Mobile Sands

November 20, 2010

Applications for white space spectrum?

Filed under: LTE, Metro Wi-Fi, New business models, white space, Wi-Fi — AJ @ 5:14 pm

The search for what to do with white space spectrum is on.

Cambridge Consultants, a radio consulting company in UK, identified three promising applications: in-home video distribution, municipal wireless, and rural broadband. Scores of companies have tried to address these three markets but with limited commercial success. There are solutions for in-home video distribution using Wireless HD, WHDI, 802.11n and UWB –  and many of them commercially available. Several companies build outdoor WiFi gear for municipal deployments. Broadband can be provided in rural areas with a wide range of mature wireless technologies (EVDO, UMTS, LTE, WiMAX etc.) running in both licensed and unlicensed bands. Licensed spectrum is dirt cheap in rural areas. All this raises the question – is there enough demand for these applications and is  new technology needed to address them?

According to Ruckus, a company that builds WiFi gear with beam forming antennas, “white space will be ideal for creating “urban overlays” to higher-speed microcell Wi-Fi and macrocell LTE networks… perfect for offloading low bit rate “chatter” traffic, such as application notifications (email, presence lists, etc. generated by handheld wireless devices) from high speed cellular or Wi-Fi networks”. Though an interesting application, it is doubtful that carriers will add a new radio into their handsets to offload low bit rate chatter. The incremental cost of adding WiFi to a handset had to fall below $10 before carriers starting making it a standard feature in their smartphone lineups.

Brough Turner, founder of a a 802.11n based ISP called netBlazr and former CTO/founder of NMS communications, points out that white space spectrum being “beachfront” spectrum is based on 20th century technology, not physics. Brough, in other blog posts and presentations at industry forums, has argued that large amounts of spectrum at higher frequencies is significantly more valuable for offering broadband and connectivity than few 6 MHz channels in lower frequency bands.

Of course, those who have commercially viable ideas on what to do in this spectrum are not advertising them on the Internet.  I was recently reading the history of ISM bands on the website of Michael Marcus and at George Mason’s Internet Economy Project. It is notable that both WiFi and Bluetooth, poster child applications for ISM bands took off more than 15 years after this spectrum was opened up for unlicensed use. Spread spectrum, the technology that folks at FCC believed would be deployed in ISM bands was replaced by OFDM. None of the companies that were pioneers in the ISM band are in business today.  Plus, not all unlicensed spectrum creates billion dollar markets. Unlicensed PCS (UPCS), a 20 MHz band what was offered for unlicensed use in 1995, has no application to date. Still, in these relatively early days, it is better for all us to stay optimistic about the possibilities and keep our thinking hats on!

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August 8, 2009

How Unlimited Voice at $50 or Less May Change Everything

Unlimited Nationwide Voice – Now for $50 or Less

18 months ago, on Feb 07, 2008 Sprint became the first major US carrier to launch an unlimited voice & data plan – for $119.99/month.  Verizon responded within 12 days with a $99.99/month unlimited voice planAT&T  immediately matched it & so did T-Mobile.  On Feb 28, 2008 Sprint lowered the price of its $119.99/month “Simply Everything Plan” to $99.99/month and few days later launched a $89.99/month unlimited voice plan.  Carriers called their offering revolutionary and there was talk of a price war.

In January 2009, Sprint’s Boost Mobile subsidiary launched a $50/month prepaid unlimited voice, text, PTT and data plan. Boost uses Sprint’s iDEN network and Sprint probably offered this plan because there was lot of spare capacity on its iDEN network after several quarters of steep subscriber losses. Within 8 weeks of launching this plan, Boost signed up 764,000 new prepaid subscribers – growth that took everyone in the industry by surprise. It was a game changing event. Boost, of course, is not the first unlimited flat-rate voice service. Both, MetroPCS and Leap Wireless, have been offering unlimited voice for $50/month for years. But Boost is the first one to offer unlimited flat rate on a nationwide network.  Virgin Mobile (a Sprint MVNO) announced a $50/month voice + data plan in April. Though Verizon initially criticized Sprint for halving the price for unlimited voice, it started testing an unlimited plan of its own called StraightTalk with MVNO partner Tracfone (an America Movil subsidiary) in June.

