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Visual voicemail: A super example of Britain’s lazy, inept, innovation-less mobile operators

I have an iPhone on each of the following UK networks:

– o2
– Orange
– Three
– Vodafone

Only one of those networks, o2, has actually installed the gubbings on their network  to enable Apple’s visual voicemail service.

The rest of the operators couldn’t be bothered.

I mean that, quite literally.

Voicemail — as I highlighted in the Future of Voicemail video series last year — hasn’t changed for about 15 years. Indeed, some of the equipment and services running on some networks is almost that old.

Apple prompted a small revolution in the voicemail marketplace with the introduction of their visual voicemail service. Similar concepts had been around before, but none had been so beautifully conceived or so well presented into the consumer consciousness. The ability to browse your voicemail messages and choose the ones you’d like to hear first contributed significantly to the ‘oh my god that’s amazing moment’ that many in the mobile world experienced at the introduction of the first generation iPhone.


Every o2 customer got the brilliance of visual voicemail when they signed up for the service.

Then when Apple permitted the other operators here in the UK to supply the iPhone, they didn’t require visual voicemail compatibility. They obviously left this to the operators themselves to deal with, assuming that, well… of course these operators would want to offer customers the best possible experience. And, of course, they’d probably see what had been done on the iPhone and want to extend those services to other devices used by their customers. Of course. This wasn’t Apple’s concern.

Apple got on with marketing and developing new products.

The ‘non-exclusive’ operators (Orange/Voda/Three/TMO)  carried on doing nothing.

You won’t be surprised to hear that product managers and senior executives at each of these operators have been busy doing nothing. You know, having lunch meetings, off-site days, strategic reviews, product development seminars and lots and lots of meetings to discuss visual voicemail.

First and foremost, should they bother blowing the cash to give their iPhone customers visual voicemail?



Why not?

Well — when they launched the iPhone, nobody actually noticed visual voicemail wasn’t supported.

I did.

I was entirely disappointed to see that the voicemail feature on my Three, Orange and Vodafone iPhones is simply a button. You tap ‘voicemail’ on the Phone menu and instead of seeing the visual voicemail layout, you… well, your iPhone calls your voicemail. Like how your feature phone from 1998 used to work.

Is it a big problem?


And this is why the operators haven’t bothered. This is why those product development discussion forums with sandwiches and biscuits yielded nothing.

Because the operators were thinking cash.

Why bother spending the cash implementing visual voicemail for just one (albeit reasonably popular) smartphone on their network? Nobody’s really complaining — and if they do complain on Twitter, just recommend they download HulloMail. Everyone’s a winner, right?


It’s about innovation. This is one of the fundamental problems with the sodding UK marketplace. It’s filled with complacent couldn’t-give-a-toss operators shovelling the same mildly shit services to their consumers each year.

Show me the innovation in the UK marketplace?

There was a study done recently — I cannot for the life of me find it — but it was about mobile data. I think it was an operator in Asia that did the study, although I also seem to remember it being a British operator. Forgive me, I can’t remember.  Anyway, there’s a point I’d like to make with it. The research went along this lines:

“Would you spend more money on better quality data services?”

The majority of people interviewed said yes.

This shocked the operator in question to their core.

They really didn’t expect people to actually say yes, such was their assumption that all the consumer cares about is price. Which means there’s no point investing in anything new because you assume nobody wants to pay for. With few exceptions, this is precisely what goes on in the UK marketplace, right? If anything, it’s the other way around — with operators panicking about mobile data and trying to reduce their expenditure and network expansion exposure costs [Witness T-Mobile UK deciding to make ‘fair use unlimited data’ mean 500mb].

Whatever country the study was from it doesn’t matter. I firmly believe that much of the UK’s mobile consumers will be delighted to pay more for better stuff.

It’s only about price when you can’t, don’t or won’t make it about anything else.

Back to voicemail.

I’m surprised at Three. You’d have expected a challenger brand like them to have sorted out visual voicemail for every sodding smartphone in their ranks. Goodness me it’s not difficult. 5 minutes on the phone to Shawn Barber at Acision will sort it. Or a quick chat with Andy and the team at HulloMail. It’ll be sorted in a jiffy. Yes there’s going to be some budget required, but come on — innovation, anybody? Three clearly still can’t decide whether it’s chasing the triple-A £50-100/month customers who want brilliant data services or the market’s Vicky Pollards delivering 2p per month ARPU.

If we can’t get visual voicemail working for the UK’s smartphones, how the hell are we meant to finally see 4G arrive? Or multi-sim service with the same phone number? Or distributed SMS services that arrive on every one of your phones? Or international roaming that doesn’t require you to spunk a month’s wages uploading a photo to Flickr in Spain?

It’s a sad, sad state of affairs, it really is.

What would it take to deploy visual voicemail to every… BlackBerry, Nokia (smartphone), WP7, Android and iPhone in the UK? I can think of a bucketload of suppliers who’d be delighted to assist. You either put a client on the device (or encourage consumers to do so themselves) or you make the device’s existing API capabilities tie straight into the network.

This is not rocket science.

And frankly, if we’re talking about ‘visual voicemail’ within a mile of the word ‘innovation’, we’ve already got a big, big problem.

Only this evening I was sitting on the train naively assuming that I’d be able to phone my wife without incident. The train travels at about 30mph generally. It plods through stations and the journey takes about 35 minutes. I rarely actually talk on the phone during the regular journey just because I’ve typically got other stuff going on with email and so on.

But today I thought I’d try a phone conversation with my wife. Little baby Archie’s got some teeth on the way so he’s not been keeping too well — I thought I’d enquire as to his status.

