulate a $150B industry (the Internet) in which all of the infrastructure value had been lost? The mobile operators were in a great position to charge for the network enablers such as messaging, data transport, presence, voice, etc that are required to delivery a rich experience to customers while they are mobile. They should be making sure they are charging for this and not just jumping into bed with the ISPs because they feared being left behind.

To me this presents a dichotomy for the operators. On the one hand, they want innovation at Internet speed, on the other they want to control and charge for use of their networks. In the Internet world, this control is no longer there which is the point Andrew was making, but this lack off control is exactly what has stimulated innovation.

In the Internet world you can use two PCs on a LAN as a test environment. If you need a new way of communicating you just develop a new protocol. When you’re ready you just make it live and see whether there is uptake for the service. The barriers are so low that pretty much anyone can have a go.

In some cases it is possible to create innovative mobile apps that rely on an IP stack but these are pretty limited. Not least because maintaining an IP connection in the mobile world is pretty difficult and push is nigh on impossible.

So it’s access to the enablers that’s required things like

  • When a handset is turned on
  • When it roams onto a different network
  • HLR control for selective switching of voice or signalling traffic

Access to these services would allow real innovation. It’s these events and services that differentiate the mobile world from the fixed Internet world.

Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that operators let a bunch of bedroom developers loose on their networks. But there may be a middle ground.

The operators will have test environments, discrete networks on which pretty much anything can happen without impacting the production network. Why not expose them as part of the developer/partner programs?

Alternatively the equipment vendors, Ericsson, Nokia Siemens, Telsis, Comverse, Airwide could do something similar. It may even help them sell more equipment to the operators. Here’s a shiny new bit of tin and here’s some fully test applications that can make use of this features that you can launch immediately and generate revenue immediately.

If this doesn’t happen, mobile customers will become frustrated by the pace of change and look to Microsoft, Google, etc for the mobile services that they want to use going forward.

Then the Telecoms industry will emulate the Internet, but in revenue terms and not innovation.

The Limitless Applications of Non-P2P Mobile Messaging

This was the subject of the second afternoon's sessions in Track B. Closing with a panel discussion on the subject of interactive mobile messaging.

First up were Atos Origin and Swiftpass talking about mobile ticketing for the UK rail industry. The system they were developing had had to overcome, and was still overcoming, several major hurdles in terms of handset support, forward locking of messaging and payment processing but it presented a tantalising vision of travel ticketing in the future. If they get it to work, all credit should be due, it will have been a long and arduous journey.

Incidently, the European travel industry seems to standardising on the 2D Aztec barcode which presents an exciting opportunity for single ticketing across Europe, or at least a big piece of the jigsaw.

The opportunity is really put into context if you look at the Japanese experience. Apparently this is the first year ever that the Japanese have had less physical money in circulation. The reason, mcommerce. The phone as payment, ticketing and identification device is so far ahead in Japan, people just don't need to carry as much money.

Michael Kowalzik of TynTec followed this with what I can only describe as a thinly veiled sales presentation under the title 'Examining the Growth Curve of Corporate Message from a Global Viewpoint'.

Enter Alex Meisl of Sponge to give us a lift before we broke for coffee. He's an accomplished presentator who also benefited from some great material. Basically he gave us lots of examples of interactive mobile campaigns that they'd been involved with.

My personal favourite was the Audi R8 campaign that involved 28 billboards in central London with an instruction to text in to hear the car. Send your text and you would receive a sound file of the car starting up and driving off. As I'm sure you can imagine the R8 sounds like beast.

I missed the next presentation after coffee, catching up with emails, but was eagerly waiting for the panel session. Unfortunately very few people stayed for it, I think there were 2 operator representives one from Telenor of Norway and the other from KTF of Korea.

Erik Rosén from Ericsson was outspokenly gobsmacked that this session wasn't better attended by the operators. This was, in his view, one of most important sessions of the event and represented where the growth was going to come from in messaging in the coming years.

So we all agreed that the operators should be doing more and were missing a trick, except in Norway and Korea of course.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Presence, it's pretty binary

Mathieu Saccharin of Bouyges Telecom made a great point today I felt I should share with you.

Presence is either ON or OFF. Anything else, eg: Busy, Out to Lunch, Scratching my Rear, etc, is just nonsense. I only want to know if the person I am going to send an instant message to is ON-line or OFF-line, ie are they likely to respond.

This has some interesting ramifications for the mobile world.

  • Are we always online because our phone is always on? I'm not
  • If not, how do we signify whether we're on or off line?

SMS 2.0 and beyond

The future of SMS services was the subject of a talk by Jeff Wilson, Chairman of Telsis as well as Andrew Tobin, Head of Messaging Platforms at O2 UK.

Seemed supplier and client were singing from the same hymn sheet, although I think was a by product of a shared vision rather than something more orchestrated.

The thrust was that advanced SMS services were restricted by the current SMS delivery architecture.

When an SMS is sent the local network SMSC looks up the current location of the handset in the operator's HLR (Hardware Location Register) the message is sent directly via the host network MSC (Mobile Switch Centre) and not by the subscribers' network SMSC. A message sent to a O2 subscriber from another network would never be seen by the O2 SMSC.

