December 10, 2008

imageThe spotlight shone on the three largest US carriers who will drive 4G adoption in the U.S. as executives spoke at conferences held by their partners and vendors this week  First, there were comments by AT&T’s Roger Smith at a Symbian conference  that AT&T would seek to standardize on one smartphone operating system. Many observers chortled that it was at best uncharacteristic for the operator that has pursued a handset strategy of broad selection and exclusives to do so, or that it was even unrealistic to think it could.

However, the key phrase was “AT&T-branded,” and subsequent dialog implied that this this would include handsets such as, say, the AT&T Tilt, but not devices that included brands such as Nokia and Samsung. In my further discussion with AT&T, they’ve backed off even this position, which seems to have been more of a wistful musing stemming from the frustration of developer fragmentation and support headaches.

Verizon, of course, has also felt that pain, and is seeking to offload some of that support burden with its open development initiative while expanding its handset choice via LTE. At a Cisco conference, CTO Dick Lynch said that it would have LTE “in service somewhere.. probably” at this time next year. That sounds a lot like operator-speak for a trial. Even so, if Verizon can get to mass deployment by the middle of 2011, it would mitigate the time-to-market advantage of Sprint and Clearwire. Lynch also made the bolder prediction that “broadband capabilities will be found in virtually every electronics product out there.” That’s rich fodder for another discussion.

And speaking of Sprint and operating systems, Google’s Rich Miner is slated to speak at Sprint’s developer conference hot off the momentum of attracting 14 new members to the Open Handset Alliance, including Sony Ericsson, which has dipped its toe deeper into the U.S. smartphone market with the XPERIA X1. Sprint Nextel, which has been supporting three network deployments (WiiMAX, CDMA and iDEN) and a variety of business models (Sprint post-paid, Boost pre-paid, and aggressive MVNO leasing in their brief heyday), has he most complex business among the four major carriers.

While the Open Handset Alliance is trying to mitigate Android’s fragmentation within its own ecosystem, the bottom line is that it’s impossible to embrace openness without additional complexity as operators must let different ecosystems compete. This is particularly true when, as Lynch said at the Cisco event, carriers are trying to move away from bundling the phone and service to where consumers — advanced ones for the near-term — will mix and match devices and data and the business looks progressively even less like the cable industry. As consumer choice expands, carriers will need to move toward more of a partnership support model as more traffic will be coming from devices outside of their handset portfolio. Take, for example, the early example of the Amazon Kindle. Consumers don’t call Sprint if they have a problem with it.

In a saturated market like the U.S.,and faced with the Internet chameleon, carriers have no choice but to diversify. By and large, only humans have a need for voice communications on a wireless network. But while Lynch’s prediction of universal broadband enablement may lie far in the future, devices — and the ways in which consumer use them — have nearly infinite usage permutations.

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December 2, 2008

imageQuite a few years ago I had some friends who got married but had family and friends that lived all over the country. To accommodate as many people as possible  they decided to have at least four separate wedding receptions. By the time the third one rolled around,, some of the glow of celebration had worn off.

The same might be said for what will now be called Clear, nee XOHM, nee simply Sprint’s 4G WiMAX network. With all the investments, trials,  JV rumblings and confirmations, a mega-7-way partnership and conquered regulatory hurdles, it feels like this is at least the fifth coming-out party for the first 4G network in the US.

By naming its service brand Clear — not to be confused with another company promoting expedience — the new Clearwire is adopting a brand that is simpler and more tangible as opposed to the abstract, Internet-evoking XOHM brand that barely had a chance to be promoted in the market. Well, at least it’s far less of a rebranding challenge than AT&T faced with Cingular.

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July 23, 2008

image If Apple’s MobileMe is “Exchange for the rest of us,” what New York-based startup Peek is attempting is the hardware equivalent for original Blackberry. Today, of course, RIM is scrambling to play the convergence game as well as anyone, tacking on touch screens, pitching development dollars, and beefing up media support., but for a long time it was not so. The Blackberry already had momentum when it operated on a two-way paging service and couldn’t even make phone calls. It was a mobile e-mail appliance.

