Response to Ewan

by @edent | # # # # | 6 comments | Read ~296 times.

Ewan of Mobile Industry Review has published his weekly newsletter in which he is somewhat critical of Vodafone 360.  The newsletter is not available on his website, so I'll quote excerpts of it here.

This is a tricky blog post for me to write. I am involved in some aspects of Vodafone 360 (mostly My Web) but I certainly do not speak for my employers. I'm currently on holiday - and have been for the entire week - so I haven't had any contact with work colleagues before writing this.

This post has been written in a hurry without adequate time to check spelling, facts, brand guidelines or if any of it makes sense. I beg your forgiveness pre-emptively.

I'll try to stick to pointing out some provable inaccuracies and commenting on the industry in general.

Those of you with elephantine memories will remember Vizzavi -- the 1.8 billion dollar balls-up joint venture between two commodity suppliers. On the one hand we had Big Red ("Vodafone") fresh from buying up everyone it could under the direct reign of Sir Chris Gent. On the other hand we had Vivdendi, the mighty conglomerate, that, when it wasn't arsing around with water companies, it was sodding about with music labels. The two of them got together and knocked out this massively ambitious WAP Portal and website that had a strategic promise hard to ignore. Free email integrated into your handset, online storage, synchronised address books and so on. Of course only the best handsets at the time could handle colour and the reality of WAP was beginning to dawn (the oft heard phrase from consumers: "How shit is this?").

Sadly it wasn't to be. Both companies got cold feet and dumped the service promptly before quickly erasing the memory.

I wasn't working at Vodafone at the time - but as I understand it, Vizzavi was not dumped. It was absorbed by Vodafone and the service become known as Vodafone live. It's a service that is still running today, has millions of customers and drives very healthy revenue streams.

Someone once said "Whenever someone says 'Average User' they mean 'me'". One of the problems I found when working on Vodafone live is that the average executive doesn't use it. Live is great for its target audience - younger people who want to download games, watch mobile TV, chat, flirt, buy wallpapers and ringtones - but off less relevance for middle-aged suits.

But in the end, the people who sell minutes won over.

That's the trouble with mobile operators. They still sell minutes. And sod about with transmission pylons and frequency layers. The folk in control are wedded to the idea of being a network. And this is right and proper. I want my handset to work whenever I need it to. Anywhere. That does take a lot of effort from very smart people.

When it came to vision, Vodafone blew it. They did the proper operator thing and waited-to-see.

Meanwhile we all bought bollox handsets year on year via ever-extending contracts. Some of us realised that PAYG offered a better deal but many simply wanted the handset with a slightly better camera. And 200 more minutes of talk time.

The market settled. All this talk of integrated mobile services disappeared from the radar and everything got back to normal.

Which is funny, because the phones that Voda (and many other operators around the world) sold included GPS, video-calling, RDS, mobile TV, tethering, accelerometers, touch-screens, photo uploading and printing, visual voicemail, email... the list goes on.

No doubt that Ewan has brusk words to say on all these features - that's ok he's not the target audience. Ewan's a great chap with a huge amount of knowledge of the industry but - like me - he's not normal.

The fact that you're even reading this blog means that you're probably outside the mass-market. And that's ok. What you have to remember is that not everyone is like you. You are not the target market.

The iPhone delivered an experience. What's more, it didn't need a manual. It just worked.

I love this mythical idea that Apple "just works". Type iPhone and Genius Bar into Twitter search and see how many people have broken iPhones or don't know how to work certain features.

Find, if you can, someone who has never used or seen an iPhone. Sit over them and watch them try to use it. I love some of Apple's design choices - but they're not all intuitive. Who knows that Safari means "Internet"?

Every new handset brought a completely different user-interface and despite a 30 minute dedicated training session from each of her three sons, she couldn't get to grips with it.
(SNIP)
Delivering a competitor to the iPhone experience is now a business critical objective. It's not just the iPhone of course. But it's a huge curse for the mobile operator. On one hand, they can use the device to win customers from their competing networks. On the other hand, the device itself simply sidesteps anything they offer and uses their network. No longer does the operator control the user experience. Thank god. No longer does the user get sent immediately to the 'operator deck' when they open their web browser. No. The iPhone simply sits on the data and telephony layer and ignores everything else. Perfect for the end-consumer, terrifying for the mobile operator.

Which, again, is funny. Vodafone sells the iPhone in 11 countries - UK and Ireland are coming in 2010. It is one phone out of many. Actually - and I'll get shot for saying so - it is a fairly insignificant phone. It's a device that only very wealthy people can afford. Don't get me wrong - wealthy people help drive profit; but there are more people who can't afford the iPhone than can. A lot more.

I want you to notice two contradictory ideas in the quote above.

  1. It's hard to move from phone to phone because they all have different interfaces.
  2. Operators should stay away from monkeying with the phone's interface.

Funnily enough, normal customers don't agree with the latter point. You'll notice that most operators customise the more atrocious firmware that they have been given and make a usable experience for the customer. They also try to make it consistent between manufacturers - so icon X always means address book and icon Y always means Browser. Of course, this leads to Operator lock in, rather than manufacturer lock in - but that's a different story.