While this could be desirable from a load distribution point of view, it means there is a set of advanced services that cannot be offered because not all the mssages (around 40% apparently) pass through the messaging platform. These services could include:

  • Copy or audit trail recording for business compliance purposes
  • SPAM and other desirable message filtering, eg bullying
  • Auto response services like email Out of Office attendants

The vision is to patch the HLR to always return the home network's SMSC and have this reference a local rules database to enact the appropriate functionality.

I think this is great stuff. It will take a while, changes to operators networks always do, but it has some awesome potential. The question is, will the operators give 3rd parties access to this functionality and allow some real innovation in SMS services to develop?

Mobile IM vs SMS or the 'My community's bigger than yours' wars

The morning at Global Messaging is given over to keynotes and broader strategic presentations while the afternoon gets a little more down and dirty.

John Delaney from Ovum was the first session I caught. One of the key aspects of mobile messaging he was predicting was the abstraction of the user from the decision about bearer.

He attests that someone wants to send a message to someone and they don't really care about, or shouldn't have to care, how it gets there. I may be a committed techie but I think we make decisions about the types of messages we send according to the type of information we're sending and the capabilities of the recipient. I've blogged about this previously in The BlackBerry Threat.

AOL and Microsoft were next up saying how much they loved mobile and that they were doing deals with operators left right and centre to bring the IM experience to Mobile.

The man from Microsoft and the brass neck to say they weren't interested in monetisation and were thinking purely about the user experience. This clashed somewhat with Paulo Simões of Portugal Telecom who was talking of the 'draconian' contract approaches from the big global ISPs.

Portugal Telecom have looked at their market and partnered with the national leaders in IM, who are not MSN, AOL, Yahoo or Google. They are taking the approach that anything really does go. They provide a unified IM client but are happy for their users to user other 3rd party IM clients.

This was during a panel session and at this point the MS and AOL guys started shifting uneasily in their seats and talking about carrots and sticks. They really wanted to encourage developers of these 'unlicensed' clients to be part of their development programs. MS in particular were quite clear that they were happy to use the big legal stick for all those who corrupted the brand.

Enter Steven van Zanen of Acision, the newly divested mobile products division of LogicaCMG.

The thrust of his presentation was that the mobile operators were acting like rabbits in headlights in the face of the Mobile IM hype. Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL where playing the ‘my community’s bigger than yours’ game and trying to wade into the mobile market by essentially replicating the IM experience in mobile.

This went down well with the operator crowd, at least those who have resisted the advances of the 'global' ISPs. I quote global because I think the problem is these companies are used to a pre-eminent position in the US. The US carriers have welcomed them with open arms because they've never got SMS to work. So they've come to Europe expecting the same treatment and some operators have given it to them.

They seem to have forgotten why SMS has been successful. It's not because it's a sub-IM experience and people have learned to make do, it's because it's a great service that ticks all the boxes.

  • It works on every handset, apparently 25,000 handsets are sold every hour in Asia that only support text or voice
  • It works cross-network, one community the global MSISDN community
  • It doesn't require a seperate client. I don't download Java clients can't be bothered with the hassles of getting it working and I'm one of the techies.
  • It works when someone is online or is not. Forget presence if someone responds I know they're online if not I know they'll get back to me, meanwhile I can get on with my life.

Good news is, if I'm right, Mobile IM will not cannablise SMS revenues. It will appeal to some people, but most will prefer the SMS experience to the Mobile IM alternative.

Interestingly enough Mathieu Saccharin of Bouygues Telecom reports that in their trial with launching MSN, voice and SMS traffic actually went up for the users with Mobile IM. Though he put this down to two reasons

  1. Texting your buddy to tell them to login to MSN, and
  2. Calling your buddy because you couldn't be bothered typing anymore

Couple of quotes to end this post with, both from Stefan van Zanen:

SMS is the biggest brand in the world
SMS is the only mobile data service that has been successful

I'm in Monte Carlo and the sun is shining

Arrived in Monte Carlo now. In need of a coffee but otherwise ready to go.

The bed was comfortable, wasn't too hot or too cold and my fellow passengers were quiet sleepers.

Would I do it again? Yes

While it felt a but awkward sharing at first in reality it didn't make a bit of difference to my sleep. That said I did spy some individual cabins as I got off the train which didn't come up as option when I booked. Will definitely try and find out what they cost next time

The Corea Lunea train I was on was probably reaching the end of it's life so fittings were a but tired but everything I needed was there. Except perhaps a shower.

Down to the business of the conference, will post later on what's happening the world of Global Messaging.

UPDATE: it's occured to me subsequently that I'm happy to sleep on a plane to the US or Australia with hundreds of strangers, 3 is positively discrete.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Sleeping to Monte Carlo on the Corail Lunea

Travelling to Global Messaging in Monte Carlo, I've decided to try the sleeper service from Paris. The cost wasn't much different, once you factor in the hotel savings, and it meant I am away for slightly less time. Also, in these carbon conscious times I thought I should try an alternative to flying.

The last time I travelled in a couchette was in my youth while touring Europe. In those days money was the main priority so it was always a rough and ready affair.

This time I'm going first class but that still means sharing with 3 other people but at least it's a proper bed and I've got the top bunk.

More info as the journey progresses but so far it is certainly an adventure.


Early indications from my development team are that the boxes are being ticked by the EPiServer solution.

It was a bit tricky to get setup up, but once in place the real potential is being slowly revealed.

We're going to attempt to build our new website with this system. Nothing like a real set of requirements to put a system through it's paces.

Here's hoping it's up to the challenge.