Friday, October 16, 2009

Canadian Wireless Management Forum - my review

Last week, I attended the Canadian Wireless Management Forum in Montreal. Honestly, I've been a bit disappointed because none of the presenters were as great as the ones I met last year. Over the day, I've still been able to gather bits of information I want to share here ;) Thanks to my company Compuware to have allowed sparing one day there.

iPhone and other smart phones deployed in enterprises

The main focus of the conference is around managing wireless (read mobile phone) communications in enterprises. Some presenters talked about how to control expenses, from sharing guidelines up to using monitoring tools suggesting policies from the statistical analysis of the monthly bills. Testimonies showed that applying a strict control on the mobile phone usage and on the contracts allowed cutting costs from 10 to 30%!

At one point, Nicolas Arsenault made a strange point. Here is what I remind from his talk:


Credits: smoothouse

Credits:Josh Bancroft
Deploying an iPhone application for your employees, when compared to a BlackBerry application, has a much lower cost because the employee already owns the device or he's more likely to buy it. With the employee paying for the phone, probably paying to get new phones regularly (like to move from a iPhone 3G to the latest 3GS), employers can just assume the data plans and can spend more resources on the application development, that at one point can be offered to the company customers. Another benefit is related to the technical support: phone owners stop annoying enterprises' help desk for their phone, they contact the manufacturers or the software vendors directly (they are on their own)...

If this approach have evident economical benefits, I disagree with it because:
  • In general, letting employees owning their work mobile phones cause problems when they leave the company. Most of employees have a non concurrence clause in their contract, usually valid 6 months after the employment contract termination. During that period, they cannot compete with their previous employer. Imagine a salesperson, an account manager, or a consultant who owns his phone number, who is referenced in the phone directories all his previous contacts. When these contacts want to deal with the company, who do you think they'll call: the mobile phone or the company front line? Now that these employees are out, they don't have to submit their phone bills anymore (as they did with their expenses reports). No one can detect the issues anymore… And this is without mentioning that the employee replacement or his colleagues have no way to get the mobile phone contact list to continue the business as usual!
  • In the company I worked, none let me use my own computer on their network! For the IT departments, this practice would raise too much security concerns. I even know cases that just installing a VPN software on your own machine install silently a bunch of monitoring tools that can mess up your systems (thanks to VirtualBox, it easy to limit these nasty side effects ;). In the old days, when phones were just stupid, just able to handle voice call and exchange text messages (SMS), the risk of phone infection by viruses were pretty negligible. The widely used phone operating system is Symbian, used on Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones, and J2ME is a common application framework, even on phones running Windows Mobile. If the identified viruses are not a lot, and if they are not some damageable (send on your behalf SMS to expensive services, for example), the newest smart platforms provide much more threats because the corresponding phones can host tons of applications. In such an environment, how can a company force software upgrades on systems it does not own? How can it force an employee to upgrade to a new hardware because the current one is compromised?
  • My last point is more ethical: how far companies should go with putting the burden on their employees? An iPhone costs around 800$. It's often offered around 200$ with a 3-year contract, which costs basically around 60$/month with a simple data plan. If the telecom operators (telco) subsidize so aggressively such a phone, they surely expect higher average revenue per user (ARPU). In addition to be linked to the telco for a long period of time (compare 3 years with the 3 to 6 months between technological evolution: 6 to 12 times longer!), employees have to support costs the company should assume. Usually, companies try to provide a comfortable work environment to get most of their employees, and that's fair to me: if the company gives more than the salary, employees are more likely to deliver better work. With the incitation of employees assuming the cost of the new mobile phones, I see a regression: companies give less while expecting more (reachable—possibly traceable—outside the office hours, for example). IMO, it's yet another example of a technological progress that might worsen fragile people condition...

Mobile payment and Near-field-communication (NFC)

Shortly on this topic, I want to mention presentation made by Daniel Martin for Atlas Telecom Mobile, David Robinson for Rogers Wireless, and Prakash Hariramani for Visa. They talked about an experiment conducted downtown Toronto where they were able, thanks to Motorola phones equipped with a NFC emitter and a good number of retailers there, to allow mobile payment over the mobile phone network. Visa's solution, called PayWave™ (MasterCard's one is called PayPass™), was inserted into the Motorola phone extension and allow consumers to pay for their purchase quite easily.

