Canada, Japan: iPhone Go Home

Hey, read this:

The greatest threat to mobile innovations like the iPhone isn’t consumer behaviour, cultural differences or reception to features, but epic and unregulated telco pricing. What’s needed is nothing less than a telecommunications revolution in which mobile developers and consumers join together to demand better data plans that are both competitive and realistic for these thoroughly mobile times.

…and that’s not just me talking, either. It’s Melanie at SmartMobs. Glad to start seeing high profile blogs giving this problem its due notice (I’ve been on about this here, here, and here, and as far back as I can remember…).

Having access to advanced Nokia smartphones for research purposes (thank you Nokia!) I can also sympathize with the reasons why the iPhone has not been a seducer of Japanese folk, either:

Japanese handset users are extremely into video and photos — and the iPhone has neither a video camera nor multimedia text messaging.

Yep. Agreed.

More to the point, though – to get over this divide, Apple (and other handset manufacturers) needs to take some respectable risk on and stand up to Canadian carriers just like it once stood up to the music industry oligarchy. Or, he threatens, we’re all going Android/Openmoko/Village Telco sometime in the next five years.

(…with nods to the fact that Apple’s music industry fight, over the “one price fits all” model for iTunes, has now been made obsolete in the light of the newest compromise to achieve a DRM free music store, acknowledging the greater good realized in freeing music…).

Canada’s iPhone pricing monopoly

You might remember this campaign over Rogers’ 3G service rates for the iPhone in Canada last July. some 60,000 people signed the petition and wrote emails to Rogers and to Industry Canada about the issue. I was one of those people.

Jim Prentice sent his response to me (presumably to many others, as well) in September 2008 (pasted in below). I’ve taken a while getting around to this, but I hope that my response elucidates well the problems with innovation in the wireless sector in Canada, and is also well-timed (proroguing and all). Just sent it off today:

Dear Tony Clement,

Thank you for your response (via Jim Prentice, then-Minister of Industry Canada).

I think your letter (pasted below) skirts the underlying problem here (and yes, I am well aware of the trend of deregulation of the wireless sector in Canada), which is of a 3G market in Canada that is very limited and hardly competitive.

A market in which one company (Rogers, which owns Fido/Microcell, the only other “provider”/MVNO that offers iPhones in Canada) holds a monopoly cannot logically have any “competitive market forces” operating upon it at all. Currently, Rogers/Fido is free to charge whatever it wants to customers wanting an iPhone with 3G wireless service, as there is simply no competition. If we are to promote a competitive environment in this sector, it is evident that we need to intervene to cause one to transpire. The status quo on 3G iPhone service in Canada is a monopoly.

Further, the wireless sector in Canada is more generally anticompetitive, and services apart from voice are prohibitively expensive compared to most other jurisdictions. According to a recent report by Merrill Lynch, Canada has some of the highest wireless data rates in the world, as well as the highest profit margins for the few companies that dominate it [ http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2008/09/04/tech-profit.html ]. Currently, 95% of the Canadian wireless market is held by a mere three companies. This is an egregious oligopoly. Even with the spectrum auction of 2008, analysts estimate the market share for all new entrants combined will only equal 25% by 2015 [ http://edmontonsun.com/Business/News/2008/09/18/6800626-sun.html ]. It is unreasonable to conclude that the wireless sector in Canada is a competitive one.

What tangible steps (apart from last year’s spectrum auction – which still allows for much control of the market by the owners of towers and other infrastructure, the incumbent oligopoly of Rogers, Bell, and Telus) is your government taking to ensure that new entrants will be able to offer competing iPhone 3G data plans, or can compete so as to foster an environment where wireless data becomes something people other than millionaires can afford in this country? Canada is rapidly getting left behind the ROTW in this regard. If there is to be a digital divide, on which side of it do you wish Canada to be?

