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March 26, 2013

European Telecoms: Peace with OTT, War on the Regulators

So, what broad, strategic themes are emerging this year? We’ve been mulling over the news, discussions with clients and within our team, and our experience at the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2013 in particular.

[NB. Our coverage of this year’s MWC has been extensive - see our MWC news summary, this update on free, this article on the future of voice, and Smartphones: when will Huawei be No.1?.]

In this article we briefly examine developments on two perenially important themes: regulation and competition. [You can also join us at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm, 5-6 June in London to explore strategies relating to these issues.]

Hating The Regulators

One important function of the keynotes at MWC is to act as a lobbying megaphone for major operators and the GSMA. The common theme in all the megaphoning was that the regulatory environment, especially in Europe, lacked “industrial focus” and was putting too much emphasis on consumers as against infrastructure development and, to be blunt, the industry’s desire to make a reasonable return on capital.

Plus, as we pointed out in European Mobile: The Future’s not Bright, it’s Brutal and this update on Voda and Telefonica, the commercial and economic enviroment is quite rapidly deteriorating for many European telcos. So the telcos’ exclamations of pain carry a lot more conviction and validity these days.

The main case study of this is, of course, Free Mobile (see Free Mobile: A Prototype for Disruption? and this update on the latest numbers). ARCEP and the French government spent a lot of time giving the operators precisely what they wanted, an orderly, not-too-competitive market. It also gave French users prices around €10 a month higher than in the UK or Germany for services that weren’t obviously better.

The Free Mobile experience has shaken everyone up. A major message was “Please don’t do it to us”. A further message was generally complaining about roaming and termination rates. That’s not news, although it will always be important. But on the other hand, the operators were keen on something called “internationalisation”….

Give Us Competition But Not Yet

What does that mean? Well, in part it’s consolidation. The UK has gone from five operators down to four, with a considerable degree of infrastructure sharing via MBNL (the infrastructure company that links the EverythingEverywhere partners with 3UK) and Cornerstone, the Vodafone-O2 UK partnership. A similar story can be found across Europe. But according to one of the panellists, the UK is “operator hell” - what must they make of Uganda?

Obviously the so-called EU5 operators would very much like to take their markets down to 3 operators or even fewer, as in Switzerland, but the French experience suggests that regulators are going to be chary of this. And the general scepticism that must be applied to mergers and acquisitions is required here. Although MNOs are cheap at the moment, compared to historical levels, big mergers across a wide range of industries tend not to deliver the economic benefits they promise.

But there is another kind of consolidation. This could be described as internal consolidation. Operators could consolidate internally and be more “international” by centralising more of their functions and by hollowing out their national operating companies.

The structure of multinational operators is determined by regulation, specifically the fact that licences are national and require a substantial OpCo organisation in each country. Although many operators have set up centralised IT functions and service centres, and regionalised some of their management, their OpCos are usually quite substantial, especially when the group has grown by acquisition. The cost of this comes both in maintaining the organisations and in the variety of IT systems that result. Vodafone is an example of an operator that has made progress in horizontalising its structures and consolidating its IT into a small number of strategic data centres. They have also worked hard in providing central shared services for back-office functions, such as procurement and finance.

This is likely to hit first in Europe, and we did hear the phrase “single European networks” used at MWC. It’s also a possibility in Africa, where a lot of operators already regionalise their smaller OpCos.

Something new, though, was the sight of vendors arguing for infrastructure sharing and internal consolidation. Gabrielle Gauthey, Alcatel-Lucent’s VP of government affairs, gave a presentation in the network track arguing for “moving away from facilities competition” and much more passive infrastructure sharing. Vendors are normally more than keen on facilities competition because it helps them shift more units. She also argued for carrier-neutral investment, perhaps including public investment, in the 700MHz band when it becomes available in Europe, although the European Union’s recent budget decision to zero out funding for broadband networks makes this sound less likely.

Declaring Peace with the OTTers

In a sense, all the bluster targeted at the regulators can be seen as a smokescreen protecting a strategic retreat. A major theme we’ve picked up is that the operators appear to be preparing to bury the hatchet with the so-called OTT players. This is of a piece with the increasing acceptance that the core business going forward is being a profitable data-centric ISP, the Happy Pipe option, plus whatever Telco 2.0 services seem advisable. (See A Practical Guide to Implementing Telco 2.0 and Dealing with the ‘Disruptors’: Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft/Skype and Amazon for our analysis on the best steps to take in new services and with respect to the ‘OTT’ ecoystem, respectively)

Réne Obermann’s keynote was a case in point; having joined in with the regulator-bashing session to begin with, he then moved on to presenting a strategy heavily influenced by “own-brand OTT” and partnerships with more OTT brands. With the voice & messaging wars over, in a sense, everything is now an OTT service. Obviously, this will only accelerate the move towards zero-rated voice.

But Something Needs Doing…

Perhaps the most shocking statistic of the show was that 8% of global LTE investment and 5% of FTTH investment is in Europe. 70% of world LTE investment is going into the United States. Part of this is the dreadful macroeconomy, of course, but then again our view is that improving the climate for investment in broadband would provide much-needed help in fixing the EU economies.

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March 25, 2013

Cloud: AWS ‘nukes’ VPC? FCC: Genagonski. China’s $4Bn ‘trial’ LTE Net - Telco 2.0 News Review

[Ed. At the risk of sounding immodest, the Executive Brainstorm in Silicon Valley last week was great, and there’s loads to come from that just as soon as we straighten out from the jetlag. Next it’s our EMEA Brainstorm, 5-6 June 2013 in London. The agenda features our analysis of the Digital Economy, Digital Commerce, Digital Entertainment, and the Internet of Things - and will of course cover much on Cloud, Broadband, Voice 2.0, and new business model strategies - we hope to see you there.]

