05 October 2006

How not to make an mp3 phone...

Excellent review/case study by Joel Spolsky on his experience with an LG phone from Sprint (via Daring Fireball link).

I'm not going to say that ALL mp3 phones are as bad as this - I know they're not. But when faced with simple stats like "100million phones sold with music players built in", it's important to remember that the vast majority of them have not been bought with that as the major feature, and also that it is highly doubtful that the vast majority of such phones are regularly being used for music (or other multimedia).

Joel highlights some of the fundamental problems here - the manufacturer and the network operator with misaligned business objectives being key. While the networks are struggling to find revenues to pay off their foolish investments in 3G, others are going to come from behind and deliver a compelling mobile strategy that makes sense. The networks don't get the internet, and nor do they get media. While their thinking is focused on how to use and ringfence that network to maximise revenues, others can come along with a clean slate and deliver a mobile strategy that is integrated, affordable and genuinely compelling.

What could a company without the ties of a network operator do differently?

1. Supply a multi-network phone that worked and that didn't try to force you into using an expensive data network all the time. By this I mean a phone that automatically picked up Wi-Fi (WiMAX? and other) networks first for its default connection.
2. Provided VoIP client and IM on the phone - eg through a Skype partnership and/or the Gizmo (SIP) approach. Make it work as cheaply as possible (eg using wifi when it can), giving you the option to switch manually or automatically into higher cost networks depending on availability.
3. Easily let you manage your data connections between free and paid.
4. Supply content to the phone as part of an overall strategy of supplying content to ALL your devices.
5. Provided a number of additional services - free/ad-supported/paid that genuinely added value to the device and encouraged use - both on the device itself and on your other devices.
6. Support access to your normal email service in a synchronised way and possibly access to your data via a virtual hard disk (or vpn to a server).

Who could do all of this? Well, Nokia can today. But something seems to be stopping Nokia from completing the picture. My guess is that it is the networks themselves, who, after all, are Nokia's customers in reality (not you and me). While most of the pieces are there on current high end Nokia phones, and the reality is much better than Joel's review, things are still a bit all over the place. My phone for instance always establishes an orange data connection after being switched on (which is often the case because it switches off frequently of its own accord!) without giving me a chance to stop it. Fortunately, I don't have any apps running that take the data, but it is annoying to find a data connection active. Also, I can't turn wi-fi off and save battery. If there's a wifi network I've setup, the phone detects it when within range. Experiences with the music player and media player leave a lot to be desired.

I'm sure Sony Ericsson is up to the task too, but has the same problems as Nokia. Motorola, while making the best looking phones at this time, doesn't seem to understand UI, so I'm not sure about them.

I know which company you think I'm going to suggest, but actually you're wrong! Microsoft is the company that had most to offer in this area and had the capability to deliver it. It is far less tied in to the network operators than Nokia and the other manufacturers, it had much of the technology in place with Windows Mobile, and with all it's back end infrastructure - MSN, WindowsLive etc, probably could have delivered some compelling services (finally finding a way to monetise MSN better). And Microsoft also has/had the resources to throw money at this area. It could probably have found good partners in the network operators that are least successful, and/or piggy-backed on a good virtual network operator. In the UK for instance, could a Microsoft-BT partnership or a Microsoft-Virgin partnership not delivered a compelling mobile service? It probably wouldn't have faced huge regulatory hurdles because there is lots of competition already and a dynamic space.

Instead, Microsoft has focused on XBox, and, now on trying to hurt the iPod. It may well have defeated Sony in the games market - time will tell. But if so, I think that's more down to Sony's rash of disastrous mistakes and poor execution. By the time they land significant punches on the iPod, I think the world will have moved on.
Sure, they will no doubt be working on a Zune phone etc. and you might make the (fair) argument that they've still not worked out how to be a hardware company, but I really think this is a space they could have owned or at least muscled into a strong position next to Nokia and the like.

So that brings me to the company you first thought I was going to say! Of the other capable companies out there, only Apple has the design skills to bring all this together. But Apple doesn't have at least two things that Microsoft has. It doesn't have a phone OS. Symbian and Windows Mobile have both cost huge amounts to develop, and this is not a trivial problem to overcome. Perhaps Apple has something up their sleeves, or perhaps it will do a deal with Symbian or somebody (though that is quite un-Apple-esque).

Neither does Apple have a great services strategy. Sure, it can deliver media content and that is one of its compelling angles in this space. But in services it is WAY behind others. .Mac I find useful, but it is certainly not free and not for everyone. And, it doesn't offer many of the things that people like Yahoo, Microsoft and, of course, Google bring.

I touched on this when talking about Eric Schmidt joining Apple's board, but it is increasingly clear to me that Apple's next push will be into the mobile space and that it will do this with Google's help. Google has a lot to gain by getting searches done on mobile devices and increasingly using its location services. To say nothing of GMail, Blogger.com, GoogleTalk, Picassa, GoogleGroups, Calendar etc. It must be frustrated that such services are not being used by mobile users more frequently. Only Google has the clout to provide many of these data services for free or at least at low-cost. It might even be able to make a dent in handset costs too - given that most people pay nothing or close to nothing for their handsets due to subsidies, this is another obstacle Apple and Google will have to overcome.

If I was a network operator, I'd be courting these guys very closely, no matter how successful I currently was. But for turnaround situations (eg Softbank in Japan who took over Vodafone's failing service) or virtual network operators (Virgin, BT), it is a no-brainer.

I used to think that Apple had no chance in this space and wouldn't try. But how things have opened up through greed and incompetence. And, Microsoft, who could have seized this easily, will as usual be playing catch up from behind by throwing money at it until their dominance is established.

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