And that will the exact tack taken by Peek, which seeks to simplify the way smartphone abstainers access e-mail on the go. A main target is what the company calls “family commanders” (sorry, no camouflage version among its three colors) — generally style-conscious moms trying to keep up with the latest missives sent throughout the day. For example, the sealed rubbery keyboard is designed to be fingernail-friendly. While Peek, which is the name of the company, service and the sub-$100 device, will use GSM, it won’t be distributed through carrier stores. It will require a flat monthly fee and a credit card but no contract.

image Among its differentiators, the company sees its retail distribution, easy setup and single-purpose focus. SMS and instant messaging won’t be supported, at least not at first. Peek will seek greater success than previous attempts into the mobile consumer e-mail device space such as Ogo and the strange PocketMail Composer, a personal organizer-like product that used acoustic coupling to send and receive email using an analog telephone. (PocketMail’s site and even order form remain active, but the device is listed as out of stock. The company began in 1995 under the pun-embracing name PocketScience.)

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July 14, 2008

imageSo, what do you know? The subsidization model works and consumers could care less if the phone costs them more in the long-run (the long run in this case being a two-year contract) or if the power management challenges .of a 3G network compromised sealed battery life.

Apple sold one million (must… resist… Dr. Evil… impression) Macintosh 2.0′s, I mean, Phone 3Gs opening weekend, noting that it took them more than two months to move that many of the original iPhones. The media attention around the iPhone 3G, while tremendous, may have been at less of a fever pitch than it was for the original iPhone, because it was more of a known quantity and the new features were more of the “fill in the gaps” quantity, but Apple is clearly accurate in saying that price was the biggest inhibitor among those who wanted but didn’t purchase the original iPhone..

By the way, after swinging by the Apple Store on 59h and Fifth, aka “the cube”, late Friday afternoon in the amazing weather, I popped into the Nokia New York flagship store just a few blocks a way on 57th, just east of Fifth Avenue. There was a lot of excitement on the building’s facade as the store was decked out in promotion for The Dark Knight,, but on the first floor of the narrow three-story edifice there were only four consumers.

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March 25, 2008

sirius-xm-merger.jpgSirius and XM have convinced the Department of Justice that its merger won’t create a monopoly in the radio, or more broadly, music playback, space. While the FCC is expected to follow suit with the DoJ, there is a rush of parties that are looking to add terms and conditions to the merger. Censorship on satellite radio? What would be the point of a premium alternative to terrestrial?

It’s certainly true that there are far more options available for high-quality digital music playback since the time that XM started broadcasting from space. The iPod is frequently brought up as a competitor, but I’ve never really thought of it as a major one. First, the iPod accelerated its move into the vehicle rather late in its rise to popularity and many of the solutions are primitive or awkward.

I’suspect that I, like many MP3 player owners, have music on their players to which they’ve never listened. Mostly, though, particularly for Apple’s ecosystem that has never been as aggressive about music discovery as, say, Rhapsody, iPods are about playing back what you have, not what you don’t. And keeping them fresh requires round-trips between the house and car. So, what satellites really buy the companies better than any competing technology today (save terrestrial radio, which was around at its launch) is direct and unfettered access to the vehicle

Wireless technologies such as 4G and WiMAX have the potential to present a credible no-hassle alternative to satellite radio, but the cost structures don’t support the infrastructure required to deliver it for the foreseeable future. One could argue that they didn’t for XM or Sirius, either. But with a reduced customer acquisition marketing burden, their expenses should become more manageable. In the meantime, the Slacker Portable satellite add-on looks like it will be promising alternative when it arrives.

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March 19, 2008

logo_vzw1.jpgI certainly agree with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam that mainstream consumers will be in no hurry to abandon the subsidy model. But in addition to seeing whether more sophisticated customers will shell out $200 or more to run advanced wireless devices on Verizon’s network, we have to see how Verizon will price open access before understanding the impact it will have on new or integrated devices in the market.

McAdam acknowledges that consumers won’t sign up for multiple $50 per month plans, and at Gearlog, Sascha Segan notes that Verizon might offer incremental device access for $5/month. This is the kind of scheme that Sprint has talked about for Xohm as well although Sprint has acknowledged there should be an unlimited access cap.