The AWS Official Blog announces that Amazon EC2 is being integrated with their Virtual Private Cloud product, so most VPC features will be available by default to any new EC2 instance. Deployment begins with the APAC-Sydney and Latin America-Sao Paulo AWS regions, aka the newest ones, and will then proceed to the others. And it costs nothing so far.

ZDNet’s Larry Dignan asks if this means the end for enterprise private cloud.

In the Cloud 2.0 Strategy Report, we argued that a key question is whether it’s possible to provide all the feature-richness that enterprises might need as command-line options to AWS EC2 or a similar product, or whether the private or hybrid cloud would remain necessary. Our thinking was that the experience with PaaS vs. IaaS suggested that the private cloud would remain necessary.

It looks like AWS is going to force the issue, and we’re going to find out soon enough. They wouldn’t be AWS if they hadn’t also got another feature-dump to drop, and you can now run the popular Node.js platform through Elastic Beanstalk.

Meanwhile, Oracle’s Q3s drop, and they’re not great, especially hardware sales. Is this the impact of the cloud?

Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth occasionally likes to boast that Ubuntu Linux is the “number 1 operating system in the cloud”. They’re also trying to be the number 1 in China, with a new flavour endorsed by the Ministry of the Information Industry that includes various Chinese web players where you might otherwise expect Google.

Here’s a comparison of Google Compute Engine and AWS EC2. The take-home message seems to be that GCE is better for raw power, but EC2 offers a much more mature product with many more tools and libraries.

375 Pearl Street, Manhattan, once a typically forbidding cold-war era skyscraper central-office for Verizon, is now a giant data centre, although the architecture hasn’t changed much. That said, COs tend to look like nuclear bunkers because that’s precisely what they are - John Savageau argues that too many carrier hotels and data centres are in relatively flimsy sheds that won’t withstand a natural disaster, fire, or terrorist attack. And when Hurricane Sandy hit Manhattan, it was precisely those built-for-the-ages COs that stood up to the test.

Do cloud providers show your data to the Feds? Why yes, they do. The EFF’s blog even has some data from Microsoft.

Wired, meanwhile, looks at which other Google products might be killed now Google Reader’s gone.

After four years, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is off. Broadband advocate and old pal from Gordon Cook’s mailing list, Harold Feld, is quoted as saying that he’s left a lot of unfinished business to his successor. He will be remembered for the US National Broadband Plan, and the fact it’s still mostly a plan, passing a (weak) net neutrality measure, opening the tap on Universal Service Fund reform, and of course turning down the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Simultaneously, the chief Republican on the FCC is also stepping down.

ZDNet has a comparison of national broadband plans. Apparently, Aussie opposition politician Malcolm Turnbull has repented of his alternative plan (you may remember he wanted to replace the NBN by giving out wireless 3G dongles) and now thinks it “hasn’t been compared to what other countries are doing”. The comparison here suggests that if it were, he might get a surprise.

Plusnet is offering cheaper broadband to UK SMBs on a short-term basis.

James Enck’s EuroTelco Blog is back, and angry. He argues that the UK consumer has been conditioned to expect desperately poor service at prices that seem cheap until you count in the ever rising line-rental, rather like Ryanair baggage charges, and the only way to get their attention is to suggest that fibre might boost the price of property. It’s a cynical view but not obviously false. Here, he argues that BT’s shareholders are just not the sort of people to fund a fibre roll-out - and the government’s policy is not going to work, which is a pity as his argument suggests that the government is best placed to do it.

Here’s a turn-up for the books: the Czech Republic’s regulator called a halt to the 4G auction for fear that it might raise too much money. Compare and contrast the disappointing UK auction. What they’re worrying about is a situation like the Indian 3G auction, where the carriers hugely overbid, and then either act as a cartel to recoup, or if they can’t, flip into an uneconomic price war.

An experiment with multipath TCP.

A survey of UK broadband customers.

We mentioned the FCC’s open questions. Here’s one of them: The Voice of Broadband argues that the FCC ought to get started with a plan for the transition away from the PSTN. She thinks there ought to be a pilot program for carriers to try shutting off the old kit, and worries that the FCC’s own Technology Advisory Council is being ignored.

From the voice of broadband, to the broadband of voice? Chris Kranky looks at the daily life of a softswitch salesman and asks a key question: do any of the OTT providers you’re using to scare the customers buy any of your equipment themselves?

He also argues that spending money trying to defend traditional voice is futile, predicts that WebRTC will lead to a “flood of cockroach applications across the kitchen floor” over the next 3 years, and argues that Google is right to support the open-source high-definition Opus voice codec rather than the AMR-WB used in most “HD voice” deployments.

Among the cockroaches, expect a lot of web/callcentre integration.

For example, meet Telesmart, a virtual call centre, routing, analytics, and IVR provider that runs as a layer over Voxeo’s Tropo.com platform.

Twilio, meanwhile, now has SIP integration, so companies developing apps with Twilio can pick up calls directly over the Internet and route them straight into the IP PBX. The blog post provides directions to set up a Freeswitch and demonstrate a SIP-based hello world. Among other things, you can send any data you like from the application that’s using Twilio to the PBX as a SIP header.

You can also gut an old landline phone and put a RaspberryPi running Asterisk in it and point the trunk at Twilio. If you’ve got an otherwise dull afternoon.

