Weekly Wrap: Smartphones For Dumb People
By Carlo Longino, Fri Nov 19 08:45:00 GMT 2004

A lot of people think they're "too dumb" for mobile data, RSS could be the future of mobile information delivery, America calls on ringbacks, and more...

An astonishing 85% of respondents to a study released this week consider themselves "too dumb" to understand how to use the data features of their mobile phones. Of course, the company behind the survey makes input devices, but it still highlights problems with usability of mobile devices and a lack of education channels for potential users to learn about the features and services. Perhaps the most glaring conclusion the study points to is that there aren't many applications available that are compelling enough to get people over their fears and concerns, and just start using them.

AOL posted a job opening looking for somebody to develop a mobile RSS client, and it got the gears working to wonder if RSS could be the best way to deliver some types of information to mobiles. For things like movie and events listings, group messaging and even news and sports information, RSS seems like a no-brainer. Carriers or content providers could manage subscriptions that could, say, keep showtimes for a user's favorite movie theaters up to date on their device, so the information is always there, and accessible without having to fire up a network connection and start browsing.

Verizon Wireless this week announced it was launching ringback tones, and while the services have proved quite popular in Asia and are growing in Europe, it remains to be seen if they'll amount to anything more than a fad in the US. The service initially seems expensive -- about a dollar a month, and two bucks for every song used -- and the selection's fairly limited. But the biggest question mark is if people will understand the service, and find any value in it after the initial fad wears off.

Uncertainty in the Chinese market continued this week, with investors growing uneasy with government intervention in the country's telecom sector. In addition to replacing a number of executives of Chinese carriers (of which the government owns a majority stake), there's rampant speculation the government will force some of them to merge or break up. One scenario has China Unicom getting split up, with its GSM and CDMA networks given to other operators, in an effort to reduce the cost of building out the country's 3G networks.

Speaking of 3G, there's a growing push from carriers launching new networks to become content providers as well as network providers. It's not the first time it's happened, and many of the same problems persist: with long-standing media companies still struggling to come to terms with the technological advances of their industry over the last several years, it's unlikely operators will be able to step into the breach and instantly morph into media companies. First and foremost is their insistence, counter to most people's thinking, that mobiles are media consumption, rather than communication, devices.

Vodafone, which launched its consumer 3G services earlier in the month, reported its half-year results this week, adding 7.5 million subscribers worldwide on a 6% increase in service revenues and a slight fall in core earnings. Rival MMO2 saw its core earnings jump 37% over last year, with revenues up 23% and its number of subscriber figures 15% higher. Both companies, though, said they expect things to get tougher next year as they get further into their 3G launches.

One complication they cited, along with other UK carriers is a ruling by the country's telecoms regulator that they must cut the termination charges they levy on each other by an average of 30 percent. It doesn't seem like much at first glance, but the devil's in the details, like with another innocuous-looking pledge from carriers and content providers this week to make unsubscribing from content services easier. Both measures don't appear to mean a lot on their surfaces, but could hit companies' bottom lines significantly.

Elsewhere on the site this week, David James takes the mobile broadband road through South Korea, Mark Frauenfelder shares how mobile technology is helping the visually impaired get around Finland, and David Pescovitz rolls up with the latest news on flexible displays.