The news flow from the Mobile World Congress has been particuarly strong this year, a reflection perhaps on the buoyancy of an industry which has enjoyed sustained growth for some time.
Amid the marketing blitz and pumping music of the show floor it is often difficult to pick out the trends which will have a real impact on the user experience. In this article I share a few of the insights I gained from talking with people behind the scenes, highlighting the deals and announcements which may not have have been fully appreciated amid the deluge of press releases but will drive real change over the next 12 months.
Danger for Microsoft
On the sidelines of the event, Microsoft announced it is acquiring Danger for an undisclosed sum (the rumour mill places it around USD 500m). Danger is a software and services provider best known for designing and powering the Sidekick range of devices for T-Mobile. The company had previously filed for an IPO, hoping to raise about USD 100m in Q1 2008. It will now be integrated into Microsoft’s mobile division.
I’ve been using a T-Mobile Sidekick Slide (manufactured by Motorola) for some months and have found the user experience to be superb. Danger is a company which genuinely understands the scope of user experience issues. For example, when you fire up your Sidekick for the first time, it takes you through a brief, 2 minute tutorial to educate you on the usage of the four Danger function keys. Before I got my own device I had tried using other Sidekicks on a trial basis and, having never been through the tutorial, found them difficult to understand. However, after 2 minutes invested in the sign-up procedure, I had fully grasped the simplicity and ease of use which the function keys deliver. They now provide a consistency of experience throughout the UI which makes the device a pleasure to use.
In several months of heavy usage the Sidekick has never crashed, nor has there been a single unexplained error message. My Nokia N95, while capable of much more, continues to deliver a weekly stream of errors and crashes which test even the limits of my understanding as a mobile industry analyst. The Sidekick experience seems bomb-proof in comparison.
Danger designed their platform as a connected experience from the outset. Everything I do on the Sidekick is mirrored and backed up to a web portal. It also manages its data connection in a way which removes all complexity from the user. You know that your emails are being sent and received in the background and that the server will maintain your instant messaging session even if the connection is dropped. Third party applications like Newsroom download content in the background, so any time you pick-up the device, the latest information is waiting for you.
If you’ve not tried one, I highly recommend you take a trip to your local T-Mobile store and experiment. It is the best high volume messaging, email and texting experience you will find on a device.
My fear is that the Microsoft acquisition is a defensive move for Danger. The company had filed for an IPO, but With capital markets unfavourable, the business thought to be running at a loss despite more than USD 100m in VC funding and a heavy reliance on a single customer, it is easy to imagine the investors forcing through the Microsoft sale. For cash-rich Microsoft, it’s an easy way to acquire some useful IP and a strong team of developers. For Danger, it could mean the end of their technology vision as they are subsumed into the Microsoft corporate structure.
However, If Microsoft is sensible, they will look very closely at the Danger platform and make it a key part of their strategy for targeting consumers. With the addition of some strong media features and support for 3G and Wi-fi, the Danger platform is the ideal vehicle for extending data services to the mass market.
Read more on Danger in my previous (July 2007) article on the company.
Microsoft has been very busy at MWC, with a wide range of new handsets running Windows Mobile and the surprise addition of Sony Ericsson to their licensee list. It has also been vocal about expanding the scope of Windows Mobile to target consumers as well as the traditioinal core of business customers. If they fully utilise the talent they are acquiring from Danger, I think Microsoft will become a much stronger competitor in the consumer segment.
Email for everyone
Every year various companies have been falling over themselves to announce the arrival and potentially explosive growth of mobile email for consumers. Research houses eager for commission work and paid analyst quotations have provided statistics for their press releases like: “There are X hundred million email addresses in the world and only X million have been mobilised…therefore we predict mobile email will be worth X tens of billions by 2012.”
Frankly, it’s all nonsense. More often than not the research for these reports is based on extrapolations which magnify the misconceptions derived from the original, frequently erroneous data. The average consumer is still some way from recognising the benefits of mobile email over texting and further still from finding a user experinece that makes it meaningful on a mobile device.