Jason Perlow at ZDNet says Microsoft Lync is excellent, especially because of the integration between its conferencing features and Outlook.

France wants Skype to be a telco. T-Mobile USA’s VoWLAN app is vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle attack, at least until the patch lands, but it’s as nothing to the horror lurking in Polycom HDX videoconferencing systems, where just one crafted H323 packet suffices to get root access and do anything you like, including activating the camera and microphone.

And look out for Manx phone numbers masquerading as UK ones.

China Mobile is going to spend £4.4bn on LTE base stations, although it doesn’t have a licence yet. Officially the network is just a trial, but those with longer memories will remember that they built a “trial” UMTS network long before the official start of 3G in China and started providing service on it, so they may well be creating facts on the ground. Last time, the MII came in and forced them to give the network to someone else, though…

Reuters works through the options for Vodafone and Verizon. The big question is surely whether you can expect market disruption in the US before Europe’s forever-delayed economic recovery.

That said, T-Mobile USA is doing its best to kick off the disruption, offering an “unlimited” plan with no contractual bind at $50 a month. This is possibly the most creative use of the word “unlimited” yet, as although they can now start offering LTE speeds, the data bucket is 500MB/month. It’s the voice and messaging that are “unlimited”, although you do also get T-Mobile WLAN thrown in.

Meanwhile, a survey suggests VZW has more LTE coverage but AT&T is faster where it’s available.

SMS retention policies, leaked!

Morgan Stanley has officially called the BlackBerry comeback, advising clients to go “overweight” on the shares, and suggesting that the business will be back in profit this year. Meanwhile, the company briefed a friendly blogger that an undisclosed partner had ordered 1 million Z-10s. On the other hand, the shares dived after another analyst said the first-day sales seemed “lacklustre”, although this was admittedly on the basis of walking around a few shops.

BlackBerry’s ad campaign includes a BlackBerry emulator in the browser!

Android founder Andy Rubin unexpectedly quit as head of Android, although he’s apparently staying at Google. The project is taken over by the current head of Chrome and Apps, Sundar Pichai.

Here’s some information on the beginnings of Chromebook.

A teardown of the Samsung Galaxy S4 is available, suggesting that the margins aren’t as squashy as Apple’s, and that the HSPA+ version gets the fancier “octo-core” CPU while the LTE one sticks with a Qualcomm unit.

Is this an actual NFC use-case?

The European Commission is scrutinising Apple contracts with mobile operators. Meanwhile, there’s a horrible bug in Apple’s password-recovery form. David Galbraith discusses the design considerations for an “iWatch”.

Huawei USB modems are insecure.

The Register attended the launch briefing for the UK’s intercarrier advertising/payments platform, Weve, and notes that the “advertising” element is getting played up vis-a-via the “payments” element.

Horace notes that Apple has traditionally said that iTunes is operated at breakeven, but increasingly it’s slipping into profit. Some people have the best problems. He also looks into the detail and notes that Apple recognises the full selling price of music, video, etc. as revenue, and then pays the rightsholder, but only recognises its own share of app pricing as revenue. Meanwhile, Apple has acquired a WLAN-based indoor positioning firm.

EBay is changing its pricing to win back merchants from Amazon.

Google says sorry about the Googlecar WLAN-snooping incident and promises to write a blog post saying so.

What do you need for effective online TV? Great search, recommendations, and UX.

An interesting look back over the early years of UK GSM and mobile content.

And finally, the BBC test card in HD.

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March 15, 2013

Snails, Gazelles, Damn Lies and Average Broadband Speeds

Telco 2.0’s Senior Analyst Keith McMahon is not usually an angry man, but today he’s uncharacteristically incandescent with rage. The reason is that he has analysed the latest stats from the UK’s regulator OFCOM and he smells a rat. Or more accurately, a mixture of snails, tortoises, humans, gazelles, and twisted statistics. Here, only lightly edited to protect more sensitive readers, is what he shared with the Telco 2.0 team this morning.

Another day brings another bunch of misleading statistics released by OFCOM. The headline today was “UK average broadband speeds up to 12Mbit/sec”. This headline figure, which was lazily lapped up by the majority of the British press as a sign that things are hunky-dory, hides a lot of truth about the underlying state of the British broadband market.

bblies.png

The chart above and vast qualification adequately describes the real state of the UK broadband superhighway. Basically we have three lanes: tortoises (between 2Mbit/sec and 10Mbit/sec), humans (between 10Mbit/sec and 30Mbit/sec), and gazelles (above 30Mbit/sec). The tortoises and humans haven’t improved at all - the gazelles have merely pulled away. Using the speeds above, one gazelle carries the same weight as five humans and ten tortoises in calculating the averages.

Virgin Media announced in March 2012 that it was effectively tripling its speeds at no extra cost. The tiers are now 30Mbit/sec, 60Mbit/sec, and 100Mbit/sec.

bblies1.png

The impact on its base has been transformational - humans turned into gazelles, at no extra cost, without the need for a truck roll. The chart above shows the situation at Q3. By Q4, Virgin Media now had 2.2m gazelles on their network, which is around 50% of their base. A truck roll and more money are required for a customer to transition to the Openreach gazelle network, which almost certainly means adoption is much slower, but BT conveniently do not release consumer adoption figures.

bblies2.png

OFCOM’s estimate of the split between gazelles, humans, and tortoises are shown above. But where are the snails (below 2Mbit/sec), which count for 1% of the market? They are conveniently not monitored anymore. I’m not sure of the logic for this, but it certainly helps to keep the charts looking good.

