Early Beta of Nokia Point & Find

Except for Japan, 2D barcodes haven't really made it into the consumer world so far. Maybe we can jump right to the next step in the evolution with Nokia's Point & Find early prototype that does not rely on a barcode to identify something and then get some more information from the internet but instead does image recognition? Below is a video of how it works in the context of getting more information about a movie by pointing the camera phone at a movie poster.

Personally, I can also imagine to use the application for sightseeing. No more tracing through a tourist guide, just point your phone at that church, castle, monument, etc., and you get background information on it. I'd really like that.

The web page for the new application contains some further information in PDF files but doesn't go into the details of exactly how it works, like for example if a picture is taken and uploaded for analysis or if  information is downloaded before and then analyzed locally).

In any case, I think there's great potential behind this, especially because individual companies can create their own Point & Find worlds. If Nokia allows some sort of billing for world downloads, I can imagine it might be an interesting application for companies working on tourist guides (to come back to my example above) to create an enhanced electronic version of their printed guides. Free point and find world downloads would be good for other purposes, like the movie industry, who could promote their movies this way in the hope users buy a ticket online or later on rather than charging for general use.

When Do We Stop Writing On Our Hands?

Recently, I observed somebody in the city with an iPhone how he was reading something on the screen copying some of the content, maybe a phone number, with a pen onto the skin of his hand. Wow, we've really come far, we have smartphones, we have big screens, we have touch, but people still need to use a pen to write something on their hand or on a piece of paper in order to remember it!? That doesn't seem right.

But it's not only iPhones, I am doing the same every now and then with my Nokia phone, too, because sometimes it's either not possible or too complicated to copy and paste data from one application to another, e.g. from the web browser straight into an e-mail or into the notes application.


  • I can't copy text from a web page from Opera Mini into an e-mail. Same with links. If I want to do that I have to click on the link first so the page is loaded, pretend to save it as a bookmark, mark the URL in the new window and hit the copy button. Then I have to cancel the bookmarking action, go the the e-mail program and insert it. Not impossible but way to complicated.
  • The other way around is equally difficult: I can't directly start Opera Mini from an eMail when I click on a link. This always starts the built in browser and not Opera Mini. So to circumvent the problem I click on reply in the e-mail program, scroll down to the link, mark and copy it, open Opera Mini and past the URL. Again, way too complicated.
  • Now try it for yourself and copy/paste a phone number from the address book to the 3rd party e-mail program on your phone…

On the PC, these tasks are much easier to accomplish. So how hard can it be to make this work in a more convenient way on smartphones, too?

Twitter for Instant Presentation Feedback

During the recent Future Technology Conference at the University of Oxford, I found a new personal application for Twitter:

Quite a number of people including me were twittering during the conference and either used a notebook or smartphone to virtually comment on the presentations and to seek the opinion of others. After my own presentation and Q&A session I noticed that the twittering during my session resulted in excellent feedback on my own presentation and served as a good starting point to engage people afterwards in the real world to continue the discussion.

Cool stuff!

Around the World in a Split Second – Communication Fixed and Mobile

Sometimes when I reflect on how and with whom I communicate in a single day I am truly amazed at how fixed and mobile communication networks have so much internationalized my life that time and place only seems limited by different time zones.

Myself, I was in Germany today and here's the people and their countries of residence I communicated with:

  • Sent an e-mail to one of my readers to Korea who had a question on a reference in my recent book
  • Received an e-mail from a friend in Australia who wanted to have my view on the state sponsored fiber deployment for a country wide high speed network.
  • I chatted with a friend living near Rome in Italy
  • Had lunch at an Italian restaurant owned by a "real" Italian
  • Arranged an ad-hoc meeting at a company in Germany nearby while in the car
  • In the afternoon, I called someone already driving home in Germany to arrange a telephone conference for the next day.
  • Ordered train tickets from the French railways via the Internet for an upcoming trip to Holland
  • Listened to a classical music radio station from the US via the Internet
  • Answered an e-mail from a German reader of my blog
  • Received an e-mail from a friend in the US with a thank you
  • Transferred some money from Germany to Austria
  • Received an e-mail from the UK
  • Read my blog roll via Google Reader based in the US, forget to write down from which countries the blog entries came.
  • Received some travel information from an airline based in Ireland
  • Met with Swiss friend working in Germany and living in France
  • Wrote this blog entry with Typepad, servers probably located in the US
  • And finally, my blog was read today (so far) by people in 67 countries

And all conversations / e-mails / IM / Internet browsing was done wirelessly of course, via Wi-Fi, GSM, UMTS, etc. from the notebook, the mobile smartphone and a plain old DECT cordless phone depending on time of day and location 🙂

DVB-T On Mobiles: Cheap, But What Is The Added Value?

