Sunday, 28 October 2007

Mission Log, star date 28-10-07

I encountered a strange new world...

It was a success.

This was always more of a market research exercise for us than a customer acquisition drive or partner sourcing exercise. I have to admit I was a little sceptical about the value we would get from being part of the mission. We were planning to go to CTIA Wireless anyway, why did I need the help of the British Consulate?

Josianne Gros-Louis, Vice Consul for Communications, and her team put me straight. Thanks to the various events they put together, I met everyone I needed to meet and learnt loads about the market.

Meeting the industry analysts was the big success story of my mission. Mike Sigal of the Guidewire Group and Derek Kerton of the Derek Kerton really allowed me to pick their brains.

Mike also gave me a real taste for the bay-area entrepreneurial approach. Do it, don't mess around, if you're going to launch, launch big. A company in stealth mode is not interesting, it has nothing to say. Try not, do or do not, there is no try.

Actually that last one was Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but you get the idea.

The approach is infectious. I left San Francisco pumped full of entrepreneurial vigour, with a head overflowing with ideas and the knowledge that the market was ready for us.

I call that a successful trip.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Enhanced Mobile Messaging: What’s Beyond SMS?

Summary of the panel session I mentioned over. First up were T-Mobile giving a carrier's perspective. The crux of their vision was a standards lead, interoperable messaging service that would embrace availability and group sending.

VeriSign must take the tenacity plaudits for continuing to beat the MMS drum. Their view is that what people want to do is Point - Shoot – Share and that is what MMS is all about. Interoperability is here, growth rates are higher than SMS, though this is with far lower numbers.

The representative from OZ talked at great length and clarity about mobile IM blurring boundaries between PC and phone. In his view the phone would become the laptop and the PC would be a research and media station.

Another interesting observation was that social networking sites are really just one-to-many IM. Email use is dropping in preference to networking services like Facebook, Bebo, et al. People will be members of multiple communities and will interact with them based on their context.

Kirusa talked about the success their having in the emerging markets with Voice SMS. You dial * followed by the number and record a voice message. The recipient receives an SMS with instructions to pick it up.

In their opinion, this fills the void in the communication matrix for asynch voice between voice calls and voice mail in the same way SMS sits between IM and Email.

This was a theme extended on by Pinger, a bay area start-up providing voice messaging services. You send someone a voice message, they receive the call and can then reply straight away. That way you get the personality and mood of voice without the hassle of navigating a voice mail system.

So what do I think?

Voice messaging is interesting and the guys at Pinger seem to be making it very simple. I'm not sure it will ever surpass textual messaging. That is definately here to stay, whether we record on the phone using speech recognition (not covered in the session) or type it in it's the most efficient way to send a message as well as to receive one.

For me what is really going to change is context. The context of a message is going to alter how we receive and respond it. I believe that people will want their communications organised around context. This will require a move away from pure messaging clients to tools that are designed for the type of communication we undertake depending on whether we're talking to friends, family or work.

The Facebook for BlackBerry app is a good example of this. This is great for communicating with friends but I wouldn't use it to communicate with family or work colleagues.

This is a step towards the bearer becoming less important ie SMS, Email, MMS, SIP, etc. As one person put it during the session:

We rely on people to be human routers

This is a recurring theme of visions of the the future of messagimg but one thing is standing in the way it becoming a reality, pricing.

While different messaging bearers are priced differently, people are going to have to be able to make a decision. However, ff the carriers decided to make it all the same rate, or even flat rate, this is a very different story. Applications or the networks could then make the decision for us, we don't care we just want the message delivered.

So, as usual, the carriers hold the key. If they decide, messaging utopia could well be within our grasp.

Americans don’t get mobile like we do. Yeah right!

Attended a great panel session about the future of mobile messaging titled Enhanced Mobile Messaging: What’s Beyond SMS? I’m going to post separately about the services discussed but in writing it I realised the session had crystallised some feelings I had about what I’d been seeing here.

I really got the impression that feeling a bit disgruntled about being left behind in the whole SMS thing and being seen as laggards by us in Europe, the Americans are determined to be at the forefront of the next wave.