Japan, where email has always been a strong mobile feature, and the Blackberry solution remain the exceptions rather than the rule.
However, there are signs this may be changing. Consumer-focused mobile email was very much to the fore at MWC this year. In addition to Microsoft’s acquisition of the messaging-centric Danger platform there was the announcement that Visto had landed a group-wide deal with T-Mobile for consumer email. Vodafone, previously a Visto customer, also announced that it would extend its strong business relationship with Research In Motion to bring Blackberry to consumer devices.
This is another agreement which hasn’t been feted in the same way as the numerous shiny new handsets showcased at MWC, but could be extremely significant. Although RIM didn’t announce any new Blackberries at MWC, they are known to be working on a range of devices with enhanced photo, audio and video capabilities. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these debut with Vodafone later this year, alongside an enhanced Blackberry platform that brings the same asynchronous, ‘push’ methodology which has been so successful for email and extends it to media.
Sony Ericsson’s Symbian defection?
Going back to Sony Ericsson’s use of Windows Mobile, the Xperia X1 handset may well be the star of the show. The motivation for the device is clear. Sony Ericsson has lost much of the early advantage it enjoyed in the business segment with the P-series. A number of delayed and flawed releases have eroded its repuation in a sector where it was previously seen as an innovative leader. It needs a new angle – one which will allow it to compete With the wide choice of HTC, Palm and Samsung handsets running Windows Mobile and the growing range of E-Series devices from Nokia.
Ironically, the first Xperia product is actually manufactured by HTC, working as a ‘white label’ ODM on behalf of Sony Ericsson. The signifiance of this should not be underestimated. Ericsson was one of the first manufacturers to release a Symbian-powered handset (the R380 smartphone). It was also one of the original founders of Symbian (alongside Psion, Motorola and Nokia). It’s Ronneby research labs went on to be acquired by Symbian as UIQ Technologies, the interface platform provider. Only recently, Sony Ericsson bought back UIQ and sold a 50% stake to Motorola. For many years it appeared even more commited to the Symbian venture than Nokia and the idea of developing with Windows Mobile was almost unthinkable.
It is a big win for Microsoft and a sensible decision for Sony Ericsson. I don’t expect to see them slow their Symbian development roadmap, but it makes sense for them to use Windows Mobile for some of their business-focused handsets, especially given their ambitions in the US.
The move is also another indication of Sony Ericsson’s willingness to utilise partners with other manufacturers to penetrate new markets. Its previously announced partnership with French OEM Sagem is already enabling it to produce a wider range of low-cost handsets more quickly than if it had tried to go it alone. Similarly, the deal with HTC will enable it to roll out a Windows Mobile device in a relatively short time frame.
The handset itself is stunning to look at, utilising a curving keyboard slide mechanism and incorporating a 3 inch touchscreen, GPS, 3.2 megapixel camera and some customised Sony Ericsson interface elements. It is rumoured to use an upgraded version of Windows Mobile 6, due for official release later this year.
The rising IQ of the mobile industry
Away from the excitement of shiny new handsets there was also a growing number of companies offering platforms which allow networks to improve their tracking of user behaviour. It is a particularly interesting area and one which has a significant role to play in enhancing the user experience. Put simply, the more you know about the user, the more likely you are to be able to serve them effectively.
I spoke with Simon Bransfield-Garth, Managing Director of Carrier IQ in Europe, about his company’s approach to user analytics. Carrier IQ installs a small software client on the handset which keeps track of almost everything the user does and the status of the handset and the network. For instance, they are able to detect if a user is repeatedly trying to access a particular URL from the handset browser when there is poor network coverage and determine that there is a user experience issue emerging. The operator would then know it needs to improve the browser software to warn users connections may be unreliable when there is low signal strength.
The Carrier IQ client allows service providers to get very detailed behavioural information across their entire customer base, providing a level of knowledge which simply isn’t possible with representative surveys and focus groups. Although extrapolating data from smaller customer samples can be a useful way to identify trends, Carrier IQ goes beyond this by allowing an operator to see exactly what all the users on their network are doing with their handsets.
