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Vodafone 360 – An Absolute Failure?

[This editorial was originally published in the Mobile Industry Review newsletter on the 28th November 2009. Make sure you get the editorials ahead of time by subscribing here — free.]

360 will be an absolute and total failure… and then in 5 years, they’ll try again.” Discuss.

That quote was sent into me this week from a very knowledgeable source. I’ve got a lot more perspective for you — but first of all, let’s check we’re all on the same page by getting a definition of Vodafone 360 from Bobby Rao, Vodafone’s Marketing and New Business Director:

* “Vodafone 360 is an internet service that works across a range of mobiles and is accessible by a website. It brings your digital life together and at it’s heart is this rich connected address book that aggregates all of your contacts from your mobile phone, social networks and other internet communication tools.”
– speaking on the Vodafone 360 launch day (Youtube Link)

Sounds good. The trouble is, that’s not entirely accurate, Bobby. In fact, Bobby, that description is nigh-on total b*llocks. But we went over that last week.

This week it’s all about your feedback. I had hundreds of emails from readers telling me about their own experiences of 360. Some were commenting on the actual 360 service (most, like me, seem to approve of the whizzy UI interface) whilst the majority chose to place the blame squarely on Vodafone management. There were a fair amount of “bunch of muppets” style commentary pieces — I don’t disagree — but then, mid-week, after the newsletter had been forwarded around by record numbers, the juicy stuff arrived.

And I’m reproducing it in full.

Names have had to be changed. Indeed, some of the feedback I’ve had has actually quoted and highlighted the exact people that you think are to blame. I’ve edited comments to remove direct references to identities — but other than that, this is directly cut-and-paste from some of the industry’s brightest and most well connected.

Let’s start first with the direct Twitter message I was sent which formed the basis of this post earlier in the week. The sender is a big cheese in the UK mobile industry. If I gave you his name, you’d nod and recognise him. He’s not necessarily the chap who gives all the presentations at industry events — he’s one of the chaps who actually gets things done. He sat down with a set of colleagues who’d just been into Vodafone — and then sent me this:

VF360 insider gossip: Pre-orders? 50. Returns on Samsungs? Massive. Atmos in VF? Point finger / duck for cover. T-R-A-I-N-W-R-E-C-K

I’d like to point out that nobody from Vodafone has contacted me to say these figures are false. I can imagine returns being high.

Right after last week’s newsletter went out, I received this email, commenting on the poor implementation of 360:

Ewan, if you can find me 10 people working at Vodafone UK (not MIR readers obviously) who know what API stands for I’ll eat my iPhone…!

Heh. I’m not sure if that’s possible — there are quite a lot of Vodafone employees reading and I’m sure most of them know the definition of API — but I get the point.

Another well-placed industry source –let’s call him Gregory — mailed in this:

Nice rant, Ewan. BUT the problem is not that “senior management doesn’t care”. I think it’s the exact opposite – senior management do care, just about the wrong things… They care about not being a bit pipe. They care about “owning” the customer. They care about monetizing that. So if you want to upload your content to a web service, it should be a Vodafone one. Never mind that the Vodafone one is rubbish – they own you. And if you want to order a print of your uploaded photo, that will come from the Vodafone partnership with whoever. Never mind that isn’t in place yet, it is coming. That’s how they monetize it.

This never-ending obsession with controlling the user model is simply ridiculous. I asked one chap from Vodafone why I could only send photos from Vodafone360 to Facebook. He responded by explaining that, ‘Facebook is what the majority use.’ Which is a completely bullshit viewpoint. Absolutely crazy. What about Flickr? What about Picasa ? What about Photobox?  The chap looked momentarily stunned before responding, ‘But nobody uses those! We have to pick the services that most of our customers use.’ And there, is the problem. Apple doesn’t pick the applications that I download. Yes it strictly controls the deployment of applications on to its service, but it doesn’t choose which ones I can use. This is the fundamental problem with 360. Some Vodafone management arse in a nice looking M&S suit decided that 360 users will only ever want to send photos to Facebook. Job done. Put that in the specification and let’s go home. No wonder returns are so high. It’s almost 2010 and Vodafone is still trying to do its best to understand what its users want, instead of doing it the other way round. Let the market — the users — decide. Stick in 10 APIs and see what happens. Let other photo services build APIs for you. Rubbish. Absolute total rubbish.

Gregory continues:

Someone senior at Vodafone is worrying desperately about 360 cannibalizing SMS revenue – if people are sending messages over data networks they’re not sending SMS or even MMS. Need to protect that revenue. The business case for 360 will have had that objection to overcome.

Is this why they’ve just included a link to Facebook from the 360 portal? Gregory’s final point:

Don’t forget, mobile operators are the people who looked at the internet and came up with walled gardens. They genuinely thought that was a good idea, too. Senior management at Voda believes that 360 is a compelling experience, compelling everyone to ditch their operator and existing web services to come over to Voda to use 360. The same thinking that Nokia is having with Ovi.

Too right, Gregory. Too right.