Carriers Use MVNOs and Subsidiaries to Offer Lower Rates

Unlike unlimited voice plans offered by major carriers in 2008, this year’s unlimited plans are being offered through MVNOs or subsidiaries. These MVNOs or subsidiaries use prepaid billing, offer a smaller range of handsets, do not require long-term contracts and do not offer any handset subsidies  High-end smartphones like Blackberry and Palm Pre are not part of the handsets offered by the MVNO, and customers may not get certain features they get on the main network.  Consumer now have a choice – they can go with the expensive “full-service” brand (Sprint, Verizon) or with the “discount” brand (Boost, Tracfone).

Service providers in other industries have tried such strategies in the past – often with limited success. This was the idea behind “Ted from United” and “Song from Delta”. Just like MetroPCS and Leap Wireless were offering unlimited voice service before Sprint and Verizon jumped in, Southwest and Jetblue were offering low-cost airfares before Ted and Song. With Ted and Song,  United and Delta tried to emulate Southwest and Jetblue’s cost structures by using single a class of planes (Airbus A320s for United and Boeing 757 for Delta), charging for in-flight snacks, and paying lower salaries to crews. They tried to differentiate against Southwest and Jetblue by using their national networks and frequent flyer programs. However, by doing so, they could not maintain sufficient differentiation between the discount and full-service versions.   Customers earned the same frequent flyer miles whether they flew Ted or United and were able to use the entire network of the full-service airline. Yes,  there were no first class cabins, but most customers did not care. By 2008, both Delta and United had discarded the sub-brands, and today United and Delta operate more or less like discount carriers.

What’s Next?

Though Ted and Song did not survive, they did help convince United & Delta that majority of consumers really don’t care about their “full-service” offerings; that it is better to charge a lower fare and sell snack boxes on board than to charge more and bundle-in meals. It also forced many carriers to simplify their fleets and re-negotiate labor contracts. The airline business was changed forever and Ted and Song were the harbinger of these changes.

Unlimited nationwide voice offered at half-the-price of comparable services, but through a prepaid, subidy-free, business model qualifies to be a similar disruptive innovation. And its impact is likely to be far-reaching. For instance, it may:

  1. End the current, handset subsidy-based business model
  2. Move from postpaid per-minute billing to prepaid flat-rate billing
  3. Change the set of must-have services. Integration with facebook may become more important than three-way calling.

Such far reaching changes will affect everyone in the wireless value chain – from handset vendors to network equipment suppliers.

  1. If handset subsidies go away, it will force handset vendors to compete on the basis of their brands and cost structures rather than carrier relationships.
  2. As ARPUs fall, operators will push equipment vendors to lower network cap-ex and op-ex, creating opportunities for some and eliminating the business of others.
  3. Change in must-have services will allow technology suppliers to make a stronger case for technologies like VoIP over EVDO/HSPA/LTE or femtocells that offer lower-cost but may notalways offer services parity.

Change is in the air. And though it may not benefit everyone in the industry, it will keep the engine of innovation humming.

    June 6, 2009

    Smartphones may Herald the Golden Age of Internet Radio

    Though Internet Radio has been around since the mid-nineties, it has not seriously challenged good-old FM radio (“Network radio”) in the same way that Internet video (YouTube, hulu and others) have challenged Network/Cable TV.  The reason – over 60% of radio listening is done “on-the-go”. And of the 40% of radio listening that is done at home, most is done while doing other things around the house – not when the listener is on her PC.  Well,  3G-capable smartphones change all this.  

    Pandora, NPR, Y!Music and more

    Pandora, the web-based service that let users create their own radio station, is the #1 free music application on Apple’s App Store, and is ranked #20 among all free apps.  Other personalized streaming audio apps on the iPhone include Slacker and CBS-owned Last.Fm.

    Interestingly, network radio has been quick to enter the smartphone radio market.  NPR makes 300 of its stations available through the Public Radio Tuner app, ranked #5 among all free music apps.  Clear Channel, the largest owner of FM radio stations in the US makes some of its channels available through iHeartRadio.  Many CBS stations can be heard via AOLRadio.  Yahoo! Music launched an iPhone version of their service few months ago, and one can listen to thousands of radio stations from around the world using apps like Radio, ooTunesRadio, allRadio and WunderRadio.  

