The pendulum swings back to “paid for” content

It looks like the swing towards “ad funded everything” is quickly coming to an end, and there is a trend back in the direction of selling products and services to users. 

“Ad funded” for many businesses really meant “shareholder funded in the hope of later monetization”.  Meanwhile, people actually selling things were ignored – that was thought too “dirty” or “difficult”.  However, in difficult economic conditions, remember the Yorkshire expression: “where there’s muck there’s brass”.

It was interesting to see the announcements about Google’s apparent shift towards becoming an e-Commerce business.  They will be selling music and games direct to consumers on their YouTube site.

http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSTRE4970U820081008

This, and a glut of other recent announcements around music stores, music subscriptions, online games sales, and the various “app store” initiatives from Apple, Google, Blackberry(RIM) and others all indicate that we are seeing a return to the traditional model of “selling things to customers”.  For a few years, there has been a swing in the other direction.   “Freeconomics”.  The idea is that everything is free, you just get it by watching ads, so the advertised pays for whatever you need.

Looking at the world of TV, it seems the pendulum started swinging back to paid-for a year or two ago.  Ad funded TV companies (like ITV) are struggling against their “paid for” counterparts (Sky).  The latter are adding more and more options to buy content – ad-free as technology and consumer behavious changes.  Now that SKY has the technology in place they are making users pay to vote.

TV and radio shows are increasingly leveraging technology and mobile payment to sell participation in gameshows (votes cost money, entering games, bid-up auctions).

Now that belt tightening is on the increase, as people reduce their investments and feel concern about a potential recession, is the natural time for a move towards basic business.  Advertising will get cheaper to chase the customers.  Advertisers will get much sharper in their use of analytics and measurement to verify ROI.  Content owners will be more nervous about devaluing their offerings.  Increasing unemployment might reduce the demand for some forms of entertainment – although erotic content and teen spending on games seem in teh past to have been resilient to this – but advertising is sure to feel the pinch much more.

My prediction is that there will be amove back towards “value” over the next year or so, with paid for content moving to the front of the agenda.

Fortunately, the timing is right on teh technology and business front.  Most leading operators (Verizon,TIM and France Orange being teh notable exceptions) now embraced a paid for content model by opening up their billing systems and empowering innovation.  Device makers are supporting more innocation and opening up capabilities not they have a “green light” from the carriers.

Bango has seen a surge of interest in “mobile payment” interest at http://www.bango.com/payment  and we are working with a host of “app store” and “content store” developers targetting the fast growing SymbianS60, Blackberry and Windows app opportunities.

Companies who could benefit from this move could well be the older internet companies like Yahoo, who have platfomrs and the reach to leverage demand and a historic capability to sell things.  As a newcomer, Google might be able to succeed in this area, but only if it can embrace non-google avenues for payments and  take the risks necessary in being a “supplier” or “seller” rather than an ad channel.

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Apple iPhone Software Store generating sales

According to Apple, sales of software in the iPhone App store were $30 million in July.

“This thing’s going to crest at half a billion, soon,” Jobs told the Wall Street Journal: iPhone Software Sales take off. “Who knows, maybe it will be a $1bn marketplace at some point in time. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career for software.”

With a run rate of around $30 million a month, the App store is certainly showing that making apps easy to find and relatively easy to buy makes business possible.

Interestingly, Apple’s offering has a number of restrictions which if lifted could make it even more successful:
(1) You can’t do single click payments to your phone bill
(2) The range of apps is very limited and subject to many restrictions
(3) Apps are limited to a “one shot” pricing model (subscriptions or on-demand are forbidden)

Just as the iPhone made usability a key factor in new phone design – because customers like it – the success of Apple in selling premium content should do a lot to refocus people’s minds on selling content to users without having to place it in the “Operator Deck” or “Portal”.

We have seen many smaller businesses do very well by opening up mobile content and application stores on the mobile web, collecting payment through mobile operators (via Bango) and marketing through search and mobile ads.

Just imagine how successful Nokia might be if it got serious about an off-deck store!

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Transcoding the Truth?

There is an interview with Novarra President and COO, Jayanthi Rangarajan in Mobile Marketing Magazine that really takes the biscuit when it comes to spinning the truth around transcoding – its benefits and drawbacks:

http://www.mobilemarketingmagazine.co.uk/2008/05/talking-transco.htmlMs Rangarajan, as COO of Novarra is at best badly mis-informed or at worst blatantly transcoding the truth in her interview with the Magazine.

 

Novarra technology is being used by a few mobile operators to try to transform websites designed for PC’s to work better when viewed on phone browsers that don’t handle HTML pages or large pages well. A noble idea, to deal with the legacy websites that don’t deal with smaller screens and non-PC capabilities, but a process fraught with challenges.

Novarra chose to do this by sitting between the phone browser and the website, and replacing the information provided by the phone to the website with false information: specifically, changing the browser / phone identification to pretend the phone is a PC style browser.  The website, not knowing the user is coming from a phone then sends normal PC pages, which Novarra then “shrinks” and adapts to work better with the phone.   This can work well on sites that have not been designed to adapt to a mobile phone , but is disastrous for the hundreds of thousands of sites which do provide better service to phone users.

