My mobile TV is broken

I may work in the mobile industry but I never forget I am also a mobile customer. This simple premise underlines a lot of the research work we do at PMN. It’s all about getting people in the industry to understand how customers really see things in the mobile environment. Of course, personal experience is only one part of the research process, but some of our most insightful debates have resulted from individual stories, like my own encounters with Vodafone’s data card and the Virgin Mobile TV service.

In the spirit of continuing these personal insights, I’d like to recount my experience with Vodafone’s Mobile TV offering. For the purposes of disclosure, I should mention that my tendency to focus on Vodafone in these examples is strictly because they happen to be my operator in the UK and should not be taken as an indication that they are any worse than other providers.

After my negative experience with Virgin in the retail environment a few months ago, I thought it would be interesting to see how an existing customer, equipped with a standard handset (the Nokia N80) might obtain mobile TV services.

My first port of call was Vodafone’s web-site, which provided a comprehensive range of information on the channels available, the way in which the service worked and how much it cost. It also explained the terms of the ‘one month free’ offer and when I had to cancel to ensure I wasn’t billed again for the service.

The site told me to access Vodafone Live from my handset and select the ‘Mobile TV’ option. This was where the first cracks started to appear in the user experience.

There was nothing on my handset to suggest where I should find Vodafone Live. Obviously as a mobile analyst, I knew I could fire-up the Services menu and enter in the browser, but this process could fail in a couple of ways for the average customer. If we presume they have accessed the web-site, they still need to make the association that ‘Services’ really means Vodafone Live; if they haven’t seen the web-site, the discovery process becomes even more difficult.

Once Vodafone Live had loaded, I couldn’t find a link to Mobile TV anywhere on the homepage. I eventually found it by clicking on the ‘List’ icon at the top of the screen. This was so small I could barely make out what is was meant to be. I don’t wear glasses and I have no problems with vision – I can’t imagine how someone whose sight is deteriorating would have recognised this icon. There was also nothing to tell me what it did once I’d highlighted it and even the highlighting box was so faint I had to click it to find out that I’d managed to position the cursor correctly.

Here the experience started to improve. The information was clear and concise, displaying a range of package options, the prices, links to further details and the purchasing page. However, I was struck by the inflexibility of the offering. I could sign-up for themed packages (like ‘Factual’ and ‘Music’) containing a handful of channels for GBP 5.00 per month each or buy a ‘Variety’ package including all of these channels for GBP 10.00. There was no way for me to pick my own channel options or purchase one-off access to a particular channel.

Eventually I settled on ‘Entertainment’ and it was only at the second stage of the buying process (after I had confirmed I would pay the GBP 5.00 per month charge) that I was told I would get the first month free. I knew about that already from the web-site, but if I was a customer accessing this purely from my mobile phone, I wouldn’t have been given any information about the special offer until after I’d decided to buy – that’s not very smart marketing.

No 3G coverageI had now bought my subscription and was ready to watch TV. However, in completing the purchase, my handset had switched back to 2G mode and now informed me I was unable to watch any of the channels I’d just bought because I was outside 3G coverage. I had been stationary, sitting on the sofa the whole time, with almost full 3G reception when I started the process.

My handset eventually picked up a 3G signal again about 10 minutes later and I was still sitting in the same spot.

When I wanted to get back to my Mobile TV purchase, there was nothing on the idle screen or within the applications menu to take me there, so I guessed I needed to fire-up ‘Services’ and access Vodafone Live. Again, I couldn’t find a link to Mobile TV, so I thought I would try switching on the ‘My Links’ feature, which it told me would intelligently track the sites I visited most often and put short-cuts into the Live menu. It didn’t seem to work, as when I accessed the Links page, it told me there was nothing there.

When I eventually found the mobile TV service, I clicked on the ‘Cartoons’ channel and waited for about a minute while it opened RealPlayer, connected to the server and buffered the video stream. It worked for about 30 seconds before the video quality broke-up entirely and I decided to try watching something else. At this point I still had full 3G coverage.