    Many Internet Radio apps are quickly making their way to other smartphone platforms as well.  Slacker offers a Blackberry App. Pandora has been available on Blackberry, Windows and over 50 feature phones for a while but it recently made a  conscious choice to focus on Palm Pre as its second major smartphone platform. As a result, Pandora comes pre-installed on the Pre.  Mumbai-based Geodesic is focusing on Blackberry and Symbian phones instead with its Mundu Radio application.

    Unlike mobile video, carriers are not blocking Internet radio

    Wireless carriers are not blocking Internet radio applications because its bandwidth requirements are in line with 3G.  Internet radio stations use streaming rates between from 28.8 kbps to 128 kbps, speeds that can be easily supported even over moderately loaded 3G networks.   Someone who commutes for 2 hours/day for 22 days a month and listens to Pandora at 128 kbps would download around 250 MB of data – not a very large amount, and definitely within the data caps imposed by most 3G providers.  

    Time for 3G carriers to challenge Satellite Radio

    The main value proposition of satellite radio has been that one can listen to hundreds of radio stations, without the hassle of searching for the right one when crossing over from one metro area to another. Well, now a listener can do exactly that and much more with Internet radio on her mobile phone. She can listen to thousands of radio stations from around the globe or even better, listen to a station completely personalized to her tastes.  And do all this without paying anything over and above the price of the a 3G data plan.  

    Though 3G carriers are not actively promoting Internet radioon phones  and challenging satellite radio, they should, and make a play for the dollars that are going to Sirius/XM today.  Sirius/XM charges $9.99 – 19.99 for its multiple radio station services and had 18.6M subscribers at the end of Q1’2009.  If these 18.6M subscribers were convinced that they could get the same selection of radio stations (or even better – personalized radio stations!) on their 3G phones – in addition to email, web and more – it would be easy for them to sign up for a $30/month plan.

    May 15, 2009

    On MIT NextLab and Mobile Ventures for the Next Billion Consumers

    Filed under: Mobile Apps, Netbooks, New business models, Smartphones — AJ @ 7:16 pm

    Yesterday, I attended the “finals” of MIT NextLab, a social entrepreneurship class that aims to “launch mobile ventures for the next billion consumers”. It was heart-warming to see how ubiquitous connectivity (via SMS) and low-cost mobile computing devices (smart phones) can be used to make a huge difference in the lives of poor people in developing countries. Still, the premise that somehow these socially beneficial projects could be turned into self-sustaining ventures without expanding the addressable market seemed a stretch.

    MIT NextLab and the Next Billion Network Project

    The NextLab course is offered as part of the Next Billion Network (NBN) initiative at MIT Media Lab. NBN’s goal is to encourage grass-roots level development using cell phones in developing countries. The program was founded by Telmex’s Jhonaton Rotberg little over two years ago. Telmex, its mobile arm America Movil, Nokia and Bank of America are the primary sponsors of the activity.

     Like most good entrepreneurial ventures (or successful IT projects), NextLab projects start with the end-customer. Each student team is paired with a NGO, corporation or some other representative group in a developing country who has a problem that needs to be solved. Projects are typically designed for a 1-year team period, encompassing two semesters, and MIT’s winter and summer breaks. At least one project started in this class (MoCa) has continued for almost two years, while few others have been taken over by local partners or are stand-alone ventures.

     Videos of this year’s projects are worth checking out. These projects address problems like making healthcare accessible in remote rural areas (MoCa), enabling people without bank accounts to do basic financial transactions (Dinube), making the life of truckers in Colombia easier (Hammock),  creating an even-playing field for small farmers in Mexico (Zaca), fighting crime in large cities via crowdsourcing (Civirep), and spreading adult literacy in India (CelEdu).

     Freemium Model for Social Enterprises?