This can be used to identify software experience issues, plan marketing opportunities and even fine tune capital expenditure strategy. Simon cited the example of an operator which is using Carrier IQ to identify the relationship between signal strength, dropped calls and customer churn rates. The data resulting from this project have enabled the operator to prioritise its investment in network improvements, targeting the areas where improved coverage is most likely to reduce churn. This contrasts with the previous approach, where operators often relied on a ‘me too’ strategy to add network towers wherever their competitors were investing.
Capabilities like this show a clear and direct link between investment in understanding users and real financial returns. Simon estimated that an operator spending USD 2 billion each year on their network infrastructure could realise USD 500m in savings from this approach.
There’s some clever technology behind Carrier IQ. They’ve worked hard to optimise the software client and ensure there are no performance issues from running this in the background. Indeed, in a blind test with one of their operator customers, the service provider found there was no difference in battery performance between handsets with the client installed and those without.
Carrier IQ also takes an innovative approach to managing the vast quantities of data output from the tracking software. Given the number of parameters the program can track, the log files would be enormous and would rapidly fill the memory of the handset. To solve this problem Carrier IQ uses dynamic rule sets, which can be updated over-the-air, to track very specific factors. For instance, an operator interested in finding out the effectiveness of different text input methods could ask the software to track the time between opening the messaging application and the message actually being sent across several models of handset. While these rules were in place, the client application would disregard all the other variables it is capable of tracking. An average weekly log file runs to about 200 Kb, with the data uploaded in the background during idle moments.
I can forsee an important role for this kind of information in tracking user experience issues. I don’t believe it will replace traditional techniques like focus groups, real world observations and testing with real people, but it will become an essential part of the user experience practioner’s toolkit. There are obvious cost benefits in being able to track such large numbers of people remotely and the level of detail is astounding.
One key application for this kind of technology is advertising-funded services. Currently many of Carrier IQ’s customers use the platform as a customer service tool and a way of diagnosing problems. However, the data generated may also be extremely valuable to advertisers. What if an operator was able to tell a coffee company that it has 20,000 users who all access train timetables on their handset between 8am and 9am every Monday morning while they pass through London Victoria station?
Extracting the value of user behaviours
Just as with user experience problems, the more you know about the user, the more likely are you are to be able to target them with genuinely useful advertising.
Xtract is another interesting company looking at this challenge of understanding user behaviour. It offers a platform for making sense of the myriad data which can result from enhanced tracking of user activity. According to Alan Moore, a social network and marketing expert who sits on the board of Xtract, the company enables service providers to gain a ‘three dimensional’ picture of customers and the context of their relationship with other users on the network.
This allows the networks to identify so-called ‘alpha users’, the key individuals which drive activity by catalysing other customers to explore new services. Xtract’s technology has been developed from several University of Helsinki research projects and uses some advanced mathematics, mapping and analytics to produce pictures of network activity and user relationships.
The company’s software is used by 50 customers, including Blyk, T-Mobile, Nokia and TeliaSonera.
There are various usage scenarios. For instance, Xtract’s platform could be integrated into a customer service operation to identify customers who might not necessarily spend a huge amount of money with a company themselves, but act as an alpha user in catalysing others to adopt new services. While traditional customer retention measures wouldn’t recognise the importance of this customer in the network, Xtract’s software would pick up on their role and advise the customer service staff accordingly.
I was also shown a demonstration by Arlinda Sipila, Xtract’s Marketing Director, in which the company had developed a very useable advertising dashboard aimed at non-technical marketeers. The tool allowed marketing staff to target a mobile advertising campaign simply by dragging the mouse to indicate preferences. A slider could be moved to restructure the campaign to focus on users who were known to be active in forwarding offers to their friends. The target audience could be further refined through age profiling, interests and service usage. The campaign was dynamically re-priced, enabling the operator to charge for very specific targeting features. Blyk relies heavily on this approach for its advertising-funded MVNO service.
This is the first part of my report on user experience trends at the Mobile World Congress. You can read the second section here.