Facebook is So Over, Dude…

There were two distressing cases in Ireland recently of young girls who took their own lives after cyber-bullying.  Both cases emerged after they had been exposed to the online behaviour on ask.fm, a social networking (Q&A, really) site that allows anonymity and has been taken up in great numbers by teenagers here.  When the first case happened, journalists tried to trace the company, but it was difficult, as it was snarled up in a web of offshore instruments and complex arrangements.  The site has been soaring in recent months, yet remains very small in terms of staff – ten people, no more.  It is particularly strong in non-English speaking countries, and countries where anonymity is useful.  My first question was “who is ask.fm?!” Now, just hold that thought. Continue reading

Mobile Commerce: The Future of Everything

It’s been fifteen years now since the Global Mobile Commerce Forum launched in 1997, at a hotel in Heathrow Airport.  They talked about “the delivery of electronic commerce capabilities directly into the consumer’s hand, anywhere, via wireless technology” and “a retail outlet in your best customer’s pocket”.  In a rather quaint and rare example of a forecast that was horribly understated as the dot com boom got underway, they even predicted that there would be as many as 150 million mobile telephony users by the year 2000.  Ah, we were innocent then!

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Telco and the Applification Complex

I’m not in the habit of making up words, as there are plenty good ones to go around, many of them lamentably underused.  Nevertheless, there is a trend upon us that defies conventional description, and for want of le mot juste, I’ve decided that applification (and its derivatives) best captures it.  I’m talking, of course, about how apps have come to dominate the thinking of digital consumers, and, increasingly, service providers as well.  Everything, it seems, is an app – or wants to be one.  We used to have web sites, services, APIs, email addresses, phone numbers (how quaint!), even computers and software.  Now, we have apps.

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The Untethering of Telco

Telcos have been losing their customer ownership and authority for many years.  First there was 1984, and the anti-Orwellian breakup of AT&T, and the ensuring deregulation of telecommunications around the world.  Then there was mobile, and the internet, two upstart technologies that threatened everything about telco.  Then there came over the top (OTT) service providers, and the device manufacturers – first mobile phone manufacturers, then every other consumer electronics manufacturer, then every metering and instrumentation manufacturer who could stick a SIM card in their electronics.  Now Google has changed tack on Android, and is upping the ante in its relationship (if it can be called that) with the service provider.  It is going to work with device manufacturers to get their devices out early and direct – specifically targeted at wresting control from the carriers.  According to the Wall Street Journal, this shift “marks a bid to exert more control over key features and apps that run on Android-powered phones and tablets, thus reducing the influence of wireless carriers over such devices.”

Tor many of the device manufacturers, telcos represent important channels.  for others, that’s less the case.  Austek, for example, has no such channel, and is deciding that rather than laboriously build such a channel, telco by telco, country by country, they will sell directly over the internet.  Motorola of course is becoming part of Google, and will continue its hybrid approach to the market, presumably in a trajectory that continues to reduce its dependence on the telco as channel.  Apple has long had alternate channels, and as tablets play an increasingly more important role in their business (especially with the much touted 7″ iPad due for release later this year) their dependence on iPhone sales will be reduced.  Tablet with a dialer, rather than phone with apps, you see.

The remaining tether to the service provider appears to me to be the phone number.   You know what would be a great app?  An identity app.  A simple, single function app that’s free, and that you share with your friends, that allows you to publish your current phone number, or – better again – that simply updates automatically when you swap SIM cards.  Then when you want to call someone, all you have to do is connect the app to your contact book, and call your contact using the app, instead of 555-1234-5678.  It would be great for people who swap SIMs a lot.  What’s more, it could ‘sense’ when someone else has changed SIM, or phone.  It would tie both SIM and IMEI number together, and create a single identity.  So when someone calls in, the app would be aware of the incoming call, go back to the server and ask about the number that’s dialling, and return with information to the recipient of the call saying that even though you’ve never seen this number before, it’s John who’s calling.

In Japan, something similar could be done with an email app, as email addresses are tethered to telcos there as well.