     Most student teams claimed that they could somehow create a business by selling to the customers they are currently working with.  Though laudable, in my opinion,  it is very difficult to build businesses that cater ONLY to people who have very little or no money. Proponents of creating such businesses argue that they can make up for low gross margin per customer through scale. Alternatively, social ventures try to sell to governments or well-financed NGOs.  However, but for a few exceptions like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, success stories are tough to find.  

    Take the One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) initiative as an example (also, see Wikipedia link). OLPC was launched in January 2005 at the World Economic Forum with a singular focus of bringing a $100 laptop to the poorest children in the world and with a business model of selling these machines to governments and NGOs. It was not until late 2007, when the original business plan was not working out, that OLPC (half-heartedly) decided to sell its machines in the US via its “give-one-get-one” program. By then it was too late. OLPC’s XO was never designed with US consumers in mind and most consumers who got one were disappointed. By mid-2008, netbooks stormed the market and there were few takers for XO. But this does not mean that model of leveraging technology developed for the poorest to meet needs in more affluent markets is flawed.

    One way to create viable ventures would be to gain scale by selling to poor customers in developing markets but earn profits by catering to more affluent customers in developing and developed markets. Such a business model would be similar to the freemium (free + premium) model used by many Web2.0 companies.

    One company that is following such a model is AssuredLabor. This company started as NextLab project in the fall of 2007 with a local partner in Brazil, and that is where they built their prototype. In mid-2008, the team decided to turn the project into a stand-alone venture, with Boston as their first pilot market in the US.  Technology commercialized and developed here could be applied back in Brazil as well as other developing countries.

    Many current NextLab projects hold similar potential. Hammock’s SMS-based logistics management system may be useful for small delivery companies in developed markets. CelEdu’s mobile games could be used to teach foreign languages. MoCa could play a role in connecting clinics in rural America to hospitals in larger cities. And, at the same time, these ventures could keep on providing technology to their NGO partners in the developing world at affordable prices.

    May 5, 2009

    Smart Grid – A billion dollar opportunity for wireless carriers?

    Filed under: New business models, Uncategorized — Tags: , — AJ @ 4:15 am

    Last month, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile announced M2M initiatives targeted at the smart grid, talking about how this may be a multi-billion dollar opportunity.  My analysis suggests otherwise. In my opinion, even if all 175M electricity meters in the US were digitally connected to smart grid, it may not generate more than a few 100 million in annual revenue for wireless operators.

    Revenue per smart meter

    Typically, a smart meter is expected to record information (approximately 50-100 bytes) every 15 minutes, though it is not expected to upload it that often.  Even if, a meter were sending 50 bytes ever 15 minutes, it would send just 4.7 KB/day or 141 KB/month. Not much.

    Today, carriers are earning more than $0.3/MB (or $300/GB) for data downloaded by retail consumers. Even though most data plans offer 5 GB per month, average smartphone usage is between 30 MB (for email devices) to 100 MB (for iPhones). If a carrier prices its retail smartphone offering at $30/month and an average subscriber downloads 100 MB, the effective price would be $0.3/MB. (I hope this also explains why AT&T and Verizon charge around $0.25-0.50/MB for any data usage above 5 GB on their “unlimited” plans).

    If utilities were able to negotiate the same rate – 30 cents per MB – they will be paying the wireless carrier 50 cents a year per meter. That puts the market size for 175M meters at a mere $87.5M per year. It is unlikely that this number would get any carrier excited, and probably many utilities see more value than 50 cents. The questions remains – how much more? where will the pricing stick?

    Not every smart meter needs to be a 2G/3G node

    Many utilities are thinking about aggregating multiple residential meters at a concentrator (or a “collection point”) using private local-area networks and to then connect these concentrators using 2G/3G wireless data.

    Different companies are advocating different approaches here:

    If there are 17.5M concentration points (1 for every 10 electricity meters), a carrier would have to charge $5/month per concentration point for the total available market to exceed $1 billion a year. There may be some justification to the $5/month number. This is what Aeris used to charge its M2M customers according to an April 2005 story in Forbes. However, by 2015 and with all the competitors in this market, I would be surprised if any carrier can charge a utility more than $2/month per concentration point. At that number, the total available market would be little over $400M/year.

