Interview: Ken Blakeslee, WebMobility Ventures

We continue our series of MEX interviews with Ken Blakeslee, a mobile industry veteran and former Mobile Data Association chairman, who now heads investment consultancy WebMobility Ventures.

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

Ken Blakeslee: My first involvement in mobile was when I was at Nortel Networks here in the UK. In 1988 I put together the business case that Nortel used for entering the GSM infrastructure business. In 1995 I presented a business case which took Nortel into the mobile phone business. That was a short-lived but very educational exercise which included development of the world’s first Java-based large touch-sensitive screen Smartphone in 1997.

I was Vice President of Business Development for Wireless Internet when I left in 2000 to become deeply involved in venture capital investments, specifically in the mobile sector.

At the Vesta Group we set up Wireless Works, which I chaired, and we raised the Frontiers Capital VC fund jointly with the Carphone Warehouse. Both entities concentrated on innovation in the Mobile sector and are now fully invested.

In the mid to late 90s I chaired the Mobile Data Association and was active in the formation and market research aspects of the UMTS Forum.

In 2003 I set up WebMobility Ventures, which is focused on discovery, advisory and investment in innovations in the emerging services convergence areas of mobile.

The infrastructure of mobile is ubiquitous globally and I have high confidence that it will evolve gracefully to stay that way in terms of bandwidth, coverage and capacity. There’s plenty of investment going into that. I am, however, working almost entirely at the ‘edges’ these days. Focus is on services, applications and end user value-driven propositions plus devices and accessories which expand the usage and usability of multimedia mobility.

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

It means ‘total experience,’ not just the look and feel of the device itself. Mobile begins to mean more and more to people by being the channel of choice for so many things already ingrained in their lifestyle. Total user experience leverages the ubiquity of mobile to deliver utility and delight. Usability however is the key, and that’s where the concentration needs to be placed.

We must leverage the sophisticated and complex technologies at our disposal to create simplicity. Utility plus ubiquity plus usability equals revenue streams! Usability is the missing ingredient in this formula right now.

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?

Absolutely essential, but don’t expect end customers to have all the answers or be able to articulate them clearly. The key is in the cleverness of the interpretation of end user research in the areas of what people want, in what form they want it and how much value they assign. Some companies think their technology is too far back in the value chain to bother with understanding end user desires – wrong! Others spend varying amounts of effort and money but interpret the findings incorrectly. From silicon to services, everyone’s focus should be on this.

Amazingly, figuring out what people want is usually incredibly easy but there seems to be a natural inclination in our industry to invent new ways to do things – this is almost always a big mistake. I like to start from a basic value proposition that people already understand and add value from there. One or two value added features with a few more hiding behind for discovery later is a good formula. Then be ready to deliver the next 2 + 2 proposition as an upgrade or new product. Palm and Apple have been masters at this.

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

This is changing unfortunately and it is not as clear as it was in the past where the responsibility lies. When mobile was about telephone calls and then basic messaging, the handset manufacturer was centre stage. Effectively it was a single service device with a new but intuitively understood feature to discover and expand – messaging, but still point to point communications.

When it started moving into a much broader but a controlled set of push/pull information services and ‘connected’ applications, the operator had to take responsibility and tell the handset guys and the applications developers how to deliver the right pieces to make a complete, coherent end to end service. This was an integration job.

Times have changed though. Handset manufacturers are now delivering multimedia ‘platforms’ with browsers, Java, Flash and extensible operating systems on board. Operators have in place ubiquitous global data connectivity to the pocket. Also, operators have put in place managed service delivery platforms and have a sincere desire to be the integrator.

But responsibility for user experience is evolving more and more to the edges as it did with internet. Internet/IP is a network technology, but the worldwide web is a commercial ecosystem based on the internet’s attribute of ubiquitous access and connectivity. Mobile is at that enviable stage. As with the web, it’s now the existing and emerging consumer brands who want to light up the screens and delight the masses, but I don’t see them to be in a good a position to deliver the end-to-endness needed for a good user experience.