Similar sessions I’ve attend at the couple of Global Messaging Congresses have come up with some similar ideas, but none of these had the clarity of vision or left me with the impression that they were going to happen anytime soon.

Innovation just seems to ooze out of everything IT in the San Francisco Bay area. I found the whole visit quite inspiring for that reason. There is a buzz around, an assumption that the status quo is there challenged.

A key aspect of the approach is to just go out and do it, it might just work. Do it without the carriers first, get traction with real customers and if you get enough of them then it’s a no-brainer for the carriers.

While the US carriers are generally lambasted for their control-freakery and protectionist approach I think they’re in a far better position to make some of these things happen than in Europe. They have complete control over the handsets so if they want to ship a new feature they can make sure it get’s everywhere.

I think we’re in danger of being a bit complacent, viewing our US cousins and their clunky handsets with a misplaced superiority while we stroke our shiny new Nokias.

People use mobile services that help them run their lives. Shiny new handsets quickly lose their lustre.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Facebook for BlackBerry, my view

I think it's really well done.

It seems to use the standard email notification system but intercepts the messages before they get into the main BlackBerry inbox. You then get a little facebook icon in the alert are on the BlackBerry home screen.

It doesn't have applications it's really about seeing the status of your friends, poking them, writing on walls and exchanging messages with them.

There's been a lot of talk at CTIA Wireless about mobile device applications just focusing on what the mobile user needs. This follows those principles.

When I'm out and about, the most important functionality to me is communication. Zombies, film quizzes and all the other stuff that you do when you're a bit bored is a lot less important.

Actually what this does for me is change facebook into a powerful, realtime, communication service, rather than something I do when I'm looking for a diversion from whatever I'm working on.

Take this thought forward and email is no longer a communication application but it becomes just a transport layer for a richer, contextual communication paradigm. If I want to communicate with my friends I use facebook, for work I use Outlook.

Crazy valuations or not they are shaking things up. I was a little sceptical about facebook before but the more I get familiar with what they're doing and how they're doing it, I'm becoming more and more impressed.

It's also made me want a BlackBerry Curve, the photo tagging feature looked very cool and my trusty old 8707 just 'aint gonna cut it in the new era.

BTW, BlackBerry screenshot created using BBScreenShooter. You have to also download the BlackBerry JDE (90MB+ which you have to register for) but the application worked a treat, very simple.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Facebook app for BlackBerry - looking very cool indeed

At the keynote from Duncan Moskovitz, co-founder of facebook, and have just downloaded the BlackBerry app they've announce and it looks very good, very well implemented.

Proper review later.

Steve Ballmer, professional pit-bull

The keynote today was from Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. The first thing that came into my head as he strode out and launched into his speech was that he was one scary man. You could almost see the veins in his temples pumping as he delivered the wireless world according to Microsoft.

This was taken to a new level when he brought out his senior product managers to demonstrate some key software. The only way I can describe their demeanour was petrified.

Forget the jocular atmosphere they were trying to portray. The heavily scripted nature of their exchanges with Steve merely emphasised the terror that was looming, umistakeably behind their eyes.

One of the demos actually went wrong, Live search not returning any results. It must have been expected because quick as a flash a new mobile device appeared with the search results pre-loaded. Odds on that guy being moved to the dull end of the Microsoft product portfolio.

Even Steve Largent president of the CTIA who was chairing this event got in on the act. Apparently he was 'very pumped' about some of the stuff Steve was taking about. If you don't believe me check out the full transcript of the keynote.

As you probably tell there was nothing new, inspirational or earth shattering about this keynote. Facebook man is up tomorrow, let's hope he's going to be disruptive.

Something simple, small and nice on the hip

This is a quote from today from one of the panelists (from Sprint) at a educational session I went to today at the CTIA conference.

What was he talking about?

He was describing a BlackBerry and it was said as he flicked his hip towards his hand.

I was on stitches, until I realised everyone else was nodding sagely. 'Yes', the rest of the audience agreed, 'I can see the new Curve looking great on my hip'.

It's a very different mobile world over here and not just because they keep their mobile phones in belt mounted pouches. The carriers are king, everything goes through them.