    Utilities have strong incentives to go for cap-ex that reduces recurring cost

    Over the next few years, utilities will have access to billions of dollars of stimulus money. In addition, unfortunately, regulators are agreeing to levy a surcharge of $3-$4 per month for over a decade on consumers in the name of grid modernization.

    Take CenterPoint Energy’s 2.4 million smart meter deployment in Houston as an example. Itron has offered to create meters that can be meshed, and GE is providing WiMAX radios to connect mesh concentration points. This is also the deployment in which regulators have allowed CenterPoint to charge each consumer over $3/month for 12 years for grid modernization.

    In my opinion, it is much more cost efficient (cap-ex and continuing op-ex) for a utility to integrate low-cost, high-volume cellular (GSM/CDMA/UMTS) modem in meters and negotiate long-term deals with public network providers rather than build a private radio network. But, I guess, that would not create as many “green jobs”!

    Comments?

    Smart Meters is just something I have been reading about recently. If you have a different view on the topics in this post, please do share.

    Notes:
    1. Itron investor presentation provides information on number of utility meters in North America and other parts of the world.
    2. Interesting article in the MIT Technology Review (registration required) on how the rush to create “green jobs” in the stimulus bill may be hurting technology and innovation.

    March 28, 2009

    Open Access Makes Networks Valuable Platforms – Not Dumb Pipes

    Filed under: Android, App Store, iPhone, LTE, Mobile Apps, New business models — Tags: — AJ @ 2:13 am

    “Open” is in the air 

    Recently AT&T chief Ralph de la Vega talked about open development platforms with FierceWireless. In his view, handset platforms are not open if they use proprietary APIs to access handset capabilities and he stressed the need for open APIs within handsets. A friend at Verizon reminded me earlier this week about Verizon’s Open Development Initiative (ODI) which allows third-parties to get hardware certified to work on Verizon’s network and Verizon’s upcoming 4G innovation lab

    Among handset vendors, Nokia wants to open-source Symbian and Google is already doing so.  Google’s Android, in particular, is widely regarded as open. In contrast, many industry commentators, including FierceWireless editor Sue Marek, call iPhone and Blackberry closed because Apple and RIM will not license their OS to other handset vendors.

     Defining “open”

     If we are willing to accept the Internet as the gold standard of openness, the more a system resembles the internet, the more open it is. Therefore an open system is one that

    1. Anyone can access on equal terms
    2. Anyone can build content and applications on equal terms
    3. Anyone can distribute their content and applications on equal terms

    Based on this definition, Apple’s iPhone provides a remarkably open platform for application developers and consumers, even while Apple keeps its OS closed to other hardware manufacturers. In a sense, iPhones are a similar to Sun Servers that power large parts of the Internet – a proprietary hardware/software combination that is available on equal terms to users and developers.

     “Open” does not mean “free”

    Since the terms “open source” and “free software” have been used interchangeably, it has created the impression that free means open. This is not true in general. For example, free broadcast TV is actually a closed system.

    On the other hand, two of the most valuable “open systems” we all use – the electricity grid and the phone system – are not free. However, they are open because everyone can access them on equal terms. Anyone can create applications and end-points for them (cordless phones, answering machines, refrigerators) and can distribute these applications. Technical standards that require patent holders to contribute IPR under a FRAND regime are open in the same way.

     The “dumb pipe” misnomer

    Whoever came up with the term “dumb pipe” did a tremendous disservice to the mobile industry. Imagine how people at facebook would have feel if they were dubbed  “that dumb online directory” for offering open access to application developers. Instead facebook have been celebrated as a “platform”. In the same vein, the right way to describe a network that provides open access on equal terms is not “dumb pipe” but “platform.”

    Once network providers start thinking of themselves as platforms, they will see the benefit of allowing huge number of third-parties to create applications on their platform.  Most of these applications will fail, but the applications that succeed will not only make the developers who creat them rich, but will also make the network  incredibly valuable for consumers, and for the investors who own the network.

     

    February 21, 2009

    Android Market’s Return Policy Will Discourage Developers

    Filed under: Android, App Store, iPhone, New business models, Ovi, Smartphones — AJ @ 5:03 am

    Looks like Android team did not see PinchMedia’s presentation on “iPhone AppStore Secrets” before publishing Android Market Business and Program Policies that allow buyers to return an app within 24 hours of purchase! 