Expecting the end user to be the system integrator can’t work either, although it’s often the only option to get a new service running, but it takes personal perseverance! It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a lot of help out there, but there isn’t.

There is a void in this area right now and until an entity with critical mass steps up to the mark, there will be huge revenue opportunities going unrealised. There should be money to be made in this value added area, I just don’t know who will do it. The industry needs to create this critical mass. It’s like the oven is hot, all the recipe ingredients are on the counter next to the mixing bowl and there are millions of hungry diners out there.

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

It was an NEC model 9a. I believe it was the original ‘brick’. I carried it in my suit jacket side pocket and it stuck halfway out and I ripped the pocket off a few suits carrying it! It fell on my toe once and I wasn’t right for the rest of the day!

That was in the late 80s and was analogue TACS. Right now I carry a Sony Ericsson P910i. I have a love/hate relationship with it. There have been many in between. I have a boxful! I do believe that large touch sensitive screens are the answer. It can be all content or all buttons or anything in between. Kind of like a web page! This is the model to learn from and follow.

Which services do you use most often on your mobile?

Firstly, voice calls and SMS. I seem to be sending and receiving several hundred text messages each way every month. I also have noticed that I often send SMSs that are 2-5 messages long. I use it a lot like email or instant messaging. I sometimes carry a full size, but easily pocketable ‘virtual’ keyboard with me.

Voice mail is important and I use SpinVox so incoming voice messages come in as texts. I often reply with a text instead of calling to complete the loop, but without disturbing anything at the other end.

I am doing quite a lot with pictures. Thanks to a few programmes on my phone and on the internet which simplify the sending, storing, and sharing of pictures, I am sending pictures taken on my phone directly to my personal moblog with a simple one button press on my mobile phone. Shozu and Flicker are the key ingredients of the current end-to-end solution I use which was concocted by me – a client server facility which involved neither the handset manufacturer nor the operator. The user taking on the system integrator role is however, not the answer. Ingenuity, yes. Integrator, no!

I use browsing and email, but must admit the user experience is bad and I only do this very selectively to solve urgent dilemmas rather then impulsively accessing information as I do on the PC. I often am in situations where I know the info I need is available, I just can’t get it – frustrating. But it keeps the voice traffic up! – “hi, are you near the computer right now? Great, can you check on the bla, bla, bla…??

Seems to me that improvements here should be easy given processor, memory and display screen developments, but new models seem to keep coming out and ease of use seems to get further behind. A good browser which delivers similar results to the web experience we have elsewhere would unleash huge potential and enable personal choice – the root of all profitability!

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?

Yes and no. Feeling like the handset was designed for them yes, but designing and customising it themselves from scratch, no. The starting point is a device that each person feels is right for them, for the basic service set they value most. Then ‘adjustments’, preferably automatic, to get the top screen and procedures streamlined to their priorities.

Discovery of new services should happen in a very natural and intuitive way. Right now people are so overwhelmed with new advanced features and services that they can’t even find and use the basic features they value the most.

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

Because I see mobile as an extension of so many of the things I do in my personal and business life, answering this could easily be a book! And therein lies the problem…

Firstly, the industry has to stop thinking of the device as a mobile phone and begin looking at it as an array of personal devices of various kinds but with phone calls, data connectivity and messaging built-in. We need to turn the industry upside down and stop thinking that the business objective is to deliver mobile services, but rather services mobility – music mobility, not mobile music; TV and entertainment mobility, web mobility, etc.

Sorry, I didn’t manage to answer the question, but some days I think that a collection of six or eight clever people in a room for a few days could actually figure this one out. Implementing it in the industry would be the complex problem to be solved, and that’s where we are today. Sometimes I think that the solution, like the content and applications, actually lies outside the mobile industry, but then I realise that it cannot.

Everyone wants their phone to be as small as possible, but also sometimes gladly carry with them books, magazines, laptops, PDAs, music players and game machines. But it’s the mobile phone that we always carry, and right now – ‘small’ is big with end users.

