Phrase of the Day–“Patent Thicket”

We are all somewhat used to one technology firm suing another for patent infringement but they tend to be treated as isolated instances. (see NY Times). However when you look at the bigger picture as Tech Crunch has done below, you have to wonder how anyone can produce a new phone, let alone a ‘smart’ one.

Patent Thicket

I sort of remember back when Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and Motorola ruled the smartphone market (2G days) that patent licensing could make up to 30% of the cost (worst case) although 5% was more typical and because of cross-licensing much less than that amongst the big 4. With the mess above – “patent thicket” sums it up beautifully , the barriers to entry and innovation are becoming inordinately high. Of course, as innovation stalls, there will be a silver lining as everyone keeps their phone for longer and the number of phones in landfills is reduced.

The Economist has also commented about this subject. They make the point that the rise of open source platforms throw a spanner (wrench) into the mix and disrupt the proprietary models of other major players (Microsoft, Apple, Nokia etc.)

Patent Thicket image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/floorsixtyfour/5061246255/

Is the party over for mobile data

Article in this weeks New Scientist about the capacity crunch across mobile networks due to the incredible surge in demand for mobile data, in particular video. If network capacity remains as is and the projections are on track, some time in 2013 is the date when the wireless networks collapse under their own weight. year of the crunchThe author examines four different solutions that the wireless carriers could use to address this issue.

  1. Get rid of “unlimited data” plans. When something is perceived as free, it tends to get used a lot  (cf. the internet). This solution is already being deployed by AT&T for new iPhone 4 users.
  2. Increased bandwidth available to carriers. While this seems feasible, it is highly political and spectrum auctions are viewed by governments as very welcome ‘new’ sources of revenue (so very expensive). Plus doubling the bandwidth will delay the crunch for maybe two years.
  3. Deploy 4G technologies, such as LTE and WiMAX, unfortunately while these promise greater speeds, the uplift in capacity is only 50% over 3G, which just delays the inevitable one year. Given the ‘go slow’ mentality of most carriers when it comes to 4G, I seriously doubt if 4G will be deployed except in major cities until well after 2013.
  4. Deploy femtocells in the home to offload the network (they would hook into the customer’s broadband connection). This would reduce the energy needs of cell towers, improve reception and boost capacity by a factor tens or perhaps even hundreds (the major benefit comes from removing the signal attenuation through walls). There are some interference issues that need to be addressed but I think this is probably a non-starter. Why deploy a femtocell when I already have a wireless router?  Most smartphones like my G1 Android phone can switch between a Wi-Fi and 3G network and there is also the Line2 app for the iTouch which effectively turns an iTouch into an iPhone bypassing the carrier completely. The carriers run the risk of exposing their customers to a bypass technology if they aggressively deploy femtocell technology (unless it is perceived as ‘free’ and they seem loathe to do that.)

Of course, we may all get tired of watching videos, but I doubt it…

“Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.”

While I would very much love to claim the above quoteoscar-wilde as my own, it comes from Oscar Wilde. As he so succinctly puts, we rarely acknowledge mistakes but are very good at sugar-coating them.

It was brought to mind by an article in the New York Times about a non-profit group, MobileActive, who are focused on helping improve the lives of poor people through technology. One of the ways they accomplish this is through a gathering called Failfaire where the focus is on developing world mobile/telecom-based projects that didn’t work and discussing why and what lessons can be learned. I, for one, would learn a lot form such a gathering.

Lots of times it is not a failure of technology per se, but unintended consequences. The New York Times’ article uses as an example, a thriving woman-based hammock business based in Guyana that proved so successful that it was viewed as a threat to the local male-dominated culture and the plug was pulled.  So while we typically focus on the technological problem, it is usually the cultural obstacles that can derail even the most well intentioned project.

I do take exception to one quote in the article -

Mr. Walji said he was surprised to find, when he joined the bank from Google last fall, that mistakes were rarely discussed, so different from the for-profit world, where failures are used to spur innovation.