    PinchMedia is a New York based company that provides app developers with an analytics library to monitor usage. 30 million of the over 500 million downloads from Apple’s store had their analytics software. The numbers collected by PinchMedia show that less than 30% of people who paid for an app used it after 24 hours.  This is not surprising considering that the average number of apps downloaded per iPhone exceeds 30. Those who did not use an app 24 hours after buying it effectively got suckered, but considering that most apps are priced around $0.99, looks like many consumers don’t mind doing a paid trial.  And if you are a developer burning the midnight oil, paid trials rock.

    No one gets paid trials in the Android Market (are paid trials evil?).  So once buyers realize that the new fart app (or the advanced tip calculator app) is’nt any more useful than the one they already have, they return it.  This no questions asked return policy will definitely increase the number of paid applications trialed, but is it good for developers?

    I don’t think so. The folks at Google could argue that “no-questions asked” returns leads to happier customers.  But will these happier customers pay more for apps on the Android Market than they do on Apple or Nokia’s stores? Unlikely. With a few exceptions, two apps that do approximately the same thing will be priced at approximately the same price in different app markets.

    If the average retun rate on Android turns ends up being 75%,  a developer will need four times as many downloads on the Android Market than it  gets on the Apple’s store to make the same amount of money.  That may happen someday, but for now, developers are better off creating paid applications for Apple and Nokia’s Ovi (Symbian) stores.  And I hope the folks at RIM do not follow Android’s path while creating the Blackberry Store.

    February 17, 2009

    Dividing the Mobile Apps Pie – Nokia, Apple, Google, RIM and others

    Filed under: App Store, eBooks, Mobile Apps, New business models, Ovi, Smartphones — Tags: , , — AJ @ 3:45 am

    Dividing the Pie – Ovi Style

    Nokia launched it Ovi mobile application store today.  I read the developer agreement posted on Nokia Ovi’s website.  Like Apple:

    • Nokia is offering developers 70% of the selling price, less applicable taxes.  
    • Nokia has the right to review all applications and decide which applications get published
    • Nokia will not distribute applications that compete with Ovi (so don’t expect an Amazon Kindle store here!)

    Nokia allows “Operator Biling”

    However, unlike Apple, Nokia plans to offer operator billing.  This is a huge differentiator for Nokia and clearly one of the things they are uniquely qualified to do. With this option, customers who do not have credit cards or who have do not want to be bothered with entering their credit card information, can still buy applications. This can significantly increase the market size of apps, particularly in the developing world, and on low/mid-end phones.

    However, from a developer’s standpoint – there is one catch in operator billing. With this option,  a developer does not get 70% of the selling price, but 70% of what the operator gives Nokia.  It allows operators to potentially get a very large cut of the mobile app revenue by mandating operator billing as the only acceptable payment method.  

    Nokia and Apple vs. RIM and Google

    In comparison to Nokia (and Apple),  Android and Blackberry offer more attractive terms – to both operators and developers.

    Palm, Samsung, PocketGear and Handango

    The cut taken by Apple, Nokia, RIM and Google pales when compared to the 50% that Palm is asking. Palm uses PocketGear (previously part of Motricity) to run its app stores.  Since Samsung is using PocketGear as well, I expect them to offer the same deal. 

    Of course, the revenue share offered by all the phone vendors is better than the 70% that Handango charges developers who have sales over a million dollars! 

    Microsoft’s Plan?

    Microsoft  has not  disclosed  how the pie will be shared on Windoes Mobile Marketplace. Going by Microsoft’s record, I would expect their revenue share plan to resember Nokia’s or Apple’s rather than Google’s. 

    And of course, we will just have to wait and see what Vodafone and China Mobile have up their sleeves!

    February 13, 2009

    An Amazon App Store?

    At MWC next week, Nokia, Samsung and Microsoft are expected to either showcase their mobile application marketplaces (“app stores”) or at least share detailed plans regarding them. Google has announced that its Android marketplace will start supporting paid apps next week. Blackberry  and Palm have already joined the race to build app stores. The one company that has every right to be in race, but has been conspicuously quiet is Amazon.