Recently, a friend of mine showed me his new mobile, which came with an integrated DVB-T TV tuner. No, not DVB-H (handheld), but DVB-T, the standard TV set digital standard. The TV stream is crisp and sharp, very nice to look at but the rest left some doubts.

I asked him why he bought a DVB-T capable mobile and he said that he actually didn't. He bought the phone because it was cheap and had big keys for SMS and he only figured out it could do DVB-T once he discovered the extractable antenna. Great!

But then, what's the value of DVB-T on a mobile phone? Without content adapted for mobile consumption and without a built in possibility to get further information with a single click or to succumb to that instant urge to buy something it's quite limited.

The value is also quite limited for the broadcaster and for the content owner because they can't deliver additional information, they can't create additional revenue and they don't even know somebody watched it.

No, that's definitely not the final word on mobile TV broadcasting.

Prices for Voice Minutes and GPRS Very Different in Africa vs. India

As you might have noticed, I've been doing some research into GSM voice + mobile Internet in Africa lately. When comparing the results to prices in India, however, I was quite surprised.

Compared to the average price for a voice minute in Africa of around 10-15 Euro cents today, Indian carriers sell their voice minutes for around 2-3 Euro cents (taxes and recharge fees included, see an example of Airtel here and of BSNL here). Also, GPRS is much cheaper.

Assuming that the cost of running the networks in both regions is similar (just an assumption, please prove me wrong), I can't quite explain the difference. It's not missing competition, most African countries have 3 or 4 GSM networks today. It's not missing profitability either. EBITA of African and Indian wireless carriers are quite o.k. (see fore example the results of Airtel for 2008). Any ideas?

Focus Africa: Mobile Internet

There are quite a number of initiatives these days that aim at bringing the Internet to developing countries. From my point of view the ones which I think will have to most success are those using the infrastructure that is already there, the GSM networks. Satellites with local distribution over Wi-Fi might be an option in the future, too, but I think that will still too expensive and would only be available near the satellite downlink. Initiatives like OLPC and meshed networking might change that but I don't see that in the short- or mid-term. GSM networks in the other hand are already there today so I did some research into how available and affordable the mobile Internet is in Africa today.

There are about 300 million GSM subscribers in Africa today and a sizable portion of those phones should be capable of running the OperaMini browser. In the monthly analysis of the state of the mobile web for September 2008, Opera has a focus on Africa with some interesting numbers:

Out of the 65 TB of compressed data consumed by 19 million users in September 2008, 5 TB was consumed from Africa. That would be around 8% of worldwide traffic, or about 1.5 million users. Note that this is only a rough assumption as it's based on an average and doesn't take things into account such as higher or lower use compared to the average for various reasons. But the number itself is already quite impressive even though this means that currently less than 1% of African GSM subscribers would use OperaMini.

So where is GPRS or EDGE available in Africa and how affordable is it? I've checked in the countries in which I also checked for voice rates for the previous post in this series:

  • Kenya – Safaricom: They have EDGE in their network and even 3G is available in some places. I couldn't find prices per kb but they do offer a 3G USB dongle and the price per MB if you buy the smalles bundle (300 MB) is 10 Euros or about 3 euro cents per MB. However, USB dongles and 10 Euro recharges are probably only for a select view. Also, I didn't see any promotion on their web pages for mobile Internet use on the phone yet.
  • Côte d'Ivoire – MTN: They are promoting a EDGE USB dongle and unlimited monthly access is 15 Euros.
  • Uganda – MTN: Around 1 euro per megabyte, billed per kb. According to this report, Opera Mini seems to be involved with MTN's mobile Internet offer.
  • Egypt – Vodafone: They run a mobile Internet promotion with OperaMini. Daily access to the Vodafone mobile portal and 3 MB off portal (with OperaMini that's a lot) is 14 euro cents. According to this report, the offer has triggered 400.000 OperaMini downloads in just a month. Impressive! I am looking forward to the Opera Mini statistics with a focus on Africa to see what kind of longer term impact this has made.

Summary: While the mobile Internet seems to have arrived in many countries in Africa, prices are still quite expensive, especially for the region. But it's likely that things will probably change in the not too distant future and the Vodafone Egypt example is hopefully a trendsetter.

Are you using the mobile Internet in Africa or would you like to share your views? If so leave a coment below.

Focus Africa: Cost of Mobile Voice Calls and SMS

While reading "Less Walk More Talk – How Celtel and the Mobile Phone Changed Africa" I did some background research on how much mobile telephony actually costs in sub-Saharan Africa. I expected very cheap prices compared to high income countries but I was very much surprised by the result.