There are some other tricks which have been included not only to improve the presentation but also keep the averages up. The first trick is ignoring rural customers for the tortoises’ comparison. Market 1 is defined as where BT has no unbundling in the exchanges. When OFCOM announced the market definitions, this accounted for 11.1% of UK homes. As these tend to be in rural areas with long copper lengths and therefore lower DSL speeds, the snails appear less sluggish then they really are.

The second trick is ignoring copper loops of over 5km for the humans’ comparison. This is another 15% of UK homes, although there will be a substantial overlap with the Market 1 homes. Again, this only ups the human average.

bblies3.png

The third trick is to only include on-net customers for Sky, TalkTalk, O2 and Everything Everywhere, i.e. where they have been unbundled. Theoretically, this could be either a positive or negative to the calculated averages, but the mere fact that they have been excluded from the sample raises my eyebrows. In fact, I’m not sure whether this has really happened, as Everything Everywhere figures are included in the detail of the report. As far as I was aware, Everything Everywhere gave up its LLU a couple of years ago and ported the base onto BT wholesale unbundled products.

The fourth trick is that the gazelles are overrepresented in the samples, which may be self-selecting. This, of course, ups the average. This self-selection was my main issue when OFCOM announced the broadband speed project. Basically, the people who would volunteer to have an extra piece of CPE in the home monitoring their connection are tech-savvy users. The type of users who insert the correct filters to the main phone line and try to achieve the best possible speed for their connection.

This is not representative of the average UK broadband user, who probably connects the router to the most convenient phone extension in the home, and thus has reduced speed. The fact that more of the sample are upgrading to superfast broadband only reinforces my belief that the sample is not representative of UK broadband users.

I know the founder of Samknows, the company that OFCOM subcontracts the project to. The original project was conceived from the belief that the UK consumer deserves to understand the true performance of the UK broadband providers, rather than accept the advertised headline speeds. The project also sought to educate them that peak hour speeds, latency, and packet loss were just as important as absolute speeds.

Today, I feel that the project has been hijacked and exploited by OFCOM for political propaganda - “look at how fast our average broadband speeds are”. The truth is that our broadband highway has four lanes for snails, tortoises, humans, and gazelles, and speeds are not significantly changing within these lanes. What has happened is that the company with the best overall network, Virgin Media, has decided for competitive reasons to upgrade speeds to a large part of its customer base. Good for Virgin Media and good for their customers. Meanwhile, the rest of the UK awaits BT Openreach to upgrade its crumbling copper network. The politicians have a great headline grabbing message, but most of the UK remains unaffected.

Brave readers can find the full report here: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/other/telecoms-research/broadband-speeds/broadband-speeds-nov2012/

For what it is worth, I am human, on an ADSL2+ LLU network achieving speeds of around 3.5Mbits/sec. I’m gutted.

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Voice: free, dead or the killer app? It’s certainly in disruption…

So, Telefonica O2 Germany is offering free voice and messaging on four tariffs with pricing determined by data rate, from €19.99 for basic with 3.6Mbps up to €50 for 50Mbps LTE up to 5GB.

Meanwhile, back at the Mobile World Congress, the CEO of KT told us that his voice business is “rapidly collapsing”, with fixed revenues nearly halving between 2010 and 2012 and mobile down by a billion dollars in the same space of time. And Hakam Kanafani, the Group CEO of Turk Telekom, was positively apocalyptic:

“Voice is God’s gift to humanity. It’s what differentiates us from the animals. And we position voice at zero — you don’t have to pay for voice. Voice is dead.”

Much drama indeed, though regular readers of Telco 2.0 will know that we’ve been talking about the business model transition facing voice and messaging for a number of years. We’ve also recently published bleak views on the outlook for voice in Europe in European Mobile: The Future’s not Bright, it’s Brutal, and we’re working on further global analysis on both voice and messaging as a whole, and the stage of the transition of telecoms and other digital industries.

European Core Mobile Services Revenue
Euro Voice Brutal Image 2 Chart Euro 5 Oct 2012.png

We’ll be sharing more of this at the Silicon Valley Brainstorm in San Francisco next week, and at the EMEA Brainstorm in London, 5-6 June (please email contact@telco2.net to contribute or find out more).

Anyway, going back to one of this year’s CEO bandwagons at MWC, Vittorio Colao of Vodafone didn’t go quite as far as say that ‘voice is dead’, but then he doesn’t have an incumbent fixed network to worry about. However, he did discuss the RED tariffs, introduced first in Spain, which work much the same way at different price points. The new pricing strategy, he argued, is “unlimited voice & messaging with generous data” - which implies that voice isn’t a significant driver of cost any more.

Voice: becoming decoupled from costs?

The good news is that, because voice is no longer a significant driver of cost, going to “unlimited bundled” or “free” voice isn’t as big a problem as it might seem. It’s pushing packets, specifically video, that drives cost. And it’s never been cheaper to provide voice. One data point comes from Viber, an OTT voice & messaging app whose CEO Talmon Marco spoke at the event - it costs $200,000 a month in OPEX to serve 175 million users with VoIP and instant messaging.

In our Free Mobile note, we point out that Free’s cost structure is a “tell” here - it needs to charge enough for mobile voice to support a thin overlay cellular network, and to pay termination on only that fraction of their offnet voice that doesn’t get least-cost routed onto SIP peerings that are either free or very cheap.

It’s all about the experience, isn’t it?

That said, as Viber’s CEO pointed out, price isn’t the problem. One of Viber’s highest-penetration markets, at 90%, is Monaco, after all, where they’re aren’t short of a bob or two and anyway the local MNO bundles unlimited SMS. He said that the customers use it because they like the experience better.