    An “App Store” is a store

    Handset vendors rushing to emulate Apple’s success may be forgetting that Apple was one of the world’s leading online retailers of digital content – long before it launched iPhone or its App Store.  Apple, in fact, launched iTunes “jukebox” in Jan 2001, 10-months before the first iPod hit the market.

    Apple’s experience in selling music and video online is evident in the way it organizes mobile apps in the iTunes store, from creating top-10/top-50 lists in a wide range of categories to highlighting notable new apps and providing automated and staff recommendations.  Consumers have shopped with iTunes for years. How many handset companies have this kind of expertise?

    So, why not partner with Amazon?

    In coming years, for a handset to succeed, it will need a rich set of applications. People will not only buy a handset for how it looks or what it costs, but for what it does. Applications will be source of stickiness for both handset vendors and operators. Operators and handset vendors who will not have access to a large ecosystem of application developers will lose subscribers, market share and profits. See my previous post comparing Verizon and AT&T’s performance in Q4’2008.

    Not only is Amazon trusted by millions of consumers and has the technology to sell in a compelling manner, but it also has demonstrated that it can succeed in selling digital content. It started a digital music store in Sept 2007 that, in 14 months, became the #2 digital music store. Still far behind Apple, but way ahead of Microsoft. With Kindle, it has shown that it can not only sell lots of DRM-free MP3, and but also work with a large number of publishers and create a profitable, new market.  Can Nokia claim such success with N-Gage?

    I am all for the creation of mobile application marketplaces and wish that the new entrants succeed. I just have a nagging feeling that these attempts will look similar to the attempts of dozens of bricks-and-mortar retailers to enter the online retail business in mid-1990s.

    Place in the sun for Third-party App Stores

    Thankfully, all handset-platform vendors other than Apple are allowing third-parties to create marketplaces. This has allowed companies like Handango and PocketGear to be built, and is allowing Samsung to launch an app store. This keeps the doors open for Amazon to build an app superstore in the future, or for other customer-focused niche marketplaces (think Zappos) to appear.

     

    January 28, 2009

    The future of games looks bright

    Filed under: App Store, games, iPhone, Netbooks, New business models, Smartphones — AJ @ 5:56 am

    Yesterday evening, I attended a talk by Professor Chris Swain about the future of games.  

    The main focus of Chris’ talk was creativity in the game development business.  One of the things that he talked about was how Apple’s App Store (and similar marketplaces from Microsoft for Xbox or future ones for Android and Symbian) can unlock creativity in the gaming business.  In contrast to the normal complaints about how Apple’s 30% cut is too much, Chris said that “70:30 is the best publishing deal ever” for game developers.  He did complain about how the Apple’s shopping interface (top 10, top 50, others) favors cheap $0.99 games over more expensive development efforts.

    He said that, in contrast, publishers of console games make only 17% on AAA titles.  Since developing games for major gaming platforms can cost close to $20M, it means that a game publisher must have line of sight to selling over 1 million games. This pushes publishers to develop proven, formulaic titles, hampering creativity.  Digital distribution where publishers can get a higher cut can change that, enabling smaller team to innovate. And even for formulaic games, if the digital medium of distributing games is successful, lot of publishers would prefer to sell online rather than through Wal-mart (the biggest channel for game titles today). 

    Games on popular consoles cost so much (and publishers get so little)  because companies that build the hardware (Sony, Microsoft, Ninetendo) need to collect a tax to recover the money they lose on the console.   If interesting enough games could be created on powerful low-cost platforms that come with multi-touch interfaces (smartphones, mobile internet devices, netbooks etc.) and can be digitally distributed, the whole business model could change. I am sure this keeps lot of people awake at night – some worried about losing their existing business, others abuzz with the opportunity.

    Here are two more interesting (and perhaps relevant) recent news items:

    1.  More powerful, multi-touch, touch screens on their way. See story about Cypress and Palm.

    2. ABI predicts 139 million netbooks by 2013.  Maybe a little optimistic, but definitely the expected direction.

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