People buy their phones from them. Not from intermediary like Carphone Warehose but from the network. In the UK we often choose a handset then choose the network (carrier) that offers the best deal to get that handset, complete reverse here.

The networks also control access to their customers with absolute ruthlessness. All SMS services have to be run through shortcodes, period. Virtual mobile numbers, dynamic sender not a chance, or as I was told by one of the networks tonight.

We're not even listening to business cases, it just 'aint gonna happen.

From a European perspective this is astounding, completely alien. But hey, these are very successful businesses serving the most demanding consumers in the world, right?

Time will show whether the Rest of the World model will eventually prevail. In the meantime while we talk of a global economy, culture really is everything.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A example of great KISS'ing

Don't necessarily want to labour this KISS thing but...

I was chatting tonight to Stuart Godfree of mkodo tonight at the UKTI Mission reception at the British Consulate here and we got onto the subject of SpinVox. It occured to me that it's a fantastic example of a mobile service that has embraced KISS in spades.

It's so simple to use, you just have to be able to talk into a phone to leave a message and receive a text to get the message. Everyone can use it. Perfect.

Hats off to them.

I've touched an iPhone

I know it's not exactly news, but I hadn't had a play with one until today.

I'm in San Francisco for CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment and on my wander round to get my bearings, I happened to find myself in an Apple shop.

It is lovely. Size wize it's bang on. The UI is pretty easy to navigate, made a few mistakes but that's probably more hangups from the Windows and Nokia interfaces I'm used to. The slidy finger thing with pictures, the auto rotating when you move the device around, all very cool.

The feature I was really keen to try was the keyboard, to see how good the iPhone would be as a messaging device. So I clicked on the SMS icon (top-left on the main menu, the most prominent position) and attempted to write a message.

It would appear I don't know where the ends of my thumbs are. I very quickly got very frustrated, constantly having to correct what I was attempting to type. I gave it a few goes but wasn't really improving.

Without any tactile feedback, it's very hard to be accurate. Protuding buttons give your thumbs something to home in on, allowing you to slighty correct before you press the button. With the flat screen approach you don't get that.

I understand that there are trials being undertaken with tactile response from touchscreens. Interesting, but it's going to need to allow you to feel that your in the right place before you press, rather than just letting you know that you've pressed something that you may or may not have wanted to press.

So for me the jury is out. In the European market I feel it my struggle if other people have a similar experience. I would imagine texting is far more important to the target segment in UK, Germany, France, etc. than in the US. Couple with that with the lack of 3G support and my money is on most people waiting for version 2.

But then again, it is lovely.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Just KISS and it'll happen

It’s a maxim we try and keep at the forefront of our minds when developing our services, it’s core to the XP methodology we live by. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is something that is often overlooked in the technology industry.

In the presentation I saw from Avaya at IP07, they were demonstrating how to get your employees to make their mobile calls through the corporate PBX. The overwhelming message was make it simple, that’s what will make users adopt it.

Their two recommendations were

  • Avoid dual mode like the plague, it’s too difficult and therefore people work around it
  • Do a deal with you network operator whereby all calls to and from your company’s PBX are at flat rate

Taking point 1 initially, this is signals to me that the traditional FMC (Fixed Mobile Convergence) approach of WiFi or Bluetooth while in the home zone and then traditional GSM/3G when out of range is being accepted as not viable.

While there may be some cost benefit, it’s not significant to overcome the user experience hurdles that the current dual-mode handsets put in front of users. People just want to make calls, and in actual fact are prepared to pay more to make them more conveniently.

In the business context the question of cost is even less of an issue to the end-user. Generally their company’s paying, which leads nicely onto point 2.

If a company can negotiate a fixed cost deal for any calls made from employee mobile phones back to the PBX it becomes economic to route all calls through it. Suddenly full routing, tracking and recording is under the control of the company. Calls outside the company can take advantage of fixed line pricing instead of costly mobile agreements, especially when calls are made internationally.

However there is a problem. In order for this to work, the user has to download, and use an application on their phone. The application then accepts the number dialled, calls the company’s PBX and requests that it establishes the call to the destination.

Suddenly it’s no longer simple.