Waiting for the video stream to loadThere was nothing within RealPlayer to tell me how to switch channels, so I quit the application and found myself back on the Live page. I opened another channel and this time managed about 10 seconds before the phone switched into 2G mode. However, while the portal had been able to tell me when I was outside 3G coverage and therefore unable to watch TV, RealPlayer said nothing and continued trying to buffer the video stream until I gave up and manually exited the program.

That was on Wednesday. I am writing this on Friday and I haven’t tried to access the mobile TV service again.

I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking about where Vodafone’s service breaks down and I can’t help but feel they’re actually destroying mobile TV experience before it’s even started. It reminds me of BT Cellnet’s (now O2) advertising campaign which promoted text browsing on black and white screens under the tag-line ‘Surf the BT Cellnet’ when it launched WAP services. The industry reeled from the damage caused by a massive mis-alignment of customer expectation and product reality. Customers bought their devices expecting to surf the internet and instead found a slow, content-poor information service for which they were charged excessively.

Vodafone is advertising mobile TV and delivering something quite different. The content may be the same as that found on traditional TV channels, but the overall experience is a world away. There is an argument for persuading consumers to try new things by associating them with familiar concepts, but mobile TV is such a fundamentally different experience from sitting in an immersive environment in front of a large screen that users are always going to be dissappointed.

The WAP channel interfaceVodafone needs to re-think its whole marketing campaign for mobile TV. The first step should be to recognise that mobile handsets are not conducive to TV-style viewing. For instance, I spent the whole time holding my handset very delicately because it seemed the slightest movement would switch it out of 3G coverage. Instead, they should start looking at how video content can be made to work in the mobile environment. I suspect the answer will be a low latency, on-demand service which allows users to consume short clips tailored to their interests and recommended through community features. Squeezing images designed for large screens down an unreliable connection and using a WAP interface intended for text content to browser channels just isn’t going to cut it!

On the client side, there needs to be much better integration between purchasing, exploring and viewing content. If operators genuinely want to sell mobile TV as a new feature, then they should invest in a purpose-built client environment and not try to hash something together from the built-in WAP browser and video player. Point # 9 on our MEX manifesto reads: “The mobile experience is limited to voice and text by in-efficient search and discovery mechanisms. We think any service should be accessible from the standby screen and it should be as simple as dialling a number.” Mobile TV is no exception and we’ll be talking about this in-depth at the MEX conference on 2nd – 3rd May 2007 in London.

Finally, Vodafone should take a look at its payment models. Currently it is priced in a way convenient for the operator and utterly out-of-step with how users think about and consume content in the mobile environment. Simply because something is priced as a monthly package of subscription channels on one platform doesn’t mean that is an effective business model for mobile. The experience is different, therefore the value perceptions should be different.

With mobile TV, Vodafone has got an effective marketing machine selling an exceptionally poor service. I’d suggest going back to the drawing board, developing a service consumers want and can easily use and then handing it to back to the marketing team.


Add yours
  1. 2
    Anders Borg, Abiro

    I’ve now and then tried to make the industry ‘see the light’ via my blog postings, well aware that I don’t have the coverage that could lead to anything substantial.

    Clearly MEX has more of a name, so what ways do you have for actually pushing Vodafone in this case to improve? Are you actually hired to be advisors for operators and phone manufacturers? Do they come to your conferences?

  2. 3
    Marek Pawlowski

    Yes, we do work in an advisory capacity for clients in the industry. We have not worked with Vodafone, although they have attended previous MEX conferences.

    I’d relish the opportunity to work with a client on delivering a great video application for mobile devices. The company would have to be prepared to ignore current trends and embrace an entirely new approach.

    It’s worth noting, however, that Vodafone probably thinks it is doing a great job with mobile TV. It probably has stats and user feedback to confirm that too. One of the biggest problems with these services is that the providers are setting targets which are irrelevant to delivering a great user experience. Therefore they continue to offer a service which appears successful and yet still falls well short of the goal of ‘customer delight.’