As we’ve been saying since 2008, the future of voice is that voice becomes a software application, and as such, it will sell on features and user experience rather than a utility-like model. To dip into our Twitter feed, KT’s CEO repeatedly made the point that future telco services must be better than OTT competitors.

Or is it in the OTT-bundle?

Alternatively, another answer is to declare peace with the OTTers. Essentially, this takes the strategy of bundling voice and messaging and eliminating out-of-bundle costs a step further. Assuming that everyone ends up bundling unlimited voice, how do you differentiate in order to compete, if not on the features and the user experience? Viber at least is (possibly too) enthusiastic, being “delighted to integrate with your IMS”.

But that doesn’t mean telcos have no future in their own right. While Vodafone’s RED tariffs adjust down to unlimited voice and messaging and managed data revenue growth, their One Net enterprise Voice 2.0 product is doing good business, with 2.4 million customers globally.

In fact, you could characterise Vodafone’s strategy as being “Happy Pipe in retail, enrich products in enterprise”.

Or is it ‘getting hacked into apps’?

Meanwhile, the Voice 2.0 community was much in evidence at MWC with vendors like Voxeo, Twilio, AcmePacket, and a few even we hadn’t heard of, plus the emerging WebRTC community, which these days includes Ericsson and Metaswitch. Voxeo’s technology, in particular, is now deployed with telcos as gigantic as AT&T and Deutsche Telekom, supporting the Call Management API and the voice aspects of DeveloperGarden respectively. And Telefonica is pushing its Tu GO product out to more markets, while buying AcmePacket technology to support the scale-out. At the WIPJam hackathon on day four, we were struck by how many of the projects involved telephony of some form.

And longstanding Telco 2.0 ally Tim Panton, of PhoneFromHere fame and now with Voxeo, was struck by the fact that one of the developers entered the same app in the DTAG and AT&T hackathons - both carriers implemented Voxeo’s Tropo.com platform without being tempted to alter the API, so the app could be ported between them without needing further integration work. Hackers gonna hack.

Disruption is temporary, change is permanent

So, the future is here, for good or ill. We’re now moving fast into a world where voice and messaging are zero-rated products.

At a little more length, we would argue that the industry faces a disruptive transition in terms of customer behaviour, which will not flip back to pre-crisis conditions. Fortunately, for many operators the core business is no longer reliant on voice revenues, but rather on running a profitable happy pipe ISP. Future voice business models are based on features and freemium. And the Voice 2.0 technologies were in the euphoric sector of the hype cycle in 2008-2010, and have now crossed the chasm.

We’ll be discussing this in much more depth in our forthcoming Voice Strategy Report and at our brainstorms. Watch this space.

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March 14, 2013

Smartphones: when will Huawei be No.1?


We were surprised to hear Huawei’s objective of becoming the world’s No.1 Smartphone maker at last year’s Mobile World Congress, and somewhat dubious whether it would achieve that goal. However, at this year’s show Huawei demonstrated impressive progress, and we consider it is no longer a question of if, but when it will achieve its goal. In this analysis we explore industry scenarios and their consequences.

You can also join us to discuss this and other industry disruptions next week at the Silicon Valley Executive Brainstorm, 19-20 March, and at the EMEA Brainstorm, 5-6 June, London.

huawei ascend p2 pic mar 2013.png

Huawei P2 Ascend Smartphone

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March 13, 2013

Free Mobile hits 8% share, wins with ‘reverse quadplay’

When we published Free Mobile: A Prototype for Disruption? before MWC, we didn’t yet have Free’s indicators for Q4. We still don’t have full financials, but we do have some subscriber and turnover information now, and our analysis of what that means is below. For further reference, Les Echos summarises the story nicely, and the press release is here.

We’ve also recently published Sprint-Softbank: how it will disrupt the US market, and analysis on the ongoing disruption in Europe in European Mobile: The Future’s not Bright, it’s Brutal. We’ll be looking in further depth at disruptive digital innovation strategies in telecoms, music, video, commerce, and ‘the Internet of Things’ next week at the Silicon Valley Executive Brainstorm in San Francisco, and at the EMEA Brainstorm in London, June 5-6. Email contact@telco2.net to find out more.

Another 805,000 net adds - Free’s break-in phase has gone very well

Free Mobile scored another 805,000 net-adds in the fourth quarter, taking them to 5.2 million subscribers after one year in operation or 8% of the French market by subscribers. There is still substantial momentum, with 55,000 net number ports to Free in the week before the announcement compared with 26,000 to SFR and less than 17,000 for both Orange and Bouygues. The total is positive because the MVNOs have been hammered, and also because penetration has risen by 10% in 2012.

This penetration figure is to a degree understated, because there are about 6.5 million dongles and M2M devices in circulation, and Free Mobile doesn’t currently compete in these sectors, so additional growth will be concentrated on what might be called the human market.

Mobile drives fixed sales, fixed cash flow finances mobile investment

This turnover in mobile was €844 million for the full year, equivalent to a monthly ARPU of €16.70. Although it is tiny compared to France Telecom-Orange’s €10.7bn turnover in mobile, Free started 2012 at zero. But perhaps the most interesting feature here is that the mobile offering is driving “reverse quadplay” - all the publicity, plus the sell-through opportunity and the discount on mobile if you take fixed, is bringing in net-adds in the fixed sector, which added 107k net subscribers in Q4 (vs. 110k for Bouygues, 66k at Orange, and 35k at SFR).