Mobile phones need accessories and peripherals that enable us to sometimes carry screens and input devices that save us from carrying the bigger items listed above. We are already carrying the processor, memory, battery and data link for all these devices. All we need is to sometimes carry a better screen or keyboard to build all of the above.

Peripherals that are ‘virtually large, but actually small’ and pocketable. When this happens, people will stop carrying laptops. These, plus Bluetooth on-board and personal area network software can give us rich user experiences when we want or need them. This accessories + connectivity area of development is high on my list of user experience enhancing technologies. This year at 3GSM and also at IBC I staged Innovation Showcases showing off some of these technologies.

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

The person who sent an SMS to a colleague making a presentation in a board room saying that his fly was open was humorous, a bit bizarre and greatly appreciated!

But I think we have to realise that what seems bizarre today may seem common place tomorrow and bizarre to some is practicality to others. Ubiquity breeds ingenuity and when you carry something with you all the time, you can find all sorts of uses for it in addition to its original function. Here’s a few I have seen:

First of all, let’s get physical… Mobile phone as a door stop – my NEC 9a would have made a great one! To prop up a PC projector to get the correct image height on the screen. As a torch and to bang in small nails to hang a picture

There’s a camera in your pocket – use it! Take a picture of the taxi driver’s identity card on the back of the front seat in case something is left behind – delete picture later (unfortunately the most left-behind item in taxis these days is a mobile phone!). A youngster sent a close up picture of their red swollen eye to their mother to get advice on whether it was serious. A picture of trendy trainers sent to daughter to see if they were cool or old school. A spare 3G video calling phone used as a security camera. Call it to see what it is pointed at (auto answer feature enabled).

Exploit connectivity – it works everywhere – distances becomes irrelevant! I read in the paper about a sailor in distress in the South Pacific whose only successful attempt at summoning help was an SMS sent to a friend in England! Experiencing bad drinks service at the pub – a person called the bar on the mobile and placed an order for another round for the ‘table by the window’.

The point is that when something is always with you, always works, and is easy to use, ingenuity and creativity flourishes. Users create fun and valuable mobile user experiences from the simple building blocks provided and this is when potential new revenue streams appear. SMS is a good example of this potential. Technical capability and ubiquity of connectivity is with us today. Surely with consumer enthusiasm and potential revenue streams ready to unfold, usability can’t be far behind, can it?



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  1. 1
    Mike Grenville

    Ken concludes that the hope that “with consumer enthusiasm and potential revenue streams ready to unfold, usability can’t be far behind”. Sadly the omens for this are not good.

    Look at SMS for example – a product that in spite of continued growth year on year by around 30%, operators consistently ignore what the numbers and their customers are telling them. They spend almost no investment in adding new features – for example a web copy of all your SMS, copy to email, ability to block messages from bullies etc, – all features that are offer to operators in the market. Instead they have preferred to spend vast sums of money on rolling out 3G services.

    For most people a mobile phone is a communications device first and foremost and only slowly becoming an entertainment device. However the real problem is that the mobile industry is a technology focused industry and not a customer focused industry. Until the customer is put at the front of design and delivery, usability will continue to be an issue.

  2. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    I too am amazed operators have not been more aggressive in adding features to SMS. The web archive of SMS messages seems like such a simple concept, but it would be of considerable value to customers and a great way of getting people to access an online portal – which could be a revenue generator in itself. Even quite ‘advanced’ feature phones have a relatively low limit for the number of SMS messages which can be stored on the device and this creates a usability issue where people are constantly having to delete old messages to ensure there is enough capacity to send new ones.

  3. 3
    Jon Bunston

    I would agree that the mobile operators do not understand and react to their customer needs as a way to grow their business, especially in the value added service area. Value added should always be for the customer, not soley revenues (these will easily come if it is a true customer VAS).If getting BookMuncher to market in the mobile arena is anything to go by,the customer would have moved on by the time the internal debate/process is completed

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