Vodafone’s Lukewarm 60-degree Offering

[This editorial was originally published in the Mobile Industry Review newsletter on the 20th November 2009. Make sure you get the editorials ahead of time by subscribing here — free.]

If you’re working at Vodafone, you’ll want to look away now. In fact, hit ‘escape’ and press delete. Now. Very quickly. Because this text is all about you.

There is nothing worse than a commodity supplier that thinks they know entertainment. That — fundamentally — is where we’ve got to with our mobile operators. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, they are all the same. They all think they know best.
And it’s patently obvious that — yet again — the mobile fairy is not at home at Vodafone.

I’m talking of course about Vizzavi … Er, sorry, no, Vodafone 360.

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.

The concept was right. The vision was correct. The fact that millions were jumping on to the mobile bandwagon was eminently clear — Vodafone’s brimming coffers were proof enough. It didn’t take a total arse to recognise that at some point, the idea of an integrated mobile experience — contacts, calendaring, online storage, email, IM (and beyond) — would, give or take a few years, become a hugely compelling possibility.
Like most mobile operator led services — the concept with Vizzavi was ‘right’.
The vision, well… One or two people got it.

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.

Then Steve Jobs, harassed daily by the fact that Nokia was swiftly becoming the planet’s biggest maker of MP3 units (integrated into handsets that no one could be bothered actually using for that function), thought it was time to act. Steve had seen the writing on the wall. At some point, a mobile hardware vendor would create a handset with decent music capabilities. That would severely threaten the dominance of his iPod division, already one of the brightest Apple stars.

Steve and his team of talented chappies put their heads together and — from *publicly* available components — knocked out the iPhone platform with the obsessive love, care and tenacity that is a trillion miles from anything Vodafone, T-Mobile — or, to this day, anything Nokia could deliver.

The iPhone delivered an experience. What’s more, it didn’t need a manual. It just worked.
There are committees at Apple. Sure. But there’s a series of individuals who — gasp — make decisions. Smart, competent, correct decisions. This culminates in the now legendary show-downs with the big boss who would accept nothing but utter brilliance. Take along a mediocre piece of shit at your peril and at worst you could expect to be fired, at best you’d be told to totally re-do it from the start.

This top level and cultural obsession for quality and excellence is one of the key reasons that the products and services delivered by Apple have so many fans. My own adoption of the Apple product range began when, at 11pm my flippin’ expensive PC decided not to connect to the internet. Four hours of sweat later and I ended up having to reinstall Windows to correct the ‘DLL’ that was failing. That morning — at about 3.30am — I swore I’d try out an Apple desktop to see what it was like. I never looked back and now I own an array of 8 laptops and desktops on two continents.

I can appreciate the joy and delight that geeks get from using Apple desktops and laptops. I particularly appreciate that my mother doesn’t really care whether she’s using an Apple or a Dell. She really doesn’t. As long as the web browser is working and there’s an internet connection, she’s happy. I appreciate that the end-users in the ‘personal computing’ space don’t really mind what they’re using — which explains why so many people still go out and buy 400 quid Dell machines. And they get on fine.

When it comes to the mobile experience, that simply doesn’t work.

Oh don’t get me wrong — it has worked. Totally. If my mother wanted to make a phone call on her piece-of-shit Motorola, well, she knew how to do that. The experience, after all, wasn’t that much different than the landline handset she’d been using for decades. She could never quite get the hang of the Motorola’s address book. Me either. But every time she wanted to use the address book, she would guess. Seriously. Sit down and watch a normob trying to use their existing rubbish handset — you’ll witness the same behaviour. She couldn’t quite get her head around the absolute d1ckhead user interface.

Looking at her calling pattern with the Motorola, there was a reason 99% of calls were to the home landline or to her mother’s — she typed the telephone number in manually each time.

She naturally felt inadequate. Her response — like many of a particular age — was ‘oh this is a bit beyond me’. Like setting the video. 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.

I was at pains to explain to her regularly that this wasn’t her failing. It was an industry failing. But all she wanted to be able to do was take a picture of a nice jumper she’d seen at the shops, send it to me and ask if I’d like it.

A little mobile fairy would die every time I heard her say this. The fact that she had the user-model in her head (take picture, ‘send’ to Ewan)… it was so frustrating that she couldn’t actually do it. Especially since, at this time, the mobile networks were wringing their hands at just how badly MMS (“multimedia bollox messaging”) was being accepted by the end-consumer.