For the year, that’s 515k net-adds or 9% annual growth. In many markets, it’s been assumed that fixed broadband is now an ex-growth sector. Clearly, this isn’t necessarily true.

This is important, even critical. In H1, Free’s fixed operations generated an EBITDA margin of 40% and €229 million in free cash flow, with an ARPU of €38/mo for users on the latest Freeboxes. Obviously, new signups driven by mobile will be getting the new devices.

So, mobile net-adds drive the cash-cow fixed business, and its free cash flow helps to finance the mobile roll-out.

A critical question is how much of the potential for reverse quadplay has been exploited already. There are 5.4 million fixed subscribers and 5.2 million mobile; if there were no reverse quadplay customers among the fixed base, that would be enough to almost double the mobile subscriber base. If all the mobile subscribers have already taken fixed, this source of cross-selling growth is practically exhausted. We know that the truth is somewhere between the two extremes, but Free is keeping the actual number close to its chest. Its Q4 turnover statement just says that it’s “globalement equilibré”, or “balanced overall”.

Subscriber growth may top-out early, but profitability is nearer than you think

Looking ahead, we used a Bass diffusion model to estimate the Q4 market share number for our analysis, which predicted market share of 8.11%. Updating the model with the out-turn, we expect that mobile subscriber growth will level off in 2013 as Free Mobile approaches 10% national market share. Rather like the French paratroopers in Mali, they have successfully seized the airfield and unleashed mayhem on the enemy. But what happens next?

One of the amazing things about the Free Mobile story is that it’s actually not that far from breakeven at the EBITDA level, this early in the game; it lost, or rather spent, €44 million in H1 on revenue of €320 million. In the light of our forecast for market share, we expect that having achieved their break-in to the mobile market, Free will now consolidate their position and concentrate on moving the mobile operator towards profitability by:

  1. Upselling fixed products to the new mobile subscriber base;
  2. Managing down the national roaming bill.

If our diffusion model is right about total subscribers, and “globalement equilibré” means “roughly 50/50”, that means there are about 2.5 million potential candidates for upselling.

In the Free Mobile note, we mentioned that (admittedly unaudited) data on how much user time is spent on their own network shows a step-change when 900MHz spectrum became available in January. As Free Mobile’s OPEX is closely linked to how much traffic is carried by Orange under national roaming, and Free has no control over Orange’s roaming tariff, bringing traffic on board improves their margin, as does then offloading it to WLAN.

We therefore expect that profitability will surprise on the upside and subscriber growth on the downside. This is subject to the possibility that they will choose to hold profitability down, by bringing forward capital investment and rolling out faster, or by cutting prices again. This depends on their preference for growth vs margin, and on regulatory/political issues.

Key risk factors

The major threat to Free Mobile’s success is probably self-disruption, that is to say a failure to manage the consequences of success. The fixed operator is under pressure regarding customer experience and quality of service issues, possibly because of the effort to harvest its cash for the mobile operator’s CAPEX needs.

Given that Free Mobile subscribers are not tied in to a long term contract, and the French mobile market has well-functioning mobile number portability, an “Instagram event” - i.e. a misjudgment that goes viral and causes a sudden exodus of users, as when Instagram changed its terms of service and accidentally revived Flickr - could reverse a chunk of the subscriber growth rapidly. This is much more likely in the case of the mobile-only subscribers, as opposed to the quadplay subscribers, who are also more likely to be committed fans and advocates of the company. It is therefore urgent to carry out the consolidation we described above.

We do not think there is a threat of a regulatory reversal, for example, lifting the national roaming requirement. This would essentially imply killing off Free Mobile, and would certainly be held up in the courts for an indeterminate period of time if it was not struck down immediately. Further, the French regulator ARCEP’s recent statements still express satisfaction with the impact on consumers, and the political level is still under more pressure to deliver consumer buying power (pouvoir d’achat) than it is to please the original three operators. ARCEP’s latest decision can be summed up as “no move before 2018, and don’t frighten the horses”.

Additional opportunities

We have assumed a relatively simple scenario in which Free Mobile, having smashed its way into the market, has raced up the diffusion curve to arrive at an enduring share of around 10%, and then moved to consolidate the customer base by integrating them into its profitable fixed services.

Free is historically an innovator, though, and they may not be satisfied with this. It is possible that they will seek a new S-curve to ride, especially as they will soon need to look at 4G with its concomitant investments. They are already very much involved in online services in fixed, but they have wisely never been tempted to declare themselves a media company. M2M and wholesale are ruled out by the lack of a full national coverage footprint.

However, their in-house strength in software, UX design, and product management creates a lot of option-value. Many observers were expecting something disruptive in voice or unified communications, which remains a possibility. Free is also mostly a consumer/power user business. A move in the SMB space is therefore also a possibility, as is a further price disruption, perhaps in roaming.

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March 11, 2013

Telcos’ corner of Cloud; Joyn’s ‘IMS-free’ MNOs; Bad APIs; and Blackberry z10 revival? - Telco 2.0 News Review

[Ed. Next week we’re at our Executive Brainstorm in Silicon Valley, 19-20 March 2013 in San Francisco, and then on to our EMEA Brainstorm, 5-6 June 2013 in London. The agendas feature our analysis of the Digital Economy, Digital Commerce, Digital Entertainment, and the Internet of Things - and will of course cover much on Cloud, Broadband, Voice 2.0, and new business model strategies - we hope to see you there.]

Telegeography has cloud revenue data and the take-home message is that Amazon Web Services is winning IaaS by a distance. Only one telco figures in the top three in any of the sectors they studies, and that’s BT. Telcos do substantially better in traditional managed hosting and colocation.