Mobile friendly sites identify the phone or browser and provide content best suited to that device. For example, video content, music, games and screen layouts are different on different devices.  Smart sites adapt to the device capabilities. If you are providing images to a phone you might want to fit them to the size of the phone screen for example. 

When Tim Berners Lee designed the Web, he foresaw the explosion in variety of browsers, so he enabled the browser to provide information to the website. The W3C mobile web initiative is the home of this activity: http://www.w3.org/Mobile/ 

It is this information that Novarra hides or corrupts, and which is why Novarra is regarded with such disgust by those closely involved in Web activity and standards as well as among web site builders.

When Vodafone UK launched the Novarra transcoder on the now infamous 7/7/07 , to enable desktop optimised websites to render better on mobile, the result was outcry from thousands of content providers large and small that their sites could no longer be seen, were corrupted, or were destroyed. 

http://uk.techcrunch.com/2007/09/21/vodafone-in-mobile-web-storm/

Advertisers on mobile sites found their ads were no longer viewed.  People selling mobile content had a surge in customer complaints – content that was sold did not work (the phone type was unknown) or simply not delivered.  

Vodafone UK had not forseen the problem, but reacted very quickly to create a “whitelist” of sites that would bypass the transcoder – and this patch is still in place.  Organizations like the BBC, CNN, SKY, Facebook, Flickr and others had service restored within a few days.  The problem remains however that sites are “adapted” or corrupted unless the website owner knows how to get themselves added to the whitelist.  Estimates of the financial losses to website owners in the UK range from hundreds of thousands of pounds upwards. 

Novarra seems to expect that (a) website owners should be aware of Novarra transcoding stepping in and (b) know how to contact Turkcell and Vodafone UK among others to ask not to be transcoded.  Crazy!

This is all unnecessary.  Novarra’s main competitor, Openwave, can be configured to pass through the browser information to the website unmodified, only stepping in if it detects that the website is not returning correctly formatted web pages to that browser – a much better approach with less “fallout”.

Now lets look at the interview with Mobile Marketing Magazine…

“While there is a community that continues to complain, the facts are that the operators are very happy and the mobile content partners are very happy.”

The facts are that mobile content providers are much happier with the Mobile Operators that are not blocking or corrupting their sites and disappointing their users.  Vodafone UK has put a great deal of effort into working round Novarra’s shortcomings – which is appreciated by many, but the fact remains that while there are short term benefits in mobile users on Vodafine UK being able to browse PC optimized websites, the way ahead is for sites to optimize to device capabilities.  This is being seen with website owners adapting not only to mobile models, but even to teh iphone which has a great browser, and to devices like Nintendo Wii and set-top boxes, and to devices used over WiFi where thankfully Novarra cannot intercede. .

“The problem only arose on mobile sites that were not .wap or .mobi. – but there were a lot of people who didn’t address their mobile sites as .wap or .mobi. They addressed them as .com, because in the world they were used to, it wasn’t possible for their regular website to be rendered on a phone. ”

Er, yes.  I have no idea what a “.wap” site is, but of course most sites will be .com, .net, .de or .co.uk or whatever.  They will be in peoples bookmarks, sent to users in messages etc., why should a person have to change their site address to stop Novarra breaking their site?

“We were screwing up some sites, and one of them, which was a Bango site, made a huge fuss. We had not tested some of these Bango sites, just as we have not tested all of the 1 billion websites.”

I have no idea which “Bango site” made a huge fuss. There are more than 10,000 mobile websites that use Bango services, most with their own web sites, some hosted on servers where they can’t change their domain name.  Many not even aware of what was going on in the UK.  Bango made a great effort to help these people who included companies like Disney, Paramount, EMI, Cosmopolitan, WWE, SKY, FIFA, NBA, Warner Bros, CocaCola, Maxim, and many others whose Vodafone UK connected users were harmed by Novarra’s lack of foresight and sensitivity.  Vodafone was very responsive – Novarra went into hiding.
 
“there’s one guy still going on about it.”

Perhaps Novarra  really believe there is just one complainer left. They must think that this “one guy” has hundreds of bogus identities on the mobile forums and somehow has many disguises to appear at trade-shows pretending to come from many of the world’s top mobile content companies…   More likely they are trying to hide the downside of their flawed system – rather than honestly acknowledging the problems they cause and addressing them.

Can you imaging if Novarra were able to stick themselves between iPhone users and their iPhone optimized websites – forcing them to deliver PC content?  What would Steve Jobs say?

“There are other people out there making a lot of noise, but they don’t have the people or the technology that we have.”

So, should they stop making a noise?

“If you look at the service that Sprint has launched with Openwave, it takes 60-70 seconds to load. That would take Novarra five seconds.”

This statement could be technically represented by the formula: B*LL()CK5
Bango sees traffic from millions of users across Vodafone UK and Sprint.
Both have deployed transcoders. Neither have a speed problem.