Here are three very different examples in terms of African countries I selected for my background research. Fortunately, the web pages of all network operators were either in English or French and the Yahoo currency converter made it simple to convert the prices given in local currency into euro cents. Like in other countries, each mobile network operator has a number of different prepaid plans to choose from, each with advantages and disadvantages. For my examples below, I took the general basic plan:

Kenya – Safaricom:

  • On-net calls: 8 Euro cents / min
  • Off-net: 15 Euro cents / min
  • SMS: 3.5 Euro cents

Nigeria – MTN:

  • Voice calls: 15-17 Euro cents a minute, billed by the second
  • SMS: 2.6 Euro cents on-net, 8 euro cents off net

Côte d'Ivoire – MTN:

  • Voice calls: 27 Euro cents / min
  • Calls to friends: 9 Euro cents / min
  • SMS: 6 Euro cents
  • Minimum use per month: 7.6 Euros

Côte d'Ivoire – Orange:

  • Voice calls: 15 Euro cents / min
  • Preferred numbers: 5 Euro cents / min
  • SMS: 5 Euro cents

So while SMS messages are generally much cheaper than in Europe, voice calls are quite expensive, especially when taking local salaries and standards of living into account. I've also checked out ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) levels, which probably still mean something in Africa, and they are in between 6 and 10 Euros a month. In many African countries that's probably a significant amount of money to most people but the convenience and live improvement seems to be worth it. And by the way, mobile telephony is by no means only for a few anymore, there are currently more than 300 million mobile subscribers in Africa, that's more than in North America!

In one of the following posts, I'll take a look at prices for GPRS and 3G (!) in Africa and at some statistics of how many people already use it.

Book Review: Less Walk More Talk – How Celtel and the Mobile Phone Changed Africa

Less walk
It doesn't happen often but every now and then I see a book, and without opening it, the title just does it and I have to buy it. It happened again at the Mobile World Congress. While doing my book presentation at the Wiley booth, I spotted "Less Walk More Talk – How Celtel and the Mobile Phone Changed Africa" by Russell Southwood.

In an instant I decided that the only thing I knew about mobile telephony in Africa came from a number of stories I heard at conferences and read on some web sites. So I thought no matter which approach the book takes it's probably very interesting and I will learn a lot. I was not disappointed. 

While I first speculated that the book would tell me about all the things mobile telephony has done for people in Africa, it is actually the story of Mo Ibrahim, who, with comparatively little money he made by selling his first startup company, founded Celtel to bring mobile telephony to Africa, his birth continent. What started in one country soon spread to many and the book has many anecdotes from Mo and others who have worked in Celtel over the years.

The book clearly shows that Africa is one of the hardest places in the world to do business. Although stories of finding oneself in a a war zone and waiting for British marines to fly you out to an aircraft carrier off the coast to impossible negotiations with governments to take a microwave link across the Congo river into service to link mobile networks in two countries instead of routing a call between people only half a mile away from each other via a satellite link to London and back, most of the stories have a good ending and show that with persistence and sometimes also luck, things can turn for the better. The book also deals with corruption and how Celtel always went out of its way to steer clear of it, because there was the strong believe that nothing good would come out of it.

Another thing that surprised me were the timelines. Celtel started with its first network in 1999. I still remember that time in Europe, GSM was still quite early in its success measured by today's standards and yet, Celtel and others took it to Africa. The book also tells the story of how difficult it was to find investors who were willing to bring money into Celtel so it could spread across the continent to compete with its rivals, MTN and Vodacom. Superbly written and it helped me understand the business world a bit better, not only concerning Africa, but also in general.

In the end, Celtel was sold to MTC for over 3 billion US dollars and since then it has been renamed into Zain. Mo Ibrahim has taken his share and has retired from the company, now operating networks in 15 African countries. He now heads the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which promotes good governance in Africa and has supporters such as Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton.

I've learnt a lot by reading this book, not only about how companies are created or about mobile telephony in Africa, but also a thing or two about Africa itself. It's changed my view on a number of things and I am very thankful for that. It has also triggered some background research which I will discuss in a future post or two.

SMS Forwarding

More often than not I have at least two mobile devices with me, a business phone and a private phone. When abroad, the count usually goes up to three as I often use a local SIM card in my private phone for affordable Internet access on the device for e-mail, web browsing etc. In most cases, I have an automatic call forward from my other phones to this one so I don't have to keep them switched on or with me all the time. While this works quite nicely there is one problem with this approach: Arriving SMS messages are not forwarded and thus I usually do not see them coming in and only read them much later. Totally unacceptable for many people who use SMS for near real-time communication and I had some embarrassing moments due to this in the past myself. While there is an application that could take care of this that runs on Nokia S60 phones it has the disadvantage that the phone needs to be switched on for the forwarding to work. I haven't tried it myself but anyway, what I really want is the network to give me an SMS forwarding option (e.g. via (mobile) web based or USSD configuration). Where is this service? I am sure I am not the only one who would use such a service. And I think the business case is simple, one could argue that the SMS forwarding is the same as call forwarding, i.e. the forwarding party pays for the forwarding. In other words, one SMS, two billing events.