Malcolm Murphy – Pick and Mix data applications

I had a truly surreal experience recently, that I felt is worth sharing. John is from my parents’ generation, and you probably can’t describe him as a normob. He’s not a normal mobile user, since he hardly ever uses the thing. He carries one mainly in case of emergencies, his only handset requirement is that he has to have a clamshell so it doesn’t dial accidentally in his pocket, and he spends as little as possible on credit. “Submob” might be a better term.

So you can imagine my surprise when, completely out of the blue, John asked me if he could get podcasts on his mobile phone! While I was still in shock, he proceeded to describe the process of sideloading (although he obviously didn’t call it that) and tell me how he can’t be doing with all of that, even if his wife would allow him to use the computer. He concluded that it would make perfect sense to get podcasts over the air onto his mobile.

I had to confess that I’d never really thought about it. I’m used to connecting the phone to the PC to update my mp3s, and podcasts turn up in my PC’s media player, so it’s something I’ve gotten used to. But, as I thought about it, I realised that I had become desensitised to how inconvenient the whole process I was following is, and what a great idea over the air podcasts would be.

Leave it with me, I said, I’ll get back to you.

So I go off and do a bit of investigating, and I’m quite pleased with what I find. Nokia Podcast software for Series 60 looks like it will do the job. I download it onto my e65, it seems to work, I’m feeling quite happy. Up until last week I hadn’t even thought of getting podcasts on my phone, now I’m fully mobile enabled.

So I report back to John and I’m expecting him to be impressed. Yes, I tell him, you can get podcasts straight to your phone. You’ll need to change your phone, since the antediluvian Samsung you’ve been using isn’t up to the job. No, the N73 isn’t a clamshell, but it’s got a keylock on it so you should be okay. All well and good, until we come to the pricing.

I’m pretty sure John’s operator has a monthly flat rate data bundle, even on PAYG. Unfortunately, all John was able to find out about was daily charging. That looks expensive, even to me, and I’m used to big bills.

So, I suggested getting a dedicated 3 PAYG SIM, just for this purpose. Fiver a month for a gig of data, that’s a lot of podcasts, off you go. (See, despite my little niggles with Three, I can’t get away from the fact that their PAYG data is the cheapest and the best) Anyway, my work is done, and my reputation as someone who knows something about mobile is intact.

Except, it turns out that even a fiver a month is too much; John doesn’t spend five pounds a year on calls. So, despite the fact that he was interested in the idea, he remains podcast free, and another potential convert to data services falls by the wayside.

The whole episode got me thinking – data is an all or nothing proposition. And if you haven’t really used data services before, then going from nothing to a fiver or 7.50 a month for data is a big deal. Paying that much per month only makes sense if you know you’ll be using a set of applications, and you’ll only know you’ll be using them by actually using them. But you haven’t used data services so far because, even if you knew about them, you’re scared to do it because per megabyte pricing is expensive and opaque. Cue Major Danby.

I have no actual evidence to back this up, but I would guess that a relatively small percentage of UK users have signed up for flat rate data plans so far. And I’d guess that a high proportion of those are really hammering those plans.

Now, to be fair, there probably isn’t a solution to John’s problem – he really wasn’t expecting to have to pay for data at all. But for the rest of the data free normobs, I now have a fantasy Pick and Mix vision. Suppose that the operator could present you with a menu of applications, with a price per application that includes unlimited data for that application. On top of that, you have a bundle which includes unlimited data for unlimited applications.

So, if I only want mobile email, then I’ll pay (say) a pound a month. Mobile email and web browsing: two quid per month. Mobile email, web browsing and IM, three quid per month. Add in a fourth application (Jaiku, facebook, whatever) and it now makes sense for me to get the unlimited bundle. Then I’ll be hooked on data, and tell all my friends. And they’ll all sign up for applications that make sense for them, gardening for example. Then, before you know it, there’s one of those upward spirals of viral behaviour I hear so much about these days. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Before you all start shouting at the screen, I know that there a million reasons why this won’t happen, but if things stay as they are, more people will be without data bundles than with them.

And that’s a bad thing.

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