Talking of speed, if Novarra wants to become more than a temporary “speed bump” in the roll out of web to mobile users, I suspect they should listen more to the people who are already serving many times more users than them and who seem to want to innovate to solve problems rather than innovating
in the science of excuses and bluster.

Web Browsing or Widgets?

“Mobile web browsing is something of a dead end.” – according to an article in The Register at http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/24/china_mobile_vodafone_widgets/
which is all about Vodafone and China Mobile working together on some sort for widget project. 

I don’t think so.  Mobile browsing is taking off fast.  100 fold growth in UK in last 4 years, everybody in Japan and Korea does it. iPhone seems popular for browsing.  Microsoft and many others fought to resist the web browser on the PC for fear it would shift the power from devices (PCs) to service providers (Yahoo, Google, Amazon, eBay etc.) and commoditize the PC.  Thank goodness they failed!

The Register says: “No matter how great your scaling technology, most websites won’t work properly on the smallest screen. So operators, manufacturers, and pundits are betting that mobile widgets will be the vehicle that brings the mobile internet to the masses.”

Thankfully, operators, manufacturers and “pundits” don’t write mobile websites.  Those who do write them are adapting them to work on small screens. Yahoo, Google, eBay, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, BBC, CNN, USA Today, The Sun, Flickr, The Times, even Nokia (but not Apple yet) all have small screen sites that work fine.

The mobile web is in its infancy, but has a great future ahead of it. We love mobile web!

So how was CTIA?

The flight back from CTIA was taken up by trying to “close off” as many actions as possible by emails, and then on lying back and reviewing what I had seen at the show – ready to report back to all the people who would say “so how was CTIA?”.

In a word: Quiet

CTIA has traditionally been about “big bang” announcements of major new initiatives (mobile TV, mobile advertising, Java initiatives, music clubs, big brands doing stuff….) but I did not see any of those – apart from the Virgin/Google joint venture – Virgle – to put a colony on Mars that was announced on 1st April.

Without those big announcements that everybody could have an opinion about, the show got down to basics.  75% of the activity seemed to be about companies trying to snare mobile carriers – the main reason CTIA is held.  25% of the activity was around networking and selling between other parties who where there.

Bango had a busy booth and a lot of off-site activity, but 50% of that activity was with existing customers, 25% was with prospects we had already met with and the remaining 25% was new contacts.  Talking with staff on the AdMob, Yahoo!dotMobi, Microsoft and other mobile web booths indicated the same balance of activity and similar sentiment.

So the show was productive and worthwhile, but not a sudden stimulus to new activity or a change in thinking that it might have been in the past.  Also, with Vegas easily able to mop up 20,000+ people who attend, there was little of the buzz/chaos/excitement of a Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – which has 80,000 there incl. hangers on.

One big trend we did identify was an increasing interest from the carriers in moving towards WAP billing models to cut down on the customer service hassles and the that are caused or enabled by Premium SMS’s model of “out of band billing”. No real news, but an awful lot of activity.

My current hypothesis is that DRM is on the way out.  Its too user hostile and there are so many ways to bypass it.  I recently bought (for the first time) a track from iTunes – and discovered to my disappointment that I could not play the track on my phone – even though I could make it play on my PC – until I used a special tool that makes MP3 files direct from your sound driver….   Everybody I met at CTIA seemed to accept the same belief, although with different estimates of timings.  In 3 years time I suspect we will hardly be able to remember when you could not transfer your music to any device you wanted, or when some carriers offered “subscription music services” where you lost everything when you stopped subscribing. 

CTIA Spring 2008 shows the industry is maturing – moving away from novelties and towards the real grind of getting down to business.  For mobile webbers, the September event always seems very dynamic – with the focus more being on content and services.  Its in San Francisco this time, so web heads will definitely be around – and we are really looking forward to it!

 

Are you happy for somebody to wrap advertising round your mobile site – and sell it?

If you operate a web site, are you happy for ISP’s around the world to edit the content of your sites and add banner advertising to your pages – without telling you or getting your agreement? 

Several mobile operators have started to place “transcoders” or “filters” that intercept and replace web (HTTP) traffic going to their phones. 

The effects are sometimes relatively benign – for example reducing the sizes of images for faster download.  http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/06/06/vodafone_mobile_internet/comments/

Sometimes it is a more damaging – some carriers masking the handset type from mobile websites – preventing website owners providing a good experience to users.   http://wurfl.sourceforge.net/vodafonerant/

Telia in Sweden recently went to the next level, and has provoked a firestorm among web site owners site developers in Sweden.  They are using thei rweb transcoder to wrap advertising sites that are visited through their network.

   http://mobtech.se/index.php/blog/6-blog/739-transcoding-novarra   

Imagine the uproar if Verizon started filtering out ads on their fixed broadband network and adding banner ads to web pages!  In the mobile world, where things are not so easy to see and mobile carriers are generally not called to account, this can happen by stealth. 

I expect that there is enough resistance to this idea, and sufficient competitive pressure between operators to stifle these misguided initiatives, but with 18 or 24 month contracts the norm for mobile data services, the users generally have to put up with what they are given in the mobile world.

Anybody seen this outside Sweden yet?