  3. 4
    Titus Crow

    you should look at the SkybyMobile application which provides a much better platform for TV. While it currently takes the Vodafone streams it provides a much better interface for channel changin plus the ability to program you Sky+ should you have one is great.

  4. 5

    The Nokia N800 plays RealVideo better than my Powerbooks and Macbooks Pros. It has an almost HD screen better than any other mobile device and it runs Linux – the best operating system in the world.

  5. 6
    Marek Pawlowski

    I’ve used SkyByMobile and I think it improves channel selection, provides some interesting companion content and enhances the reliability of the stream. Part of this is due to the patented delivery mechanism used by WeComm, the company which developed this product on behalf of Sky – you can read more about it in a previous MEX article.

    However, it uses the same basic video content as Vodafone (in fact, the streams both come from exactly the same server), so it doesn’t get around the fundamental problem of the content being unsuited to mobile viewing.

    Also, when I tried to download SkyByMobile, I couldn’t access the service without signing up to become a full Sky customer. There was no way to just get the mobile version without buying the full home installation package.

  6. 7
    Katie Lips

    Marek, thanks for this insightful article, it raises many issues. For me, the core issue as with so many mobile ‘services’ is that they are, or appear to be designed from the perspective of ‘how can we bill for this’ rather than ‘how can we design a pleasurable experience that offers great choice of content first with effective and seamless delivery and payment second?’ As in, the processes and structures of billing and monthly packages, as you point out, get in the way of the experience and are a barrier to use. Let’s hope someone works out that investing in getting the customer expereince right will result in more sales!

  7. 9
    Ben Farr

    I think the subscription payment model for mobile content and TV is not inline with what the average user is prepared to do. Transactional model like SMS has to be the way forward, where people know exactly what they will get and how much it will cost.

    Focussing on what the user wants is the first step into growing the use in mobile data services. The current bubble around mobile needs users to start adopting services. However having worked in a few companies in the mobile space, most are in a situation where they are desperate to win contracts from the content providers and will make a product based on pleasing the provider and overlook the end user experience. The end consumer ultimately determines the success of the application or service.


  8. 10
    Daniel Butler

    This broadcasting model runs the risk off being outdated before it even takes off. Given the way consumers want to use their mobiles on the move, on foot, on trains, on planes, on the underground, on long car journeys, in remote countries, etc., it seems clear that any service that is dependent on an online, high stability, high-bandwidth, low cost 3G connection is destined to fail! Much better would be a podcast-style distribution model where users can pay-per-view and download content direct to their mobiles via fast home, office, hotel wi-fi, or (even if required!) 3G connections for later viewing without the soggy user-experience that is ‘streamed 3G’. Even better would be a client (much like the one supplied with the Nokia N80 internet edition) that allows automatic download of content (overnight if necessary) so that your handset is always primed with the latest content for consumption anytime, anywhere. It’s clear that this would prise the mobile operators grip away from the media pie, handing it over to other players more able to serve their customer’s demands without greedily fulfilling own self-serving interests. Now that the wi-fi-on-mobiles horse has bolted (cleverly engineered by our powerful European handset manufacturers no doubt – US services still seem to be severely crippled on this front), there is no excuse. Of course this model introduces it’s own DRM and distrubtion challenges that need to be addressed, but if iTunes can offer a similar service for iPods then surely there is a huge market out there for mobile phones. Apple will no doubt hoover up this corner of market with the launch of the iPhone later this year – watch this space!

  9. 11
    Marek Pawlowski

    Picking up on Daniel’s comments about a podcast model, I agree it has certain attractions, e.g. lower latency on the client side and better control over stream quality. However, I think long-term the solution should be to fix the problem of unreliable and slow connections so this kind of content can be downloaded on-demand rather than caching a limited selection on the device.

    There are certain types of content which might be suited to this distribution model. Serialised programmes, for instance, or sports content which airs live in one part of the world and is delivered overnight to a different time zone. However, I think storing on the server and making it available anytime, anywhere is always going to be the ideal method if the reliability of the network can be hugely improved.

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