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IDC, for their part, expect “hosted private cloud”, aka virtual private cloud to explode out of the blocks, growing at over 50% from here to 2016. That could be much more like it. Our views can be found in Cloud 2.0: Telco Strategies in the Cloud.

VMWare, meanwhile, is whipping up hype for its public cloud product targeting Amazon Web Services. We’re guessing that telcos probably don’t want to get between the two Monsters Of Cloud.

Here’s an interesting specialised cloud: “ARM as a Service”, providing developers with ARM-based servers in the cloud in order to test their apps against the kind of hardware you expect from mobile, touch-based, or embedded devices.

Houston is Mission Control for more web sites than any other city, it seems, largely thanks to SoftLayer’s flock of data centres there. And here’s a massive gaming cloud in the back of a lorry.

Deutsche Telekom is the latest carrier to launch Joyn.

But, as Ian Scales at TelecomTV points out, Joyn (aka RCSe) is coming in a very different form to what the operators, 3GPP, and the GSMA anticipated.

Rather than a metered network service, it’s much more like a freemium OTT app. MetroPCS, for example, has made its app available to customers of any carrier, while hoping for differentiation based on its VoLTE network and high-definition voice. And rather than a front-end to IMS, Joyn is usually being deployed with virtualised SIP servers. So, advanced voice and messaging is another app running over the LTE IP network, and the back-up, universal, 999-capable service is still provided by fallback to the traditional cellular network. Which doesn’t leave much space for IMS.

DTAG recommends you only use it on trusted WLANs at the moment, as they’re waiting for a security fix. This leads us to this Businessweek story about identifying the Chinese surveillance features in the version of Skype resold by TOM in China.

Also, did you know America Movil’s Joyn service is running on a core network hosted by Vodafone? We saw that at Solaiemes’s back-from-MWC blog.

Telstra has a new unified comms product, Cloud Collaboration, including voice, video, conferencing, and Jabber-based secure instant messaging. It’s available wherever their NextG mobile broadband network is.

Digium, the company behind Asterisk, is now offering the default-standard telephony platform as a cloud service.

Crunched is a deep sales & marketing analytics system that uses Voxeo for HD voice. How to create a callback queue with Twilio.

Despite everything, old-fashioned phone receivers are a triumph of design, and it’s hard to find a good new one.

WiFi offload is growing faster than anyone anticipated, the IP Carrier blog reports, reading Cisco’s latest set of forecasts. They expect that 38% of mobile data traffic will be offloaded this year.

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India has been auctioning 800MHz spectrum, but there is surprisingly little interest.

The Voice of Broadband reports that US cable operators are beating US telcos for subscriber growth and even more dramatically for speed. Further, she demolishes the idea that fixed doesn’t matter.

Meanwhile, Fibernomics makes a case that FTTC/VDSL isn’t really worth having - although the deployment cost is about a third of that for FTTH, you still have to look after the copper last mile, and there is an upgrade treadmill for the electronics (a point the Voice also makes).

The problem is that a typical shareholder in KPN keeps their shares for two months, versus 6 months for France Telecom and DTAG, and 17 months for BT.

A state law banning municipal broadband, surprisingly common in the US, has been repealed in Georgia.

The 3G & 4G Wireless Blog takes a look at small cells and distributed-antenna systems, arguing that in the future, buildings will increasingly come with their own multi-operator shared DAS infrastructure. There’s also an interesting presentation from NEC.

Meanwhile, Ericsson thinks you need SDN.

Dan Rayburn thinks there is a structural problem with the CDN industry. Nobody can make money, and YouTube is probably subsidising its CDN costs from its advertising business. An interesting debate begins in the comments.

We would point out that there are similarities with the mobile data networks a couple of years ago - the biggest problem was that they insisted on selling “unlimited” or at least very large bundles at silly prices in pursuit of market share. A price war often looks like a fundamental technical or economic issue while you’re in it. Perhaps it’s time for peace.

How’s Amazon’s web site acceleration product getting on? Nothing like Akamai…yet. But AWS’s continuous improvement/kaizen strategy implies we’ve not seen anything yet.

The new Roku 3 is reviewed, and it’s impressive. It also gets dismantled, revealing an ARM A9 core.

MTN’s CEO is concerned that the African mobile market is becoming structurally unprofitable, with a combination of high costs (generating your own power etc.) and too many operators fighting for share. Uganda now has 7 MNOs for 34 million people and a per capital GDP of $1,341 at purchasing-power parity.

Mexico has the opposite problem, and it made Carlos Slim the world’s richest man. Now they’re trying to create a telecoms regulator with powers to break up monopolists.

In the UK, Virgin Media’s MVNO operation, on EverythingEverywhere’s network, decided to impose a 2Mbps maximum speed on mobile data…and succeeded in imposing a 0Mbps cap instead, as the network failed. They’ve now walked it back.

Going to the US? Need cheap mobile service? ReadySIM has the solution, as an MVNO running on T-Mobile USA.

O2 UK is pushing a GPS-based telecare product.

Informa’s Exposing Telecoms APIs survey is out.

Operators’ API initiatives are said to be ‘fragmented,’ ‘inconsistent,’ with ‘universal coalitions/standards [that] never work.’

Ouch. But then again, we’ve been saying for a long time that telcos need to provide enabling commercial solutions for customers and not just raw APIs (see e.g. 2009’s Open APIs 2.0 - APIs Everywhere, But What Is The Joined-up Commercial Strategy?).