Might I suggest an approach (consistent with the long history of liberal telecom policy and legal precedent in North America) that prohibits wireless providers from predetermining what equipment customers are permitted to use to connect to their networks (e.g., the Carterfone/AT&T precedent [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carterfone ])? This would pre-empt many of the issues cited above, and would undoubtedly lead to widespread innovation in not only software for wireless devices, but wireless hardware as well. The time has passed for wireless carriers to be permitted to dictate the terms of handset innovation via their exclusive rights to license devices for use on their networks (and in the case of Bell and Telus, to lock them so they cannot be used on any other networks either).

Yours truly,
Jean Hébert.

On 9-Sep-08, at 11:39 AM, Correspondence@synergis.ic.gc.ca, Minister/Correspondance@synergis.ic.gc.ca, Ministre@synergis.ic.gc.ca wrote:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding rate plans proposed by Rogers for
iPhone services.
As Canada’s wireless market has been deregulated since the mid 1990s,
prices and contract terms are no longer subject to approval by the
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. This is
consistent with the government’s objective of a competitive wireless
sector that relies on market forces to the benefit of Canadian businesses
and consumers. The government is of the view that competitive market
forces are the best means of achieving better choice and lower prices for
telecommunications services. Deregulation of the wireless market leaves
wireless service providers to interpret market forces and determine
appropriate rates for wireless services, including roaming and mobile
data.

The government also took steps to increase competition in wireless markets
by setting aside a portion of the spectrum specifically for new entrants
to bid on in the auction of radio spectrum (airwaves) that was held from
May 27 to July 21, 2008. As well, new entrants that acquire spectrum will
have access to existing antenna towers and the ability to roam on existing
networks at market-based rates.

This new spectrum is suitable for advanced new wireless services, like
high-speed Internet and video, and faster access for services such as
those being offered using the iPhone. The introduction of new service
providers will help make Canada’s wireless market more dynamic,
competitive and innovative to meet the growing needs of Canadians. The
government’s objective is better choice and lower prices for Canadian
wireless users.

Once again, thank you for writing and please accept my best wishes.

Sincerely,

The Honourable Jim Prentice, P.C., Q.C., M.P.

What 2009 Wireless Market Forecasts Lead Me To Think

OK, so I’m reading this thing in RCR, trying to suss out whether I should stay on a career path in the mobile/wireless industry, and, reading past the sway from optimism to skepticism about its future, I come to this sentence: “There is only one Internet and its users do not accept boundaries imposed by devices or networks.”

I wonder how much these industry reports cost. This insight is not terribly difficult to surmise. Or maybe I should hit Berg up for a job? Or Jupiter? Pew? I’m well-versed in SPSS, too, people! 😉

But I’m becoming less certain whether I’m giving too much away for free here, or if other folks are making money by lifting what’s being made freely available. Not just me, but all over blogs and twits. In a time of economic uncertainty, is it prudent that we marginal bloggers who work hard as amateur analysts tighten our lips until the chequebook makes its appearance?

I also wonder if any of this is related to the spike in plagiarism in university studies of late? Maybe the blogosphere is now training folks to indulge in and tolerate taking credit for other people’s work? Maybe we’re graduating more students who think nothing of buying fake degrees, buying off profs for better grades (I know of one instance where this was proffered but refused), or simply buying papers to pass their classes (I see this every semester I teach)? In an era of such blatant disregard for academic honesty, what’s a little copy/paste in one term paper, anyway? I mean, tenured profs famously get away with it, not to mention Prime Ministers. With a major “credit crunch” lie being perpetrated, bilking American taxpayers out of (potentially) trillions, it would seem that lying is the way of the world.

Given this environment of all-around deceit, who am I to call it? Just some cranky PhD student trying to figure out how to pay down a student loan while raising a child…

OK. Forget Berg, and forget Pew. Now I’m seriously thinking of ditching this blog to become a children’s entertainer…The Wiggles are amazingly financially solvent, make children all around the world happy, and represent very positive male role models – they sing, dance, wear bright colours, and make friends with all sorts of animals that also sing. A dream job, if you ask me!

recent MIT mososos

MIT students are developing some really interesting mobile apps, on various platforms. I especially like Mobile Trader (no link?) – there’s much potential for enabling microeconomies using its “craigslist/1.5 mile diet” mashup for Symbian. However, CashTrack seems designed for cheap people, though. C’mon? Do we really need to track who owes whom what based on serial unevenly-paid dinners? Maybe if you’re Kenny Bania – where the question of whether the soup counts matters – this logic makes sense. Also at odds with the Android (for which it’s written) ethos?