And — like the geek I am — I did some real time processing of my mobile situation. I recognised that at 30mph the hand-over between the DECREPIT piece-of-shit UK phone networks should be able to cope with me swapping from cell to cell no problem. I understand that at 110mph or similar, it’s sometimes a weee bit difficult to keep a call open when you’re having to contend with multiple blackspots, tunnels and when you’re traveling through multiple cells every minute.

But at a leisurely 30mph, I thought I’d be fine.

I was cut off three times.

Three flipping times.

And I had all that sodding audio bollocks to deal with. You know, where my wife suddenly starts sounding like a Dalek. Or when I have to keep on saying ‘are you there’ because you can’t hear properly.

After the third time I just sent her a text. “Rubbish signal.”

She replied “OK.”

How sad is it that in 2011, we still accept this?

The lack of innovation, they lack of measurable improvement, the total (unintentional) disregard for the betterment of the marketplace… it’s simply breathtaking.

Surely it’s not all about money?

What the hell are all these product managers doing out there? Standing, staring at the wall, going home at 430pm and not bothering to face up to the ‘tough’ innovation questions like visual voicemail?

It’s not just visual voicemail. It’s the whole raft of things that you and I would love to see.

A little while ago, I was appalled to see a bollocks T-Mobile advertisement in the newspaper where the company tried to differentiate it’s iPhone offering by explaining that if you buy an iPhone on their network, they’ll let you change your ‘Flexible Boosters’ each month.

Total flipping bollocks.

“That’s it?” I wrote, “That’s all your product teams can come up with?” Buy an iPhone from us and we’ll… we’ll let you change your ‘unlimited landline calls’ to ‘unlimited texts’ or ‘same network calls’ each month. Rubbish. Absolute rubbish.

So uninspiring that I thought it was about time I explained what I’d like to see in terms of innovation. So I wrote a post off the top of my head: “Here’s what I’d like from T-Mobile (or any UK operator!)

I was so incensed that I actually wrote the whole post on the train using the BlackBerry. (The very same one that I can’t make calls on).

To all the product managers, market segmentation geniuses and business analysts, could you please put the following in your pipe and smoke it:

I’m in dream mode now. Here are some advertising messages I’d really like to see [in place of the uninspired shit they’d published]:

– At T-Mobile, we’ve prioritised our iPhone traffic so Facebook will load 28% faster than Vodafone, Orange or o2 customers with the same phone.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve peered directly with top sites like Google, Facebook and Yahoo. So your smartphone accesses those sites roughly 2-seconds faster than anyone else.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve upgraded our network with Nokia Siemens Networks cellular technology that, on average, will keep your iPhone’s battery working 19% longer every day.

– At T-Mobile, if you put more than four devices on our network and spend over 100 pounds per month, all your UK calls are free. Everything. 0800, 0845, everything. For as long as you like.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve implemented data traffic shaping. That’s a complex way of saying your Youtube clips load faster and in guaranteed higher quality than any other UK network.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve implemented a special priority data access plan for our most enthusiastic data customers: £29 per month gets you priority access on every one of our cell sites. So you’ll always be first.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve worked heavily to protect your privacy whilst online. Use our network and we’ll guarantee you’ll never be a victim of domain spoofing. Further more, if you buy or £2.99 option, we’ll also automatically firewall every mobile data connection you initiate. Which means you’ll be safer online.

– At T-Mobile, we worry about the fundamentals: We have 28 people working 24/7 to make sure you will consistently get a better quality mobile phone signal, every time. No other network offers [some technology] to ensure your phone calls stay live. Which is why we’ll refund your basic service plan fee if you experience a dropped call in any given month that was caused by our own equipment (and not the sub-standard technology of our competitors — tunnels permitting)

– At T-Mobile, we’ve partnered with every leading venue, railway station and shopping mall to ensure you experience 100% connectivity when you need it most. Want more? Just £3 per month will ensure your calls are prioritised above our standard traffic. So you’ll never, ever see ‘network busy’ again.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve done a deal to put a satellite-connected transmitter/Femtocell on every train in the UK. You’ll always be connected.

– At T-Mobile, if you lose/damage your iPhone, we’ll replace it within 8 hours anywhere in the UK, completely free of charge. Provided you commit to a four year on-going service fee. And the next iPhone (5) will be free too. In fact if you commit to an on-going 5-year deal, every phone you’d like will be free of charge and you’ll qualify for a new one every year.

– At T-Mobile, we’ve configured our network so that if you have 3+ phones with us, you’ll be able to use the same number on each one. For calls and texts. Absolutely transparently. No one else in the UK can do this.

– At T-Mobile, we guarantee we have the fastest possible data connection to the internet. We have 12x 1 gigabyte connections into our four UK data centres. That’s five more than our leading competitor. Click here to see our live traffic register. We’re the UK’s biggest purchaser of bandwidth. No one, absolutely no one, is faster. (This would have me reaching for my wallet in milliseconds).

– At T-Mobile, we’ve integrated everything into one single point-and-click interface online. Everything. Geek? Good: You can do your own service provisioning right from our online control panel.

– At T-Mobile, we are always open. No questions. 24/7. Call us anytime and get us online via chat whenever you want. Period. We’re here to help.

I didn’t include visual voicemail in the list because, frankly… in my dream world we’d already got past that.

So what do you think? Is it time for a mobile operator that actually does some operating beyond the same boring, predictable services we’ve seen for the last 5 years?

Am I off my rocker? Or are you with me?

I’d very much welcome your perspective.

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