This does get round the call quality and coverage issues presented by offerings from companies like Truphone. Using the existing mobile network, with 99+% population coverage means people should be able to make the calls pretty much where they want.

The problem is, users don’t want to use applications; they want to use their phone. They are Normobs, why would they want to navigate the applications menu on their phone to make a call when they can just key in the numbers.

A company may be able to convince/incentivise some hardened road-warriors to use an application like this, but the whole workforce, IMHO not a chance.

The mobile operators could technically provide this service to their corporate customers but I don’t see the economics stacking up for them. Fixed rate deals are just something else that’s turning them into a dumb pipe, not something they’ve spent billions of pounds over the last decade or so to achieve.

I do find the many approaches to try and circumvent the mobile network operators intriguing, many are very innovative but I don’t believe any yet will be adopted by the Normob (Normal Mobile User).

Therein lies the strength of the mobile network operators position. Unless you KISS people are not prepared to change.

Mobile service on trains rant

Can someone explain to me why I cannot, in this day and age, maintain a phone signal on a train? Specifically the train line from London to Nottingham.

I understand the physical issues around radio signals, fast moving receivers and static cells but surely technology exists to surmount that. I’m sure I remember hearing about a project to establish high quality phone signals to all train lines at a Vodafone wholesale conference once, what happened? In the Metro today they reported that mobile cells are being installed on aeroplanes, surely that’s harder/more expensive than a train.

The network operators have a captive audience on the train. People stuck in one place for an extended period are going to want to communicate, work, consume content, browse the web, anything to counteract the boredom.

I’m pretty sure Vodafone were advertising mobile TV as something you could do on the train. Maybe it’s possible on the train line from London to their Newbury HQ but not on the routes I use.

To me, it seems like a recipe for a collection of perfect consumers corralled into one location ready to devour as many minutes, texts or bytes that the network can support.

So if there is something I’m not understanding about the business model or the technology then please let me know.

Otherwise, Vodafone and all the other operators please get it sorted. I, and the train users of Britain, want to spend some more money with you.

Friday, 19 October 2007

IP07 - Please call someone

Popped into IP07 this week, the annual exhibition covering the convergence of voice data and video over IP networks. This produced a pretty eclectic mix of exhibitors. To give you a flavour:

  • BT and Thus with their managed network services,
  • Dialogic with their telephony cards,
  • Microsoft of course (what it must be like to have a marketing budget for attending every show almost irrespective of relevance).
  • Symantec and IPSwitch offering network monitoring management tools (we use WhatsUp)
  • Nokia with all sorts of device management offerings as well their obligatory sexy handsets in glass case
  • eFax with the internet faxing service
  • Coms, a hosted VoIP provider
  • Nortel, Mitel and Avaya offering their particular take on the next generation PBX.

It is to this last group I turn for an interesting insight.

I attended presentations by both Mitel (about Presence) and Avaya (about connecting mobile devices with the corporate PBX) and both had a recurring theme:

Please make voice calls.

People are increasingly using email and text messaging to communicate rather than picking up the phone. If you sell voice systems, this is bad news.

There was talk of the scourge of email trails and how organisations are becoming paralysed as people covered their backsides and cc’d the world. People are using email to hide but are being increasingly overwhelmed by more and more messages. If everyone just picked up the phone, they claimed, life would be better and things would get done.

Picking up the point about hiding, the man from Avaya did have the decency to mention voice mail, the original communication avoidance tool.

There will always be people who want to avoid direct communication but this can be for a number of reasons, not necessarily just because their work-shy.

I use a mix voice calls, email and text to better manage my communications. The choice is a function of the information to be exchanged, my availability and location as well as that of the other party.

Voice calls are if I want to discuss something now or just want to make the communication more personal

Emails are if it’s something that I don’t need an answer to straight away or I’m expecting the other person to consider or research a response

Text is when I’m mobile or I know the other person is, or I don’t know where they are. If it get’s complex or drawn out I’ll generally move over to a voice call or email from my BlackBerry

Receiving and answering a voice call is incredibly interrupting. It stops you dead in your tracks, preventing you from completing what you are doing. Interrupting someone while they’re mind is elsewhere forces them to readjust their thinking and as the caller, you have to negotiate the preamble while this happens before you can have an efficient conversation with the other party.