Just saying.

Room Enough For Everyone :: Canada On the Web

The Tyee is carrying Michael Geist’s succinct report about the upcoming hearings at the CRTC over the future of Internet regulation in Canada. Most of these proposals don’t make any sense – imposing Canadian content requirements on commercial Canadian websites is dubious at best – how would web content hosts respond to such a scheme? Move south? Sign up with godaddy instead of geohost? We would merely, in some roughshod form or other, reproduce the old Can-U.S. media order, with cross-border broadcasters, Canadian-edition web sites and services (the model of ebay.ca/amazon.ca would extend into domains like flickr.ca, or worse, twitter.ca. yuck), and we’d unnecessarily introduce barriers to communication in what is a global, low-barrier-to-entry medium.

About a year ago I was asked to give an opinion to SOCAN to help inform their proposal. I argued that the Internet is highly resistant to regulation by its technical design (summed up in my persistent “the internet is filesharing” slogan above). I actually agree with SOCAN somewhat – I do support an ISP tax to reward content creators – a levy collected and monitored in ways like SOCAN already does for radio, television, and live performance. Such a proposal would meet little resistance from the public (who cares about an additional 5 bucks on your 70 dollar a month broadband bill? especially if it permits one to download anything with impunity), and would install a theoretically fair (if fairly monitored and redistributed) royalty system by which artists (and the companies they sign their lives away to) get paid.

But this idea needs to be isolated from the wider proposals to reproduce Canadian content regulations which worked (albeit in a broken fashion) during one media epoch, but won’t work within our present media ecology. The Internet is not a scarce medium like broadcast, and so there is room enough for everyone.

But underscoring this point, carriers should not be free to dictate how users access the Internet, which has attained something of the status of a public utility in common understanding. If we want to make room enough for everyone, we need to build networks that are accessible by all, using whatever hardware or software, on an equal footing. This means a nationwide broadband and wireless strategy; this also means Net Neutrality. It also means government support for community wireless initiatives.

The battle for an open Internet that gets along with content creators’ desire for remuneration needn’t be that difficult here. It’s much worse in mobile (where there is a scarcity), as I’ve been saying all along.

Mobile Education Dreams

Via Golden Swamp, via Mobscure comes this:

Touching, in a Hollywood sorta way. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not cynical about this stuff at all. I embrace social enterprise and believe in it. There are, however, more innovative and useful modalities by which education can be delivered via mobiles than via voice (though voice is highlighted here). These other modes should be obvious to anyone with a smartphone (or iPhone), but maybe not so obvious to those of us who use merely voice and text (which is most of us). The ability to convey programmatic information via SMS is the DNA that propels social change using mobiles.

The video also paints an unrealistic picture of the Third World by depicting abundant use of voice services (whereas SMS is the preferred medium there), presumably to appeal to the voice-drenched culture of North American investor-philanthropists? Also presumably because SMSs aren’t photogenic.

Still, a very hopeful message. Much appreciated these days.

Commercial Whiplash: Nokia, carriers, and why Canada is still full of crap mobiles

On Nokia’s shrinking North American market share: “(Samsung & others) were quick to meet carriers’ customization demands, an area in which Nokia proved reluctant.” (http://bit.ly/zuSN).

But this is precisely why Nokia ought to be lauded – for its efforts in putting out handsets that straddle grids/networks (3g/wi-fi) and balancing different interaction design models in the same devices (creators+consumers, and their inevitable Web 2.0 hybrids). The N97 is out now soon [thanks Roland!] (as is the much awaited N96). Both of these are weighted heavily on the media creators’ side of things (for media creators, camera quality, rather than a touch screen, is premium, and Nokia must know this, or it would’ve gone to the extra bother of putting a touch screen in the N97, sacrificing who-knows-what. [CORRECTION, Jan 5 2009: sloppy reading on my part – it does have a touch screen, though it’s not a front stage feature of this handset, as confirmed at Mobile Review.].