During the discussion, Mr. Robinson talked about Rogers Wireless approach being strictly based on standards. He mentioned the recent u-turn of telco who continued to invest in closed and proprietary solutions (like CDMA) and now move to standardized ones (like HSPA which is an upgrade of GSM, on the road to LTE—see example of Bell and Telus in Canada). Rogers Wireless' approach is then to work with the rest of the major industry players (Orange, Vodafone, etc.) to define a solution for anyone anywhere. Mr. Robinson talked about the possibility to define an extended SIM card (for Subscriber Identity Module; the card contains a micro-SIMCARD processor which manage very securely information). This new SIM card will have NFC capabilities and will be able to interact with contactless payment terminals. It's possible that these SIM cards will contain additional information like driver license identifier that police officers will be able to read, insurance number for the government agencies, etc. The phone will provide the interface to enable the data access, and smart phones with touch screens open the door to various and robust verification techniques.

Because more and more people are more attached to their phone than to their wallet, this approach will possibly be more convenient, more secure, and smaller (no more cash, business cards, credits cards, etc. ;) Who said that implanting the SIM under anyone's skin, a SIM that can unlock your phones, cars, houses, computers, etc, is just science fiction?

Telco business model in danger!

iBwave offers solutions improving in-building wireless coverage. Knowing the fact that 60%-80% of mobile usages are indoor, that telco have difficulties to boost the power or to multiply outdoor antennas near high density areas, these places stay mostly uncovered. Mr. Bouchard illustrated his point with the simulation of the poor performance of the traditional networks on the McGill campus—really amazing! In conclusion, iBwave sits in a very nice and promising niche ;)
The last point of interest to me came from Mario Bouchard, from iBwave.

To introduce his company activities, Mr. Bouchard shows two diagrams which made me think for a while. Let me try to reproduce them.


Mr. Bouchard states that 15 years ago, the innovation came from the network manufacturers: they invented the technology, others created cell phones to connect to the new network, some operators offered (very expensive) plans, and consumers (locked with long term contracts) tried to communicate.



Credits: DigitalAlan
Today, the order has been scrambled:
  • Thanks to the rapid technology evolution, designers of mobile devices can embed many types of sensors into communicant machines, and with the increasing miniaturization, such machines are pervasiveness!
  • Because of the reduced delay between big technology evolutions (think about the iPhone which is just 2 years old), consumers choose their devices carefully, and bargain more to get the best quality-price ratio.
  • Network manufacturers now to their best to provide networks than can deliver at the rhythm the devices can consume. When the European community created the Groupe Sp├ęcial Mobile (initial meaning of the GSM acronym, known now for Global System for Mobile communications) in 1982, we had to wait up to 1991 to experiment the first GSM network. GSM is also known the 2G technology. The EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution, or 2.5G) has been introduced in 1999, the first 3G technology (HSPA/UMTS, and EV-DO/CDMA) has been delivered late 2001, and the coming 4G ones (LTE for Long Term Evolution or WiMax) are on the bench.
  • At the end of the line, now there are the telcos:
    • Investments are phenomenal
    • The competition is rude (not rude enough in Canada, IMO)
    • Customers are volatile and they always want the latest phone
    • They have to subsidize the phones to lower the barriers to entry
    • They have to provide the best coverage everywhere
    • Customers are quick to leverage social tools to complain about them
    • Customers don't respect the old rules (read: jailbreak their phone)
    • Customers are not the cash cows they used to be...

I don't think the telco future looks very nice. As traditional telecommunication service providers, they are more and more just Internet providers. Personally, I'm fine with communication on Internet (VOIP/SIP), with the possibility to stream on Internet (Qik.com, Layar.com), to receive instant messages (IM) instead of text messages (SMS). And look, when I've a chance to connect my phone to a wifi network, I'm happy to get a better connectivity while saving few bucks.

Interesting developments to follow, aren't they?

A+, Dom

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