Interview: Bill Schwebel, AOL


Bill Schwebel leads AOL’s mobile business as senior vice president of wireless services, including handset software and partnerships with wireless operators.

Marek Pawlowski: How did you become involved in the mobile business and what’s your role at the moment?

Bill Schwebel: I started at US WEST NewVector Group in 1989 with the network planning and engineering team when they were introducing seamless network roaming, home location registers, and digital personal communications services.

Currently I am senior vice president of wireless services at AOL and responsible for AOL’s handset software and mobile operator services businesses. I joined AOL in January 2000 to help shape AOL’s global wireless strategy as vice president of international wireless and went onto oversee AOL Mobile and Tegic Communications, Inc. as well as develop and deploy new wireless solutions for AOL.

What does the term ‘mobile user experience’ mean to you?

I focus on defining mobile user experience to be the end-to-end use of digital data services, from discovery to use to trouble resolution, all the way to billing and payment.

How important do you think it is to have direct exposure to end customers when developing new mobile services? Is this something you do when you’re building your own products?

It is critical to have direct exposure to end customers and utilize their feedback when developing new mobile services.

At AOL, we use a combination of of elements when we develop our mobile services. These include a balance of product evolution, expert product development – with a strong focus on building robust, yet easy user experiences – as well as customer, market, and industry insight and feedback. In addition, AOL has usability labs in-house as well as global end-user research capabilities.

With our widely distributed T9 embedded software, user feedback, even down to the dialect, is of utmost important to us.

Who do you think has overall responsibility for user experience in the mobile telecoms industry – operators, handset manufacturers, application developers..?

Operators need to architect the end-to-end experience and hold the value chain accountable to delivering outstanding user experiences. The industry should celebrate innovation provided by handset manufacturers, applications developers, and end-to-end service providers. And, we should jointly dismiss poor implementations before the market does it for us. As Mike Short says, a competitive environment is key. The learnings from WAP 1.0 should never be forgotten.

What was your first mobile handset and what do you use these days?

My first handset was a Mobira AMPS handset circa 1988. It was Nokia’s first handset shipped in North America. With the Ni-Cd battery, I was lucky to get 60 minutes of talk time. I had to move to Motorola and Ni-MH to support my 1500 Mou (minutes of usage) habit. At one dollar per minute, free cellular was a great benefit back then.

I am now very partial to Sony Ericsson candy bar phones — they have one of the best T9 implementations for Latin-based languages with simple, one-handed operation.

Which services do you use most often on your mobile?

My address book, Mobile AIM and email – especially now that T-Mobile introduced their EDGE network in the US.

Do you think the industry should be moving towards a business model which enables each user to feel as if their handset has been designed for them as an individual?

We as an industry need to support the user as they discover and learn about our services. We must understand the user adoption process. The issue for mobile is that most new services require behavior modification. Charging someone to “learn” about our services is just poor marketing.

What combination of handset design, mobile services and customer support would represent your ideal user experience?

It depends on the user scenario and market segment. The solution for each segment would be provided in the same way that Blackberry drives the enterprise user segment, iPod addresses the music experience, and FedEx services customers.

What’s the most bizarre use of a mobile device you’ve discovered recently?

My four year-old daughter uses her Smartskins Identity phone with the French Kitty skin. It is truly amazing watching a four year-old personalising her mobile phone. Air Texting [where words can be spelt out in mid-air using a series of LEDs on the base of the handset], “I Luv Daddy” is her favorite feature.

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