There are already a number of devices other than handsets that are obvious candidates to work on a high-speed wireless network — portable navigation devices, handheld gaming consoles, MP3 players/Internet radios, and more. Consumers are already buying these devices. Sure, adding WAN modems would add cost, but it’s really the high price of wireless broadband that is holding them back. Verizon needs to offer a cheap tier of service that entails either limited data or limited speed. Such pricing would go a long way toward enabling the kind of creative innovation that Dash Navigation has enabled with only a GPRS connection at its disposal.

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March 7, 2008

imageOm Malik pretty much nails the challenge that such an acquisition would have.  Sprint’s customer base would do wonders for T-Mobile’s ARPU. However, the company would be juggling four wide-area networks (and five altogether if you include Wi-Fi). On one hand, a WiMAX network would be an attractive asset for migrating those T-Mobile Broadband customers forward. On the other hand, T-Mobile could just shut down the expensive Xohm initiative and transition everything to LTE.

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January 31, 2008

If you were wondering why Steve Jobs sneaked in some enhancements to the iPhone’s location capabilities in advance of the February SDK unveiling, tonight may have provided a clue. In advance of its official release at GSMA Mobile World Congress (and the first shipments of the Dash Express), Garmin unveiled its Nuviphone, which combines communication, navigation and some basic MP3 playback features — Industrial design inspiration courtesy you-know-who. Wilson Rothman has captured my pointing out the name’s similarity to a certain popular interactive voice response system.

Garmin isn’t releasing specifications or a features list given that the device won’t ship until the third quarter. On the data front, though, the Nuviphone will support at least POP and IMAP email and Web browsing. It also takes digital stills an video and — here’s the slick part — geotags them so you can send a photo to another Nuviphone, after which that recipient can be directed to where the photo was taken. The Nuviphone has a 3.5″ screen but a wider aspect ratio than the iPhone.

As for other comparisons, it’s not a smartphone in that it does not have an open OS. Garmin says that developing an SDK is technically possible but not something the company is pursuing. (I think it should.) And I also don’t expect the Internet or media features to set a new bar.

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November 30, 2007

Today, Google made it official that it will bid in the 700 MHz spectrum auction and there’s a flurry of media and excitement around it — most of it premature. How much will Google bid? Will it partner to do it? Will it win? And what will it do if it does win? At least the other shoe has dropped on Verizon Wireless’s open access announcements earlier this week. CEO Eric Schmidt has defended the hedge by noting that it will mean open access regardless of who wins due to FCC requirements.

Even if Google does win, we shouldn’t necessarily expect for it to be a branded carrier. Remember that one of the conditions it wanted from the FCC was mandatory wholesaling. So.. much as with Android, there may not be a “Google Wireless” but lots of different MVNOs using Google’s spectrum as infrastructure.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the notion of “signature phones.” Lots of wireless operators have exclusives but it seems that some grow to be especially associated with that operator, ideally in an iconic way, even transcending specific models to extend to generations of products. They don’t have to be smartphones although they’ve tended to be. Here’s how I would assign them today:

  • AT&T: iPhone (duh). This was probably ingrained from the introductory Macworld keynote.
  • Verizon Wireless: Hasn’t historically had one, but the enV is gaining momentum as its Sidekick. Voyager definitely has potential here and VZW is promoting it.
  • Sprint: While Treo was probably once a signature phone for Sprint, Touch may be the closest today although it may not be compelling enough.
  • T-Mobile: Sidekick, although Shadow may be up and coming as a rival.
  • Helio: Ocean

Overall, signature phones have been good for operators, but too much focus on them can distract from other benefits such as network coverage (which helps explain why Verizon Wireless has never let one emerge). There are also risks involved if the phone moves to other carriers (like Treo) or if another signature phone tries to take the industry in another direction (as the iPhone has done to the Sidekick). It’s interesting to note that none of these devices have been made by the top three global handset companies. Also, the concept may expire as U.S. operators move to more open access.

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