The net result would be a small footprint app, distributed for free, and promoted across social media.  We could figure out a business model later :-)

An Irish company called YAC (You’re Always Connected) tried to do something similar about ten or twelve years ago, but it wasn’t the same – they had this thing called YAC numbers, which were actual phone numbers, but universal across networks (www.yac.com seems to be still limping along with a kind of eReceptionist thing).  Zouk Ventures (now a clean tech investor) had an investment in them.  There was a lot of config required both by the user and by the caller, which was a bit much.  They couldn’t quite get it over the line.  But the basic concept – removing the phone number tether from service provider control – remains valid.

Now.  Who can build my app for me….

The Sun Ain’t Shining on TV No More

The New York Times reports on falling Spring viewership for TV just as we approach what they call in the biz the “upfronts”, or the ad buying season.  Fox is down 20%, ABC 21%, CBS 8% and NBC 3%, all of which are quite savage.  One of the interesting things is the list of excuses as to why this is happening.  A substantial amount of the blame goes on the abandonment of linear viewing, that PVRs have allowed people to choose when they watch a show (skipping ads, of course).  Delayed viewing according to one exec would be the second biggest show on TV if it were ranked that way.  The decline of American Idol too has impacted, which is of course a live show, and therefore not as susceptible to the nonlinear thing.  They blame the quality of some of the shows…and they even blame the weather!  Bless!

None of them mention channel offset, which has to be one of the most significant factors.  I mean, there’s a simple question – if people are not watching TV, what are they doing?  How are they being diverted or entertained?  Why do none of them want to acknowledge that?  Maybe it’s because it’s such a pervasive trend (the shift from TV to internet, peer to peer and non broadcast media) now that it goes without saying…but I thought it was odd no one mentioned it.  Maybe – and here’s a wild thought – maybe people are reading books again? Ah, sure we can only dream!

Whaddya mean you don’t remember me?!

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet!"

You know those awkward moments when you meet someone you know, but you just can’t quite remember their name?  And then, briefly, you think the name is coming to you, and then, quick as it almost came to you, it vapourises and you know you’re toast… And of course we’ve all been on the other side of that as well, when people we think – we hope! – will remember us, and really they didn’t.  It’s not nice.  That translates of course into Commerce.  Airlines try hard to welcome people by name, especially frequent fliers.  Telcos make a point of mentioning your name when you call their call center.  Hotels train their staff to refer to guests by name.  It’s personal, it’s nice, it’s warm.  We like it.  We equate it with good service.

It’s particularly impressive when you have no idea who these people are (as opposed to walking into your local Chinese restaurant that you go to regularly), and the default view is – hey, these guys really worked hard to deliver to me a personalised experience – even if sometimes you just wonder a little how they knew your name.

Now. think about that on a web site.  You go to a web page that you’ve never been to before, and it knows stuff about you.  How is that possible?  How do they know?  What else do they know?  Paranoia kicks in.  You start to wonder whether these guys are monitoring you, following you.  Data protection regulators and Privacy Tsars in governments detect this and start sounding off about customer protections, and identity protection, and privacy and civil rights.  If a human knows – that’s ok.  But if the machine knows, well that’s a whole other thing.

So Google and a bunch of other webcos have finally said that they will support a “Do Not Track” button on browsers.  This won’t stop everything though.  While if a user clicks this new “Do Not Track” button, the website will not be able to use user data to customize ads, they can still use it in “product development”, which, with the right amount of statistical abstraction and algorithm cleverness, will do the same thing.  Here’s the point – Commercial Radio stations for seventy years or more have been tailoring their business to be more and more and more and more accurate in terms of designing “product” for the purposes of advertising.  As  result, based on product design, they can tell to a 95% degree of accuracy who’s listening in any 15 minute segment.  This is completely untethered from the customer, that is, we’re not tracking the customer in real time, but we know who’s there.

Maybe this will mean we don’t remember your name, but we’ll still know exactly how to match you with an advertiser, or a commercial partner that can allow web economics to function just as well as they always did.  So the experience becomes not one that is personalised – because for a machine to get personal is just too freaky, it seems – but the experience becomes astonishingly relevant and useful.  And that’s something I think we’d all appreciate.