Fergal Walker is the Santa Claus of the UK mobile industry, although he doesn’t have the red suit, belly or white beard — but he does have handset subsidies to offer mobile geeks across the land — AND X-Series, which, is just genius. Fergal is the guy who decides what 3UK are going to put into your hand come contract renewal time so I was looking forward to meeting him.
I walked into the Congress Hall near Tottenham Court Road not two hours ago. I’d been told to ask for ‘Sarah’ or ‘Sarah’. I spied a group of people clustered around a Mobile Choice magazine and thought I was probably in the right area.
A girl called Tricia from Lewis PR asked if I was Ewan and introduced herself. She said I’d have 15 minutes with Fergal once he was finished with the chap who was currently interviewing him. She asked how I got started with SMS text News. I explained that I was a bit of a mobile geek and that I’d worked in the mobile industry. I wasn’t sure if she’d got the enormity of the ‘geek’ reference, so I demonstrated by bringing out my E61i and putting it on the table, joining it with the E65 in my pocket and the N95 in my other pocket. If she was shocked and horrified, she did a good job of appearing calm and relaxed in my company.
Quickly, Fergal finished with the other chap, not before I’d had a dig at the old media with Tricia and Sarah Pope (3UK’s Consumer PR manager) tactically keeping silent. I do like Mobile Choice, for example it’s got a comprehensive mobile review section at the back, but reading through the main pages of the magazine is like peering through a range of announcements already old covered in-depth years ago by the likes of Intomobile, AllAboutSymbian or Engadget.
Anyway, Fergal had stood up and bid the old media guy farewell and I was on.
I shook his hand and took out my questions from everybody at SMS Text News. I’d quadruple spaced them so I had space to write the answers and I think Fergal was slightly alarmed that I’d just taken five pages worth of questions out to put to him. In 15 minutes.
I explained I was a huge fan and that we’d asked for questions from SMS Text News readers the night before — he interrupted to say that he was a reader. Nice one Fergal.
I felt a little bit like Bob Whatshisname from the quiz show Blockbusters. I only had 15 minutes so I started firing questions like a machine gun geek. Normally I like to sit and have a chat with folk.
I went straight to the jugular, no messin’, with Ben Smith’s first contributed question:
Can he spill any beans about the Nokia N81 Music Phone and whatever Nokia are launching on 29th of August?
Fergal: No. It’s exciting, very exciting. It’s fantastic — we really are pushing mobile music forward. We’re the number one in mobile music downloads in the world and we’re second only to iTunes for music downloads here in the UK — and we’re bigger than iTunes in Sweden and Denmark.
I followed up with another one of Ben’s questions — one that I know a lot of people have been wondering.
Any plans to offer any Windows Mobile or Blackberry devices?
Fergal: Intentions? You betcha. Plans? Yes. Confirmed news? Not yet — but we’re working on it. We’d love to do this and we certainly will. We’re just looking at the commercials at the moment. Maybe toward the end of this year.
Oooh now that is quite interesting. They could certainly go to town with a funky Windows Mobile HTC Touch style device and X-Series applications. And as for Blackberry, well I think it would get a lot of interest from those data-hungry Blackberry fans out there.
Next, a favourite bugbear of any 3UK watcher:
Why the discrepancy in launch dates between the various 3 networks internationally for handsets (including the N95)?
Fergal; Each of us [each 3 country] qualifies the handsets we offer independently, we do our own testing and we decide what’s appropriate for our marketplace. From our own history here in the UK and looking to the future, we are continually focused on our desire to maintain and increase quality. So in the case of the Nokia N95, we decided we could wait. There were some intense discussions here, I can tell you. But I believe we are vindicated by the problems that other mobile operators have had with the device. By waiting, we were able to offer a much, much better quality Nokia N95 to our customers — better GPS, improved battery life, plus support for HSDPA and X-Series too.
That does make a lot of sense to me. I was still doing my nut when I found out 3 Italy had launched the N95 way before 3UK 😉
Ok next question.
What’s the score with the Sony Ericsson W950i — it was promised on X-Series from the outset?
Fergal: Very good question. We launched it. It sold out! We’re one of the only operators to push the boundaries — I mean really, really push the boundaries of our handset platforms to their limits. While we were able to do everything we wanted to with X-Series on Series 60, Symbian’s UIQ has proved a lot more difficult to get working.
Why do they forbid the use of non-3 handsets in their terms & conditions? With he more technical and demanding crowd they’re attracting with X-Series, how about allowing them, but unsupported (or similar)?
Fergal: We, unlike some operators, don’t make money from selling our handsets. We pass on the handset cost to the customer through their contract. If we open up our handsets, we’d be basically giving away pieces of kit — so for this reason our handsets are locked to the sim card.
I did clarify with Fergal though — you’re perfectly fine using another handset that you’ve bought elsewhere with your 3 sim.
For Nokia handsets, why isn’t it possible to firmware upgrade 3-branded phones?
Fergal: You shouldn’t be able to do this with the security measures we’ve put in place — this comes back to handset cost and my answer to your previous question.
To one of Grant’s questions now…
With regards to strategy — are you looking to increase the variety (and number) of devices availble or are you focusing on keeping quite specialist 3 equipment (fewer available handsets)?
At this point, Fergal broke into a big grin. I could see the excitement radiating from him.
Fergal: The former, Grant. If you look at the handsets we had available in May 2007 of this year, by October, we’ll have doubled our handset range.
Now that is very, very exciting.
Adam asked a similar question to Ben, asking:
Why is each 3 country so different in terms of handsets (variety and availability)?
Fergal: We’re like a federation of nation states. Each country in the world is different — and every market is different — for example, in Ireland you have to pay for your handsets whilst here in the UK, we’ll put the Aston Martin of handsets, (The Nokia N95) into your hand at no direct cost. Other global operators have tried to standardise on a global range across every country but we feel that severely reduces local flexibility.
Now to a question posed by Harry…
I got the Nokia 6120 classic on 3 last month [Fergal pulls out his 6120 to show me and nods] but when will HSDPA coverage be available nationwide?
Fergal: Nationwide coverage is to be confirmed — sometime toward the end of the year, but we’ll have significant coverage available by this September.
SE Fanboy asked this P1 question…
Will the X-Series work on my Sony Ericsson P1i? Cos my Vodafone contract is nearly finished and I only “do” Sony Ericsson
Fergal: If we decide to carry the handset, yes. Would it work with X-Series? Yes. [i.e. you can use ‘unlimited’ data, not all the X-Series applications will work though, as they may need to be tested for that handset]
Time was pressing so I finished off asking what Fergal’s first handset was. Turns out he used to work for Ericsson so it was, predictably, an Ericsson handset!
He then went on to give me this handset range sneak preview:
Sony Ericsson K530
Sony Ericsson K770
Sony Ericsson K850
Sony Ericsson W910
…. And the LG U990…. The Prada Phone!
But a double-hard-wideboy version of the Prada we all know and sort-of-love. The U990 will be sporting:
5 megapixel camera
120 frames/sec playback
170mb internal memory +external memory support
And the Prada touchscreen UI
I’ll need to see that one. That sounds fantastic.
By the way, make sure you check out Ben Smith’s long-term road test of 3’s X-Series published yesterday.