Far be it from me to suggest that Ewan's synthetic rage is caused by Cognitive Dissonance :-).

Now, I'll be quite careful about what I say in response to the next piece because I am involved in the service and don't want to be out of step with anyone.

You only have to look at the total gang-fluck that is Vodafone 360 to see just how badly that's going for them.

It's a total mismatch in expectations -- for everyone -- from the normob to the geek.

The first thing I'd say is that neither Ewan nor I are in any position to say what Normobs want. We just can't. It would be like Lewis Hamilton designing a family hatchback. Whatever our personal feelings, we almost always have to subjugate them and let professional usability and design experts guide our thinking.

Not one person in seniority seems to have said, 'Er, look, I think it really should do contacts properly.'

That's because everyone in seniority at Vodafone is either:

- concerned with network architecture
- concerned with getting more customers signed up
- concerned about how they're doing in India

I'd point you to Vodafone's annual report which shows just how much money is being made from data - it's almost as much as SMS. To say that the people at the top don't care about selling data, retaining customers, or creating value-added services is, at best, disingenuous. Every operator is - rightly or wrongly - fighting against being just a bit-pipe. Some ideas will work, some won't.

Most Operators have - mistakenly, in my opinion - outsourced the management of the network infrastructure. I wish all Operators in the UK cared about network architecture they way Ewan thinks they do.

And this, I think, is the problem with Vodafone. They employ bucketloads of talented individuals, none of which, it seems, can make the seniority grade. Or if they do make it to seniority, they find themselves with power and influence over a very small section of the company's product set.

I'll start applying for the CEO's job on Monday 😉

Or they find out that they work in 'Global'. Which is nice, but nobody at country level takes them seriously. Or, they work at country level, which means they can only influence their immediate country -- and, since 360 is a 'global' offering (i.e. multi-country), there's not much they can do except write a memo and 'press' for changes on the weekly conference call.

Now we get to the crux of the problem. How do you design a service - any service - which is acceptable for several dozen different countries and cultures, works well for ~300 million customers, and doesn't contradict or break anything which already exists in those markets?

Apple - bless 'em - started from an installed iPhone base of zero. Now, every time they make a change to their service offering they have to get it working across 3 devices and millions of customers. And, boy, do those customers howl when anything goes wrong.

It's the same problem that any large company faces - you can't please all the people all the time.

I might, for example, want to order a canvas print from a photo using Photobox.com. Or I might want to send my photo up to Facebook for my friends to laugh at. Perhaps I'd like to Twit-Pic it. Or maybe I'd like them to be copied directly into my Google Picasa?

Well tough.

I can't.

Because somebody, somewhere, at Vodafone, decided that was out of their remit.

The service does allow posting of pictures to FaceBook. I wasn't in the meeting that decide why only FaceBook for launch, but I imagine it was because FaceBook has the most users.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love an API for my own personal project and I'd love to post to twitpic - but the reality is; that's not where the Normobs are.

Did nobody in the specification meeting think to say 'it'd be good if we synched contacts with, you know, all the major providers out there.' The APIs are public!

No. None of the executives cared.

As you know, I come from a technical background and - somehow - find myself in marketing. I don't think that marketing executives don't care - I think that they don't understand. I don't mean to besmirch any of my colleagues, but they think customer first - developer later. We can argue as to whether that's a good or bad thing, but it's what happens in any large company when you have to think of the majority - not what's cool among the geeks.

You cannot put disinterested executives in charge of this kind of service, because it demonstrates to absolutely anyone who cares to look, that the company is in dire straits.

Ah! Finally something we can agree on! No, not that Voda's in dire straight, but that you can't put executives in charge of things. A truly new and innovative project has to be created, managed and executed by a dedicated team who are passionate about it. That's why start-ups do so well when they succeed. However, in any large publicly traded company, you're working for the shareholder. Shareholders who want you to take risks - but not too many risks. Shareholders who want long-term profit - as long as they still get short term gains. Shareholders who want you to blow the competition out of the water - but not to be too early to market.

I am a Voda shareholder - and I'm confused about what I want.

The reality is that large companies rarely make innovative products.  They usually buy in the expertise because the majority of employees are making sure the existing stuff works correctly.  I think that what Voda does is fairly innovate for a company of its size but it is never going to risk it all on a dice throw.

I wonder if 360 will die a Vizzavi-style death by Q3 next year? If there are no changes, no action -- if it's just steady as she goes from Vodafone, it's a virtual guarantee.

As I've already said, Vizzavi (as Vodafone live!) is still doing phenomenally well. It's metamorphosing into Vodafone My Web and continues to grow and evolve. I wish all "deaths" were as rewarding.

I work on 360 - I'm incredibly proud of some parts of it. But, like Ewan, I'm not the average customer. We don't get to decide our successes - we leave that to the woman with the Moto RAZR - AKA Ms Average.

Bootnote

As I said, written in a hurry.  I may edit this document for facts, spelling, political maschinations and on capricious whims.  This is a personal comment which, I hope, explains my private feelings.

6 thoughts on “Response to Ewan

  1. Scott says:

    Hi Terence

    Sorry, must correct on the Vizzavi -> live! link.