Then Apple came along and fixed it. I gave her my iPhone for a day and then let her keep it. She understood it within 20 seconds. She took confidence from the always reliable ‘home’ button. She delighted in the little animations and the ability to ‘flick’ through photos. Within days she was downloading songs and sending the whole family photos and email. It’s now not unusual for her to show me an application she’s downloaded. (“That Jamie Oliver’s one is really good!”)

Now. It’s not all about my mother though. If you work on the basis of my mother being in her late 50s, there’s a considerable amount of consumers out there in their 30s who — also — never used their handset for anything other than calling and texting.
The other functions they were given were either total rubbish (“This handset can play MP3 files! IF you buy the £49.99 cable connection kit.

And it’ll take 3-hours to transfer each file.”) or they were so difficult to use that people simply didn’t bother.

Only the geeks could be arced to mess around with GPS-encoding their photos and updating their Facebook status from the web browser. Everybody else had other things to do.
The Apple changed the model entirely. All of a sudden this huge, huge disenfranchised set of people were set free. They could do stuff. Before they knew it, normobs — normal mobile phone users — were ordering their shopping on the train through the Ocado application.

And so on.

Now let’s bring it back to Vodafone.

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.
And they’ve got to do something about this.

They’ve got to offer ‘service’ to their customers, right?

They too can deliver a brilliant alternative to the iPhone, right?

They too understand what mobile consumers want — and — heck, they’ve got three hundred million customers, right? They can spec up a system and flog it to their customers by the bucketload. And that way, they can lock’em in, right?

Oh dear.

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 normal mobile user is seeing Facebook on his Samsung H1 360-branded device. He enters his account details and… well, he just assumes that the device will pull down all his contacts.

And by ‘contacts’ he means his Facebook network *WITH* their mobile numbers.

What do you mean it doesn’t do that? Oh.

The normal user will then try entering his Google or Hotmail account — again, on the basis that, theoretically, his contacts, calendar, all that jazz, should be pulled down to his handset.

No?

It’s not doing that? Yeah. Sorry.

Ah but if you type in the contact, don’t worry. It’s saved. Automatically!

Yes. If you manually type in a contact entry, it’ll be zapped up to the Vodafone 360 cloud before you can say ‘mediocre’.

Head over to Vodafone 360, login and you’ll see the contact there. Like magic.

But, yeah.. your other 200 Facebook contacts? And the address book you’ve got at Hotmail? Stuff’em.

That wasn’t in the committee’s mandate.

This is the trouble.

It’s all run by committee. Clearly nobody at Vodafone thought there was a problem vomiting this system out to the masses. Nobody.

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

The real problem for Vodafone is that it’s senior management doesn’t care. They’re quite happy to pose with a nice grin holding a 360 device (“Isn’t it marvellous?”) and that’s because they don’t actually use them.

Oh they do carry the devices. Of course they do. But they only call people. Text them. Occasionally snap a picture.

If they did anything else with their devices they’d have noticed the glaring set of total fluck-ups that their design committees have delivered.

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.

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.

There are good things about Vodafone 360. For instance, when you snap a picture on the Samsung (and it does a good job of pictures), it’s instantly transferred to your Vodafone 360 portal. So when you login on the web, you can see your photos. Genius.
Oh you can’t do anything with them.

You can share them with other 360 people.

And that’s it.

I screwed up my original account by deleting a lot of people from Facebook. Then I deleted the account and added it again. I tried adding my other Facebook account this time. That worked. Then I changed my mind and deleted the account and those contacts. Then… I added my original Facebook account again. I saw no people on my 360 account though. I was mystified as to what happened. Turns out if I delete you, you’re gone. Completely gone. Even if I add in the Facebook account details again. I have you manually go to the ‘deleted items’ folder and add you. Gahhhh. If you’ve more than 10 friends, the whole thing breaks, basically.

So I ended up resetting the Samsung (the reset code is eight zeroes, by the way) and creating an all-new Vodafone 360 account — ewanjmacleod — and this time adding in all my Facebook friends again.

Goodness me it’s total shit. Total shit. We’re heading into 2010! Twenty-TEN! The year of the second Space Odyssey. And this is the pinnacle of Vodafone’s capabilities?

Technically speaking, the service works. It does look nice too. But I don’t want my photos to sit on files.vodafone.com. I want to do things with them.

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.

I can imagine just how it happened. I’m imagining an air-conditioned meeting room with harassed executives trying to work out what they should be doing with this ‘360 thing’ and not really caring that much.

You can tell they don’t care.

You really can. You just need to look at the corners they’ve cut, the edges they haven’t bothered filling in.