Iain wrote in with this feedback:

Thank you for the hilariously insightful article on Voda 360. I spent a decade in the real media industry before going to work for an operator in 2000. Although as you say there are some very bright individuals in these businesses – the operators are self-crowned media empires – but the two industries are like chalk and cheese. There is no understanding therefore no commitment at the top to make these services work – just to be seen to be doing something…

It’s fascinating Iain — the complete lack of executive commitment astonishes me. Iain finished his email with this point:

Although I managed to escape before too long myself – the lure of the corporate pay cheque, the constant request to head the bill at conferences, and the glory of launching services on multi-million pound campaigns can be real golden handcuffs…

Agreed, Iain — I recommend that Vodafone 360 executives ensure they are a million miles away from me when they’re speaking on a panel or doing a presentation about 360. And if they find themselves on a panel I’m hosting, sparks will fly.

An industry heavyweight — who knows Vodafone intimately and asked to be anonymous — read last week’s newsletter and wanted to weigh in thus:

They are f**cked. You are entirely right on ALL points. Using ‘but people don’t use it’ as an excuse to throttle innovation is indicative of Vodafone’s state. It allows others to set the bar and for them to try and jump up to it — by which time the bar is higher.

I totally agree — this is one reason why 360 is already ‘out of date’. The heavyweight continued:

The global/opco observation is 1 of the core issues here. Internal battles and indifference is like business cancer. Boy do they have it. ANYONE who says that voda 360 is a success is living in a f**cking DREAMWORLD.

Newsletter reader Geoff couldn’t quite believe 360 is so bad:

You’d think Vodafone would just stand back and say “Actually, this doesn’t work”, and try and do something about it. They’ve got great UX guys there, so I wonder what happened. It’s as if they finished work at 5:30 and never bothered to *use* 360 on their own phones

Clearly, Geoff. You’d think an executive would have actually sat down and taken a look at the service in-depth, rather than drinking the kool-aid.

Finally I’d like to bring you this feedback from Nick, a former Vodafone employee:

Oh, I did enjoy reading this Ewan; made my cry (both with laughter and frustration). 360 was the straw that broke the camels back for me with Vodafone! When I heard about the 360 project, and saw the details of what was being created it was the final trigger that made me leave.

The problem though is far worse than you think. You’ve got one thing in your rant slightly wrong; it isn’t that Vodafoners don’t care (trust me, they really do), its that they don’t understand.

In my years at Vodafone I met about 2 or 3 other people who had a similar level of interest in all things mobile. The vast majority couldn’t tell (or care about) the difference between an N70 or a Nokia 1100.

When you’re selling minutes and worrying about network capacity, it’s perfectly fine not to care about ‘terminals’. Indeed, I remember meeting a chap from Vodafone about four or five years ago who explained that ‘terminals (that’s the word he used!) were simply a necessary evil for us’ and that they needed ‘terminals’ so that consumers could actually use their service. He went on to explain that management couldn’t give a stuff about the actual ‘terminals’. Fair enough, as I say, if you’re all about selling minutes. But when you’re developing your own range of devices — running your own software and services — well, then your entire team needs to be on the right page. That’s a big ask if you find yourself working at Vodafone and don’t actually care too much about devices, OS and usability. There was provision for assistance at the company in the form of ‘Vodafone Wizards’ — sadly, that’s been discontinued as Nick explains:

The internal mobile advocacy team (Vodafone Wizards) was shut down – a victim of the many rounds of cost cutting at the company in the past two years.

Nick reckons mindset is a key problem:

One of the biggest problems is that the company still has a ‘handset & base-station’ mindset; their market share was built by rigid control of these – there isn’t really any understanding that value nowadays is created by open collaboration with the services customers use. The potential value of the Vodafone network as a mobile web platform is just simply not understood. To most managers this just means utility, which they are terrified of becoming. Vodafone simply don’t have the culture, calibre of staff or interest needed to make the leap from being basically a mobile version of Freeserve to becoming a modern day information services provider (potentially the next Google). Although to be fair I think Three are the only network to have caught on to that opportunity.

Finally, Nick makes this prediction:

360 will be an absolute and total failure, and then in 5 years they’ll try again…

I recognise what you’re saying Nick, but I don’t think Vodafone has that kind of time. They’re already — what? — two or three years late to the table with 360. It’s so late it’s not even ‘me-too’. I can’t believe they actually shipped the service as it stands.

I remain entirely embarrassed by Vodafone 360.

I’m embarrassed to have to point out things like ‘Gents, why can’t I send pictures to Flickr?’ and getting strange stares in return. If 360 had been developed by three guys in a garage, I wouldn’t be giving it this treatment. I’d be giving it a positive write-up. What’s more, they’d have introduced Flickr and Picasa as extra features five minutes after I’d left the interview. Instead … goodness me, how much money have they blown on 360?


It’s laughable for about 20 seconds before you realise that Vodafone is serious.

[This editorial was originally published in the Mobile Industry Review newsletter on the 28th November 2009. Make sure you get the editorials ahead of time by subscribing here — free.]

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