    Vizzavi was mostly a web portal with an associated mobile portal but the emphasis was on Web. Vodafone live! was built by the Vizzavi team but owed nothing to the Vizzavi portal apart from learned skills and experience. (Although Vodafone live! would not have existed without the work the Vizzavi mobile team did before hand)

    1. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Bryn Thomas says:

    There's an awful lot of your article that seems to encourage the throwing up of hands and saying "well we just don't know what people want, leave it to the experts". Don't you think that a large company like Microsoft paid good money to usability experts to design the interface for Windows Mobile? Are we somehow not in a position to criticise it because we're not in the mythical target market? Can the emperor's lack of clothes only be pointed out by other emperor's because the children "just don't get it"?

    If you work in any kind of technology field you know that 90% of people don't know what they want until you show it to them. You try and explain how useful something like Sat Nav or a PVR can be, and it's only when they actually use it that the possibilities become real to them. Sometimes it helps if people who actually understand the benefits of the technology are helping to push it, rather than just leaving it to the "normobs" (a horrible word).

    "Apple – bless ‘em – started from an installed iPhone base of zero. Now, every time they make a change to their service offering they have to get it working across 3 devices and millions of customers. And, boy, do those customers howl when anything goes wrong." - That's the same philosophy they've applied to Mac's and iPod's and it still seems to be working out fine for them, mostly because people are a lot more tolerant of change when it looks like the change has been made with some kind of purpose rather than just dreamt up by a disinterested committee.

    1. Hi Bryn,

      I don't say we should give up. What I'm trying to say that if you, as a product owner, want to put all the buttons on the left hand side - it is up to your usability experts to tell you that the majority of your market are right handed and may find the product difficult to use.

      Similarly a TV engineer my rate a TV set poorly because they can't fiddle with the contrast and gamma - all things usually ignored by a "normal" customer.

      Whenever I read technology reviews - especially by self-confessed geeks - I'm reminded of Slashdot's infamous verdict on the original iPod: No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.

      Reading that article from eight years ago is hugely insightful. Look at how the non-target-market tore it apart, criticised its failings, and pronounced the death of Apple.

      It would be the height of hubris for me to claim that 360 will be the "next iPod" or "iPhone killer" - but something will, one day. And, like everything before it, some people won't like it.

      I totally agree with you that Apple's design ethos works really well - whether 360 replicates that success isn't decided by the reviewers; it's decided by customers.

      Thanks for the comment

      T
      PS - Yes, Normob is an ugly word, but it's one that Ewan coined (or uses heavily) so I thought it appropriate.

      1. Bryn Thomas says:

        Hi Terence,

        I agree that there's plenty of features that matter to the geek crowd, that honestly don't matter to anyone else. My phone can't play OGG Vorbis, but it hasn't troubled me for a second. Just like wireless syncing of music never proved to be that big a deal breaker.

        Yet I don't think that article showed that the technically inclined don't "get" it. I think it more shows that they're about as capable as everyone else at judging a product purely on a feature list and without hands on experience. Fast forward a few years and there's plenty of those exact same people who love their little iPods, but only once they'd actually got their hands on one and realised that it was the way it performed its limited features that made it a great product.

        So yes, if someone stands up and criticises the Vodafone branding on phones from a purely uninformed standpoint, then I totally agree that history has a great chance of making them look the fool. But if they've actually used a BlackBerry and a Nokia Symbian phone, both skinned in the maybe ugly red and grey Vodafone livery, and found that due to fundamental underlying differences in the way the operating system is organised:
        1) it's no easier to find ones way when switching between the two phones
        2) it's harder to find help because the phone is laid out differently to other unbranded Nokias
        then it becomes harder to shake off the cynical feeling that it's more just an attempt to get their branding everywhere, rather than a genuine desire to aid the consumer. And I think that even if someone who is technically inclined points it out, it can still be a valid point.

        Either way I did find this post interesting, thanks for putting it up!

  3. H Abba says:

    Sometimes failure is a good thing it teaches you how to pickup and do things better. That is the trick that some companies have, some have to learn it and some don't have it. Its the same with Apple there were various product failures before ipod (which by techies was dubbed a failure), then prior to the iphone, apple did a stint with motorola (ROKR), learnt how to add wireless to the ipod = iphone. I am sure Apple has similar structures as Vodafone but it also has quick decisive leadership and a cool brand (something you build over decades).

    Vizzavi's failure led to Vodafone Live's (Web 1.0) growth and complacency to Web 2.0 (360). So time will tell what happens to 360 and if its failure creates something new in Vodafone or its actually what customers want (simplicity - all in one place) - too early to tell at the moment.

    Maybe they should focus on the 3rd world services where their M-Pesa services is very successful and build on this, rather then competing headlong with internet players. Maybe it’s a good thing they compete headlong with Internet players and learn from this experience, better then do-nothing like a fox in headlights. The key thing is having the ability to come back after a good kicking and learning from it - that builds maturity and character in organisations.

    From the customer perspective, we have more choice today with "IP" then before, but at the same time now we have more complexity to deal with as well (was that not what ipod simplified?).

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