Why should the carriers be allowed to influence the design of multiplatform devices? They aren’t their end users. Their sole relation to the handest is, seemingly, to coerce people into buying plans of various shapes and sizes. Thus, their influence helps shape handsets using a logic born of advertising and seduction/coercion techniques (and then further, techniques to induce users into using the devices in ways that turn uncomplicated profits) – not genuine interest in how users proactively seek their own tools of creation (and destruction). This benefits no one except the carriers themselves.

I think Nokia gets this.

The real problem is that Canadian wireless carriers don’t care if their user base consists of any media creators. Rather, they’re probably scared of that prospect, just like the music industry is still scared of amateurs. This is why upload rates are typically throttled as compared to download rates, and it’s why Rogers and others keep peddling handsets that in any other country would be laughed at, gonged off stage, and tossed in a landfill.

Personally I’ll stay out of buying a new handset until we see more severe trickle down of advanced features, and some reasonable data plans without a 2 year commitment in this IT ghetto called Canada. But here’s hoping Nokia doesn’t start pulling its resources out of North America, as some have speculated (see above-linked article).

I’m frankly tired of being treated by carriers as an unproductive media eater, a “pocket potato”, if you will. Bring on the dancing handsets (irrelevant link, just for fun, love that song).

Mesh Potato, Community Wireless, Design by Constraint

I’m hyped about Mesh Potato and I am aiming to be involved in their project in whatever way I can be useful, whether via some connection to Mobile Muse, or just plain old twit-and-post evangelism.

Mesh Potato is an Open Hardware project to create a wireless (mesh) access point that can function as an independent cellular phone network. The goal is to enable groups around the world to offer affordable voice and data services to small communities that cannot afford existing service from the major telcos (or who must use exorbitant but low barrier to entry pay-as-you-go services).

Also quite cool – the design principles underlying their project and goals. By way of Roland I read this article by Steve Song who recounts the strategy, inspired by Ethan Zuckerman’s idea of Innovating From Constraint:

With the Village Telco, we have a wireless project that has a number of self-imposed constraints.

  1. Get pay-as-you-go voice services right.  Data services are a given on a wireless platform but the one thing we want to make bullet-proof is affordable, simple-to-bill voice services.
  2. Make a telco as simple to set up as a wordpress blog.  Wireless meshes, least-cost-routing, etc.  Let’s make as much of that complexity disappear into default behaviours that can be tweaked as the owner/entrepreneur becomes more comfortable with the product.
  3. Be as open as possible.  This is more of a philosophical than a practical constraint.  We believe we can attract maximum participation by making software and hardware as open as possible.  We believe that Open Hardware strategies devices like the Mesh Potato can change the way people think about hardware.
  4. Break even in six months.  The technology ought to be cheap enough and easy enough to deploy that anyone with a reasonable head for business could have recouped their investment and be making a profit in six months.

Simplicity, rather than constraint, seems to be the operative theme here. Still, as a musical aside, this recalls for me Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which is similar in principle (limiting options to incite creative thinking), but which operates on aesthetic endeavor (which is about much more than “problem solving”, ultimately).

Hot potato, hot potato, sez my daughter.

Twittering the Election, SIFTing Media Collections

If you haven’t seen this already, then go check it out. Terse political opinions fly by with impunity. What to do, what to do…and how does media theory speak to this? I can anticipate hundreds of approaches, from critical political economy to social constructivism to what-have-you … but then again, I’m directly implicated in the construction of these very tools, for better or for worse.

Case in point – if you can imagine a media rich version of this, then you might be interested in what Mobile Muse (in partnership with the affable people at Raincity Studios) has been working on for the past little while: the Social Information Feed Tracker (SIFT) Tool. Currently in beta, this application allows SMS and social media from sites like Youtube and Flickr to be aggregated in custom channels. More functionality is being added as we speak – watch for a full public announcement of this and other Mobile Muse innovations very shortly…