Email and text on the other hand allow the recipient to complete the task they are currently undertaking. This is far more efficient for both parties.

Send them an email or text and you give them a chance to respond coherently. I’m not saying they will, I’ve fired off far too many reactive emails and texts in my time, but they can.

Whether they do or not is a function of them not the communication method. Impromptu voice calls promote this kind of behaviour.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Beware the Normob, for they are many and they are right

Normobs, normal mobile users, are everywhere. They make calls, they text, that's it. They're not interested in mobile browsing, watching TV on the go or anything else the product managers at the network operators believe is the next big thing.

Ewan at SMSTextNews posted about the standard of handsets he was seeing people using while he was in LA : Welcome to LA, home of the crap handset.

While I to have concerns over the sartorial crimes committed in the name of mobile phone protection I also think this observation is an important one for the mobile industry.

I am not a Normob. I have 2 phones, an N95 and a Blackberry. I change them when I want. I am technically savvy. I don’t pay my own phone bill. I should be a product manager’s dream. However, I’m not a big mobile Internet user, I’m not interested watching TV on my phone and I find mobile applications irritating.

It’s easy to get carried away with sexy new services but these services are generally used by early adopters who actually enjoy that they are difficult to use or that the experience is sub-standard. The problems provide a barrier which in turn makes these services exclusive.

Only if you can surmount the hurdles, understand the technology and have the patience of a saint can you be part of the select group who can experience this latest new thing. These are not the attributes of the Normob.

What the Normob wants are services that are useful and that fit in with their daily lives.

I don’t have a problem with early adopters. They are a key group in the development of any technology. Without them testing, trialling and reporting, new services would never get off the ground.

The problem I have is with the crazy valuations and exponential business plans that accompany them. As if somehow getting adopted by the majority is the easy bit, a given if you’ve tapped into this geeky niche.

I’m sure some of these applications are excellent and that they fulfil a need, however temporary, in their target audience. But until the Normob is using them, they remain interesting rather than ground-breaking.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

I'm on a mission

I'm taking part in a UKTI trade mission to CTIA Wireless in San Francisco in a couple of weeks time. Three days of networking, talking and meeting, including a 07:30AM networking breakfast organised by the Canadian Consulate.

I would never consider myself a champion networker, I'm not even sure what would constitute one. However, I'm really looking forward to it.

Steve Ballmer of Microsoft is giving one of the keynotes and I understand he's an entertaining speaker. I saw Bill Gates speak a few years ago and he seemed more other-worldly. Though it was in London so he could have been jet-lagged.

It's not all good news mind you. Seems I'm going to miss the keynote from Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of FaceBook as well as the mBlox party because I'm flying home on Wednesday night after the mission program finishes.

The real focus of the trip is to find out what the US and Canadian markets would make of business messaging, Esendex style. There is a lot of talk in the press and blogs at the moment about people in the US embracing text messaging, be that SMS or other, thanks to American Idol and other media embracement of this communication channel. However, the vast majority of the commentary focuses on the consumer.

It's the same in the other markets we operated in. I think the MDA in the UK are the only body that I've come across who have consistently talked about, and researched, business messaging.

Are US businesses ready?

We have a reasonable number of US customers already, especially given we've never really promoted ourselves across the pond, so I'm confident. But, there's nothing like talking to people and that's what my trip is about, to find out.

The problem of dependency

Regular readers will know that we've just launched our new web site. There are some teething issues, in certain, thankfully infrequently, situations the CMS system we're using doesn't like presenting the page to the site visitor.

My team are in close contact with EPiServer to get it sorted but it's leaving us feeling a little out of control. It doesn't sit well with the control freakery I've cultivated.

One of the key tenets of the Esendex Messaging Systems that has developed over the years is doing it ourselves. We've developed, much to the surprise of many people we interconnect with, our own protocol implementations to interact with their systems. On top of that are our own messaging systems, underpinning our customer applications. Our mantra has become:

DIY to get it right

I appreciate this might sound a little like I'm blowing our own trumpet and you're probably right. We're actually very proud of what we've done and it's given us a strong reliable platform that our customers can rely on.