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.

They’re all being paid reasonable salaries and, frankly, none of them signed-up for 360. None of them really care about this sort of thing. There are precious few people at Vodafone who’re actually passionate about this stuff. The vast majority are too busy sending email to each other about next quarter predictions of blah-de-blah or — let’s be honest — doing what they all enjoy most: politicking and wringing their hands about the future.

There’s an odd few exceptions, but sadly those chaps and ladies have to defer to the numbskulls and empty raincoats making the 360 decisions. Who, it seems, all wanted to go home too badly on the day that they agreed the 360 specification.

I am continually staggered that this kind of thing still goes on.

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.

Just wait ’til the iPhone is offered in the UK. Watch the amount of Vodafone 360 customers peering against the window at the Vodafone shop, wishing that they’d waited the extra few months.

In the words of the great (and imaginary) Gordon Gekko, Vodafone 360, ‘is a dog. A dog with fleas.’

Apple find it hilarious. I know. I’ve asked.

Many in Nokia are bemused by it.

Samsung are delighted that they’re able to flog branded handsets to Vodafone.

And the consumer?

Until Vodafone’s top management sort this total bollox out, the Vodafone consumer will continue to be made to eat shit and to pay handsomely for it.

All is not lost though, dear reader.

The good news is that the Vodafone 360 experience — dear me, I should start calling it the ‘Vodafone 060’ experience as there’s at least 300 degrees of innovation and possibility missing — the good news is that it’s upgradeable over-the-air. So there’s possibilities. It’s a dog with fleas, but it can be rescued.

Whether it will be, I wonder.

What’s your prediction?

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.

We shall see.

[This editorial was originally published in the Mobile Industry Review newsletter on the 20th November 2009.  Make sure you get the editorials ahead of time by subscribing here — free.]

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  • Ewan,

    This is a great post, I swear it's like you're in my head. Soon as I heard about 360 I knew it was going to be a flop. This is from the network who charged £1 per month to download and use a Myspace application to access it from your phone. When you can do it online or on Orange, O2 and T-Mobile for free.

    Why they felt the need to bring out there own app store is beyond me, that sort of stuff needs to be done by the manufacturers who can properly integrate features. It feels like they know they are losing the bloatware of the past and are trying to get branding and services back on the phone.

    Always got the impression buzz words like 'social networking, ugc, etc' are thrown down by senior management who read about them in The Guardian and decided to get involved. The Facebook App 'Connect to Friends' was amazingly useless + 'Find Live Guy' had no soul.

    The thing is there are some interesting initiatives being done by Voda but none of them see the light of day

  • Pingback: Vodafone’s Lukewarm 60-degree Offering | Mobile Industry Review()

  • AJ

    I live in Turkey – the biggest mobile operator here is a company called Turkcell with a 60% market share. Vodafone entered the market here a couple of years ago by buying out one of the competitors. I met someone senior in Turkcell recently who told me how terrified they all were when Vodafone announced their plan to enter the market. Lots of emergency meetings, everyone running around in a panic etc etc. Roll forward two years, Turkcell is increasing its market share – and Vodafone is still a dog of a network. Anyone here can see they haven't got anything like a winning formula. Its a big mystery actually especially to the Turkcell executives who had worried too much about a lackluster effort from Vodafone. Maybe companies can get too big and just cant see the wood from the trees.

  • AJ

    I live in Turkey – the biggest mobile operator here is a company called Turkcell with a 60% market share. Vodafone entered the market here a couple of years ago by buying out one of the competitors. I met someone senior in Turkcell recently who told me how terrified they all were when Vodafone announced their plan to enter the market. Lots of emergency meetings, everyone running around in a panic etc etc. Roll forward two years, Turkcell is increasing its market share – and Vodafone is still a dog of a network. Anyone here can see they haven't got anything like a winning formula. Its a big mystery actually especially to the Turkcell executives who had worried too much about a lackluster effort from Vodafone. Maybe companies can get too big and just cant see the wood from the trees.

  • Pietro Barizza

    I will remember one Vodafone Live! project meeting until the day I die. Benedikt von Dreusche gave us a funny look and said “Does anyone here actually use their handset for anything other than calling and texting?” Nobody in the room put their hand up.

    Vodafone management are keen on the idea of selling ringtones, apps, etc to 16-25 year olds who really should know better. Problem is, now the iPhone is out, now they really do know better – and that is bad news for Vodafone. At the end of the day, senior management STILL do not understand why their customers are using the Vodafone portal – or, increasingly – why they are not using it.

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