I think that this just isn’t true, mistakes/failures may be acknowledged but the lessons learned are rarely shared and in the for-profit world, there is still a focus on looking for someone to blame. It is usually camouflaged in a “learning from our mistakes” wrapper, as anyone who has sat through a loss-review can attest.

Social Networking and Web 2.0: Just a Fad?

When MySpace was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp all of five years ago, some people said they were crazy.  $580m was lunatic dollars.  A year later, Murdoch’s minions flipped a deal for $900m worth of advertising with Google that centered on the MySpace platform, and proclaimed that the acquisition was now worth something in the order of $6bn.  Microsoft valued Facebook at $15bn in 2007 with a derisory “strategic” stake, and Twitter’s funding round valued the company at $1bn just last year.  The numbers seem to be hitting something of a plateau, however, and even declining in some places, with a good deal of market cannibalization (certainly between Facebook and MySpace).  Now we hear that Bebo – with only 40 staff, after being acquired by the anti-Midas Internet company AOL for $850m at the height of the social networking boom – could close by the end of May if a buyer is not found.

Add to this concepts like defriending, and I think what begins to emerge is a picture of an outlet or a communications medium that is maturing.  These sites continue to be popular, and useful, but they are fragmenting.  While secondlife had its time in the Sun, and now seems to be beating a hasty retreat back to oblivion, starting with a bank run back in 2007, then a property crash in 2008, followed by a slow creaking yawn factor permeating the genre, the Internet now scratches its head wondering how can we take the weirdness and the fun and the tools and the relationships and connections, and make them useful?

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Behavio(u)ral Economics and Telecommunications

The telco is getting personal.  Finally.

Every time I walk through Tesco‘s, I get angry.  Maybe it’s because I’m a numbers guy, but I hate when they have a chocolate bar for a buck one week, and the following week it’s two for the price of one, at $1.10.  It’s clearly not free.  And Coca-cola, so productized you could probably buy ten cokes for different prices in one store.  Two bottles for the price of one.  a twin pack “economy rate”.  A slab of cans.  A six pack of small bottles.  And what freaks me out is where they put these things.  How many times to you go to the biscuit aisle and find stray packets of bourbon cremes from the promotions stack near the cured ham counter, dumped on top of the custard cremes when a wandering shopper realises that the offer ain’t all it’s cracked up to be when they analyse the other offers that were not beside the bourbon cremes (near the cured ham).  Humbug.

Of course, what this shows is that retailer have thought about this stuff.  They don’t stack shelves in order of price, because like on any good wine list in a restaurant, no one buys the most expensive stuff, and few people buy the cheapest stuff, but many buy the second cheapest option.  This is what academics call behavioural economics, an understanding that the psychology of buying is important in considering how to structure offers, and – generally speaking – how to price stuff.

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Beware the Android

Lots of press this week about the Nexus 1 (a.k.a. the Google phone) and whether it was as good as the iPhone. (see coverage roundup). It may be a moot point. An insightful article, falseiPhoneon the NT Times Gadgetwise blog, describes a counterfeit phone from China, that looks and behaves very much like an iPhone but is in reality an Android-based device.

Seems as if you can the best of both worlds (albeit illegally), an iPhone on a non-proprietary platform. Sort of begs the question, why would I buy an iPhone if I can get an Android phone that can act like one (or as a regular android phone)?

This really could put the cat amongst the pigeons as it divorces the iPhone (user interface) from the Apple iPhone operating system.

The bigger picture in Video – courtesy of Microsoft

The latest issue of the New Scientist has an article on applying photo stitching techniques to video streams from cell phones. Using time stamps and object recognition software, Microsoft researchers have developed a technique that can make a single real-time video stream out of many contributory streams. An example of the technique is below. A couple of things I find fascinating.

  1. This could well revolutionize news gathering. The ability to stitch multiple viewpoints into a single whole at major news events could bring a different perspective to what is really happening.
  2. This further extends that old adage “the best camera is the one you have with you”. The smart-phone with all its features is starting to live up to its promise.
  3. It is unique to the Windows Mobile platform. Uniqueness is something that is proving to be very difficult going forward.

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