a week in wireless


A 5.5 on the Spencer Scale

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If there were a recognised scale for outpourings of grief, one that could be grouped with Beaufort (wind), Richter (earthquakes) and Scoville (heat of a chilli pepper), then it would probably be called the Spencer Scale. Named for the young Lady Diana Spencer, who became the Princess of Wales in marriage and the Queen of our Hearts in death, the Spencer Scale would rank all grief outpourings against that which swept the world like an epidemic in 1997.

This, you will remember, had all the indiscriminate virulence of the Bubonic Plague but none of the population control upside—and let’s face it, we could probably have stood to jettison a fair few of the afflicted from the gene pool. A spasm in the global sense of perspective, we can only hope its like will never be seen again.

Assuming the Spencer Scale were a familiar 1 to 10 arrangement, where ten is Diana, the Informer reckons that the reaction to the passing of Steve Jobs merits a 5.5. Maybe a six. Keeping Jobs from a really top score on the Spencer Scale is the fact that his death, sadly young and from a recurrent cancer, was not unexpected. The grief, like the analysis of the impact of his withdrawal from Apple, was already well underway. We need also to bear in mind that Jobs’ passing came at a time when certain technologies, in whose success he played no small part, existed to lubricate the grief machine.

It’s a puzzler for the Informer. The default position that untimely death is sad aside, just why are so many people so upset by his passing? Presumably it’s a post-iPhone phenomenon. Appealing as Apple Macs are to a fair number of loyal consumers (and in the interests of disclosure the Informer has never used anything else, at work or at home) these computers were not the reason for such affection. Ditto the iPod, a product with far greater reach but nothing like the impassioned following.

No, the widespread esteem in which Jobs is held surely derives from the products that married the slick interactive workings of the firm’s computers with the wider appeal of the iPod—the iPhone and, to a lesser degree, the iPad. Great products, no doubt about it—and it doesn’t overstate the case to credit those products and their creators with the invention of what we have come to know as mobile data services. But are they really so special that feelings of grief from millions of complete strangers for the former CEO of the firm that made them are warranted?

Of course the Informer is in no position to judge the aptitude of other people’s emotions; after all, he cried when Bouncer got written out of Neighbours.

Nonetheless, it does seem a little strange—because Jobs’ key skill, the thing that made a success of the man and his products, was to convince people to part with more of their money than was really necessary. He was a marketing guy; he created need and urgency where there was none before. He made people want to be a Mac rather than a PC; he spawned a new level of aspiration in the mobile space. He talked the money out of our pockets and into his, and made us feel grateful in the process. The world mourns its favourite, and possibly greatest, modern salesman.

And yes, of course Jobs micromanaged the product development, ensuring the products functioned exactly as he wanted them to, so they became synonymous with him and he with them. Hell, so much has been made of the umbilical link between the man and the devices that the Informer was surprised his own iPhone carried on working after the sad news came. He was half expecting it to light-up unbidden with a black and white image of Jobs, before flickering once and for all into silent darkness in some kind of silicon sacrifice to its maker.

Great products, indeed. But we should also remember that each iteration of the iPhone has had problems worthy of serious criticism. No 3G. No detachable battery. No multitasking. No Flash. An antenna that didn’t work properly, leading Jobs to make the kind of suggestion—that users hold their handsets differently if they want them to actually function—that would have sent a lesser mortal sailing out of business on a tidal wave of derision. So we can’t attribute peoples’ affection for Jobs to his delivery of perfection.

The Informer supposes he’s answered his own question, here. Whether it really makes sense or not, people love their iPhones, whatever their flaws. They feel so personally attached to them, and so much of Jobs’ personality went into them, that—as with a dead rock star who wrote their favourite song—they mourn the man that made that connection.

Jobs’ passing wasn’t the only Apple event this week. of course. For a bit more about the new phone (the central gripe with which appeared to be the absence of a five), click here. And if you ever wondered what kind of industry news could eclipse the launch of a new iPhone, now you know. For one last time this week, in death as in life, Jobs exerted control.

One of the more thoughtful responses to the whole thing concerned that control, and came from Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight centre for digital media entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite school of journalism and mass communication.

Writing in The Guardian, Gillmor—a one time Apple devotee—recounted his gradual detachment from the fold. “Where Steve Jobs had been the freedom fighter, he was becoming the emperor, creating a regime of secrecy, manipulation and control-freakery to accompany the ongoing, even accelerating, innovation,” he said. “My respect—no awe—for Jobs’s genius has only grown, but I couldn’t ultimately follow him into a walled garden, however comfortable, that contradicted what I believed in, and what he once stood for. I was no longer his kind of customer, though; he aimed now for the masses who preferred to live in Apple’s warm but controlling embrace, and he succeeded.”

Gillmor raised the question many have raised before him: Will the rest of Apple survive the removal of its most vital organ? It’s by no means clear. He also offered some quiet irony by quoting Jobs himself, a man whose success was built on a single-mindedness that some have called dictatorship, and not all have thought benign. “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

Pity everyone else in the industry who had news out this week. But let’s get to it.

Vodafone UK has obviously been reading the Drug Dealer’s Guide to Product Marketing, which exhorts providers to offer the first hit for free, in order to cultivate an enthusiasm for the product among the consumer. The firm has introduced a policy whereby new and upgrading customers are given limitless access to mobile data for the first three months of the contract, before being told how much they’ve consumed and directed towards an appropriate price plan.

