Mobile Sands

June 8, 2009

Visiting the Sprint Store to See Palm Pre

Filed under: Smartphones — Tags: , , — AJ @ 1:03 pm

I was among the legions of smartphone enthusiasts who walked into Sprint stores this weekend. The Pre was, as expected, sold out by mid-saturday. I tried a trial unit and I must say, I was not disappointed!

All the cool features that Palm has been touting in its advertising – from multi-touch to the ability to run multiple applications – were there and worked really well.  I really liked the keyboard. It was much better than typing on the iPhone’s screen and felt more responsive than QWERTY keyboards I have used on Blackberry and Motorola Q. Though Palm does not have an large App store, the device comes pre-loaded with several great apps like Pandora, facebook, Google maps, and youtube – all of which worked nicely when I tried them. And the browser renders multimedia-heavy pages beautifully (I tried www.lonelyplanet.com).

Bloomberg estimates that a total of 150,000 Pres were sold this weekend. According to salesperson at the store I visited in Boston, they were allocated 60 devices, and were sold out by 11 AM on saturday. They were expecting 40 more devices on Monday and a similar number on Tuesday. I am 61st on the waiting list at this store and was told to expect a call on Tuesday evening.

While I was waiting for my turn to try out the Pre, I noticed Sprint’s Airave femtocell (displayed in a glass box near checkout) and asked the salesperson what it was and if I needed one. She replied that it was router that expanded wireless coverage but no one who lives in Boston really needs one; maybe in certain high-rises or in far-out suburbs. After taking a dig at T-Mobile’s coverage in the city, she calmly reassured me that “since Sprint uses the same technology as Verizon, our network is as good as theirs.” Ingenius!

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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 27, 2009

Nokia’s Ovi Store – A Very Strange Launch

Filed under: App Store, Ovi — Tags: , — AJ @ 3:51 am

Nokia launched its Ovi store on May 26th 2009, but it do so in a very strange way.  

Despite setting expectations three weeks ago that the Ovi store would have over 20,000 ” items” (i.e applications + multimedia content), Nokia launched the store with little over 1,000 “items”.  Where did the other 19,000 “items” disappear?  Further, rather than launching the store with an enthusiastic endorsement from a major non-US operator, an area where Nokia has consistently claimed strength, Nokia decided to do a press release with AT&T; a press release in which AT&T Mobility”s CMO says that the carrier will offer the Ovi store to consumers in late 2009 because, “AT&T has a reputation for providing the most customer choice.”  

I browsed through store.ovi.com to see what is available there.  Once I selected my phone as “Any Phone”, 1365 items showed up.  Of these items, only 619 (45%) are applications, while the rest are MP3, videos, ringtones and wallpapers.  And as many other bloggers have pointed out all day, applications like facebook are missing. In fact, it is very likely that Palm Pre will have more marquee applications than the Ovi store will when it is launched on June 6th.  And Pre will definitely not be missing out on facebook.  Maybe someday we will know why Nokia felt compelled to rush out with this launch.

May 8, 2009

Palm Pre May Revive Sprint’s Fortunes

Filed under: iPhone, Smartphones — Tags: , , , , — AJ @ 8:44 pm

Palm Pre has been getting rave reviews from all those who have seen it and many believe if there was ever an iPhone killer, this is it.  In a few weeks, Pre will be available exclusively on the Sprint’s network and combined with all the operational improvements Sprint has done in the last 18 months, it may very well revive Sprint’s fortunes.

What’s special about Pre?

 It has singular design vision – just like the iPhone. Almost two years ago, Palm managed to hire Jon Rubinstein, previously Apple’s head of hardware engineering and the guy behind Apple’s product design revival over the last decade – from iMacs to iPods (see details in Newsweek story). As WSJ reported in December 2007,  Jon has been actively involved in designing Palm’s smartphones and setting its strategy. Plus, as the Executive Chairman of the company, he has given “design” a seat on the board.

Palm started building buzz around the Pre at CES 2009 and it wowed everyone who saw it. Here is a link to a video recording of Pre’s CES debut. And here is another video that shows some of the really cool features of the phone – including its advanced multitouch capability, QWERTY keyboard, and amazing graphics.  At the heart of Palm Pre, is a new operating system called WebOS. According to a recent article in The Industry Standard, developers who have created apps on WebOS agree that it lives up to its hype. And according to Fast Company, Palm Pre can give iPhone 3.0 (the next-gen iPhone) a run for its money.

Though Palm will not have the tens of thousands apps that Apple boasts at the time of launch, it is working on getting all the top applications on the device before launch, from Google and Facebook to integration with MS Exchange and Pandora.  Just like iPhone, its browser is based on WebKit and beautifully renders web pages. And yes, it has a music store too – from Apple’s arch-rival – Amazon. 

Sprint has dry powder

 Palm Pre may be able to work a charm at Sprint only because Sprint (under CEO Dan Hesse) has aggressively trimmed its capital and operating expenses over the last 18 months, and has maintained positive free cash flow despite losing almost 6 million post-paid subscribers. 

Sprint has countered some of  the subscriber losses by winning pre-paid subscribers (its Boost service added ~700K subs in Q1’09) and adding more wholesale subscribers (like Amazon Kindle).  But more importantly, it has slashed cap-ex (Q3’07: $1.2B, Q1’09: 0.3B), and trimmed operating expenses (SG&A Q3’07: 2.7B, Q1’09: 2.2B). As a consequence, it generated $536M of FCF in Q4’08 and $796M of FCF in Q1’09. At the end of March 2009,  Sprint had $4.5B of cash and cash equivalents – a significant war chest to compete with the biggies.  (All numbers from Sprint Investor website)

A resurgent Sprint – small, nimble and hip?

If Palm Pre lives up to its hype, it would help Sprint reverse post-paid subscriber losses.  Consumers want cool devices, and just like Apple, Palm has its cadre of loyalists.  Not only can the Pre win new subs for Sprint, it can create a positive “hip” halo around Sprint.  The Pre, combined with the growth of Boost Mobile, could help Sprint reverse the trend of subscriber losses and may even add 5M between March and December 2009.

The world (yes, that is correct) needs Sprint. The US has been the center of wireless innovation – from new air interfaces like CDMA and WiMAX to devices like Blackberry, iPhone and now Pre – because it has carriers that need to compete.  And for competition to be vibrant, Sprint needs to be successful.

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