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.
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.
- It’s hard to move from phone to phone because they all have different interfaces.
- 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?
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.
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.