The company said it hoped the strategy would allow customers to explore the potential of smartphones and data services without fear of bill shock. It sounds like a great idea to the Informer, although it will have to be judged on the conversion rate. Plenty of people taste the free cheese at the market but don’t go on to buy any as a result. Vodafone will be hoping that its services will be closer to smack than cheddar on the addiction scale.

Over in India, Vodafone is one of a number of operators affected by a spat with state-owned incumbent BSNL. The fixed carrier claims that Vodafone, Airtel and Idea owe it more than half a million dollars in interconnection fees and has stopped terminating their calls until the dispute has been settled. At the time of writing the wrangle is in its ninth day, with even calls to emergency services affected in the state of Haryana, the focus of the dispute.

A similar situation occurred a couple of weeks back in Punjab, but BSNL was ordered by a TDSAT tribunal to restore service to two of the accused; Tata and Reliance.

Indian carrier Bharti Airtel is a big player in Africa since its purchase of Zain and this week the firm announced a network management deal with Nokia Siemens Networks in the region. NSN will manage and extend Airtel’s GSM networks in Madagascar, Malawi, Congo Brazzaville, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, as well as deploying 3G networks when the time comes.

Sticking with Africa, the United Nations World Food Programme has launched a new initiative that enables the transfer of funds for food aid over mobile networks in Côte d’Ivoire. Some 54,000 Ivorians living in the poorest parts of the country will receive text messages that enable them to withdraw cash from MTN-operated ATMs. SIM cards had previously been distributed to the intended recipients. Each household in the relevant districts, which were badly affected by the post-election crisis in the country, will receive two donations of $75.

Meanwhile a new MVNO launched here in the UK this week, focusing specifically on the African migrant population, and claiming a first in terms of mobile remittance. Vizz Africa, owned by QiComm, which already operates Dialog Vizz for the UK’s Sri Lankan community, will allow Africans living in or travelling to the UK to make SMS credit transfers to friends and relatives in their home markets, effectively allowing calls to be reverse charged.

Vizz said it has agreements in place with all African mobile operators, and plans to launch international money transfers down the line, in addition to its airtime transfer service. Dialog Vizz is currently activating 10,000 users per month, according to CEO Pat Nabhan.

The UK has lagged other developed markets somewhat in its approach to LTE but it was announced this week by France Telecom/Deutsche Telekom mash-up Everything Everywhere that the first live trial of LTE, conducted in partnership with BT, is now underway. The chosen location for the deployment is Cornwall, in the South Western corner of England; chosen for its relatively limited broadband availability. The service will be trialled by 200 users, half on mobile and half on fixed services.

Over in Italy the LTE spectrum auctions have just been concluded and, in a nod to the craziness of the European UMTS auctions, they have well exceeded their reserve. The Italian G said it trousered €3.9bn from the 22 day process that saw spectrum at 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz flogged off. There were no surprises in the outcome, with Vodafone Italy, Telecom Italia, Wind and 3 Italia all securing frequencies.

Now – have you heard of SpiderCloud? Do you know what they do? The Informer couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous scene from the Simpsons Movie by the company’s name: “SpiderCloud, SpiderCloud. Does whatever a SpiderCloud does”.

What the firm actually does is in-building solutions for medium to large enterprises and public premises. This week the Informer spoke to CEO Mike Gallagher who was at pains to point out that his solution, which sounds in description a lot like a femtocell, is not a femtocell. Instead, Gallagher said, it’s a miniature RAN—access points the size of a hardback novel and an RNC the size of a pizza box—that can be installed and self organized in 45 minutes, with the macro network seeing the whole thing as just one cell.

Full of beans, Gallager was offering femto providers outside, nor for fisticuffs, but for an in-building bake-off. “Anyone who wants to come down, just go and get 18 of your APs and let’s put them in a 100,000 square foot facility and monitor the results,” he said. “They’ve tried to do it and they’ve blown up their networks [in the process].”

The femto guys came back with equal bombast, safe in the knowledge, as Gallagher must be, that no operator is going to actually enable a public competition between the different solution providers. “At Ubiquisys we prefer to name real operators who are offering our self-organising femtocell grids to enterprises today—like Network Norway for example,” said Keith Day, cocking a snook at SpiderCloud’s reticence to announce its operator partners.

He added that the need for an RNC in the enterprise premises would put end users off the SpiderCloud system. He was backed up by his opposite number at IP Access, Andy Tiller. “Their proposition involves putting specific kit all over the campus or premises and that’s the thing that the IT managers tend to dislike. So I think their business proposition is difficult.”

Gallagher said it would be announcing its partners, in Europe and the US, before the end of this year.

And we’ll end this week with some news of Facebook, another company that can lay claim to changing people’s behaviour just as much as the one we started with. Zuckerberg’s outfit has created a version of the platform that can be embedded on the SIM, in a bid to do what Steve Jobs never did with the iPhone; tap the vast, lower end of the market.

The product, developed by SIM player Gemalto, will go first to Latin America, with Telecom Argentina the first to adopt it. The interface is necessarily rudimentary, but allows for status updates, messages and friend requests to be managed from lower end handsets.

The film of Zuckerberg’s rise to prominence was compelling viewing. Surely one must now be in discussion charting the trajectory of Steve Jobs. His biography is due out next week. Boy did that man know how to market.

Take care

The Informer.


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