Enter the third party CMS system. We're using it because it is very functional, does far more than our in house system we had built, and gives us the control we need. However when there is a problem we're paralysed. Frantically trying to debug the problem on behalf the supplier to try and sort the problem. It just doesn't sit right with us.

I have no doubt this was the right decision. The EPiServer platform is a cut above anything else we evaluated and gives us so many more features. We've just got to accept that sometimes we can't fix it.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Customer Service - BT this time.

I've had a fantastic week of customer service rounded off nicely by BT.

Currently setting up BT Business Broadband at home on a new phone line. There were some issues at the exchange which prevented them from activating the ADSL straight away. I received this text message on Friday, twice.

BT Business Broadband Order xxxxxxx Please contact us regarding your order on 08002346553, access PIN xxx by 09/10/07 to prevent the order being cancelled

Cancelled! What was going on?

I phoned the number and the lady at the call centre told me it was just the standard message and nothing to worry about. They just wanted to tell me that the ADSL would be enabled on the 11th October.

So plus marks to BT for using SMS to keep me updated about the order. Minus marks for:

  1. Sending it too me twice
  2. Using a standard template which made me think there was a problem
  3. Not using the text message to tell me the information and save me a call

Time and time again companies implement customer service systems with apparently little thought to the implementation. Julian had a similarly frustrating experience with the Easyjet SMS updates : EasyJetText Alerts from StreamThru - First Encounter.

Frustratingly it seems that companies feel they just have to deliver some, any, information via SMS and they've ticked off that feature. It's a different channel with it's own vagaries that must be respected if these features are to be useful.

The good news is that when I got home, the broadband was already live.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

I have a new homepage

No, not our rather sexy new web site, but this totally mesmerising service in our EPiServer CMS system called EPiTrace.

It tracks people as they interact with your web site in near real time. The results are displayed on a flash animation which comprises a drag and clickable site map with little spheres orbiting the pages. Each of these spheres represents a person visting your site and the bounce around each page very agreeably. You can even setup audio alerts to ping whenever someone visits certain pages.

EPiServer very bravely have a live demo running showing what's happening on their web site.

Not sure of the commercial value of seeing this info live, Google Analytics is probably better for overall trend analysis.

Still it looked fantastic on the 40" flat screen TV we've got in the office.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

BlackBerry Free Island Offer

Came across a very funny bit of marketing from Sprint for the new BlackBerry 8830.

A limited time offer of a free island with every purchase for only $10.5M.

Private Island Offer.

Another fantastic example of third party support

I came in this morning to another fantastic example of support. This was from the company who provide one of our systems management tools. We contacted them after we found a problem while testing an upgrade. Bear in mind we pay for this software and for support as well.

I wanted to let you know that this issue has been escalated to development, who are working on a fix for a release in the near future. When this release is made available, I’ll be happy to update you with download information.

Lucky we don't want to use it anytime soon then.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

New Ecommerce Payment Processor Required


We use HSBC for payment processing on our website. It has made sense from a commercial point of view to use the service provided by our bank. We have so many bank accounts in different countries and currencies, anything to keep it simple.

Tonight I've had enough.

The support has always been atrocious, a non-technical helpdesk trying to support an integration product by script rather than getting access to people who know what they're talking about. If it goes down, we just have to lump it.

This evening the PAS processing, for Visa and Mastercard secondary validation, was broken.

We phoned the helpdesk.

After holding for an half an hour we got through to someone to be be told:

The technical department has gone home, could we email in detail of the problem so someone could look at it in the morning.

So sorry customers, especially in Australia, you can't charge up your accounts because our payment provider can't be arsed to sort the problem.

So that's been the final straw, time to search for someone else to provide our payment processing.

I'll keep you posted on our search.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Presence, it's pretty binary - well not quite

I posted back in June from Global Messaging 2007 about a point Mathieu Saccharin of Bouyges Telecom made about presence.

He left a great comment on the post over the weekend so I thought I should bring it front and centre. Do have another look : Presence, it's pretty binary.