In the smartphone world, BlackBerry may have scored a hit - half their Z10 sales in the UK and Canada are coming from either iPhone or Android users, smartphone switchers. The last major switching event between smartphone platforms was away from Symbian…

Horace looks into Android user numbers. As usual, fine charts are part of the package:

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The difference between Android growth rates in the US, and globally, is dramatic, and in fact it looks like Android adoption is slowing down in the States. The difference may be down to the availability of older iPhone models at low, low prices in the US.

Meanwhile, Android developers need to get used to two distinct audiences, “hackers” and “casuals”. The first group support Android because it’s mobile Linux, and always want more features; the second tolerate Android because it’s cheap. But what kind of an audience will the vast global market for Android devices be?

Chinese officials are concerned by the huge share Android has achieved in China. It’s probably similarly true to say that Google executives are concerned about the vast numbers of “forkdroids” rolling out of Chinese ODMs with homebrew flavours of Android and no obvious link to Google’s business model.

HTC is failing.

If it’s mobile Linux you want, there’s Ubuntu Touch now. CNET made it their product of the show at MWC, and here’s the video demonstration:

In apps and content news, PayPal has launched the new, and long awaited, version of its API.

In one popular tutorial, web developer Eran Galperin describes PayPal’s original APIs as “among the worst I’ve ever had to deal with,” citing inconsistent behaviors, lousy documentation, and unpredictable failures.

Facebook’s updated News Feed: “personalised newspaper” or “junk deluge”?

Another take on Bayesian news filtering is Thirst.

Rovio drops out of the charts for app revenue. Is the market shifting from paid downloads to recurring subscription?

EA’s games for the Nokia Ashas.

E-mail fail at Yahoo!

Hacking your phone with IMSI catchers, the FBI way. OpenGarden makes your phone part of a WiFi mesh network. And the startup for selling out of your startup.

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March 4, 2013

Summary of all the stories from Mobile World Congress 2013 (and more) - Special Telco 2.0 News Review

[Ed. It is just three weeks to our next executive brainstorm in Silicon Valley, 19-20 March 2013 in San Francisco, and then on to our EMEA Brainstorm, 5-6 June 2013 in London. The agendas feature our analysis of the Digital Economy, Digital Commerce, Digital Entertainment, and the Internet of Things - we hope to see you there.]

The bell tolls for telcos, says Telegeography - fascinatingly, if you include VoIP volumes, total voice usage is still growing at historic rates, but the operators’ share is falling.

At MWC, the CEO of KT had some shocking news on voice. We’ll quote our own Twitter feed here:

Perhaps the Brutal Future was too optimistic, and the transition to the future of voice is upon us?

For example, Mozilla, AT&T, and Ericsson demonstrated WebRTC interoperability at the event. OTT player Viber’s CEO was keynoting with Rene Obermann and other industry luminaries, and took away a reseller deal with an Indonesian carrier for his pains.

On the other hand, Telefonica’s TU Go voice app has arrived in the UK with O2 and GigaOm thinks it “shows that finally, a telco has figured out the value of the app”. Here’s O2’s introduction to the service:

Twilio, who were much in evidence at MWC along with Voxeo and quite a few other cloud telephony/Voice 2.0 players, have announced their 2013 call for submissions - so if you’ve had an idea for a Voice 2.0 app, this might be your chance to snag some funding. Last year’s list is here.

Andy Abramson, though, wonders if Google has given up on Google Voice, pointing to the lack of progress since it stopped being GrandCentral.

And it’s certainly possible to make an impact as a network operator. Free Mobile’s early Q4s are out, and they’ve reached over 5 million subscribers in a year, 8% of the French market. Having slowed down a little, net-adds picked up again in Q4, hitting 805,000. But the really interesting detail is that growth in Free Mobile has started to drive growth in the fixed-line business, which managed to gain 515,000 net-adds or 9% in the year. As the fixed operation is profitable, and threw off €229m in free cash flow in the H1, subscriber growth there finances the mobile roll-out.

The UK’s 4G auction has finally happened. The major operators, plus BT, all secured spectrum, which sold for rather less than the British government had hoped (and recognised as revenue) - £2.3bn rather than £3.5bn. As for the detail, the question everyone’s asking is what BT plans to do. The fixed-line incumbent ended up taking exclusively 2.6GHz blocks and none of the 800MHz, which seems to rule out a Vodafone Germany or VZW-style swap of rural copper for fixed-wireless LTE. But BT has been testing rural small cells, though, and Bill Ray wonders if they are thinking of putting femtocells into their CPE. (You could call it a Free Mobile strategy, if it wasn’t for the fact that prices are much lower in the UK already.)

Or are they planning something with TV? BT has been investing heavily in content, set-top boxes, CDN, and production facilities. At MWC, the BBC were apparently discussing the possibility of broadcasting over LTE with Huawei. Mobile TV, that mid-2000s industry news staple, seems to be back on the agenda: Ericsson announced its own “LTE Broadcast” (that’s what today’s kids are calling 3GPP eMBMS, apparently) solution and two trial deployments, with Telstra and Verizon Wireless.

BT had better do something, as OFCOM wants to push down its prices for wholesale Ethernet.

TV operator Sky this week bought O2 UK’s fixed ISP network, which it acquired by buying Be Broadband way back when. Sky’s longstanding strategy has been to integrate satellite broadcast TV and Internet TV, while Telefonica O2 says that they’re concentrating on 4G. This may mean that now they’re sitting on 2x10MHz of national 800MHz spectrum, they don’t feel like maintaining DSL infrastructure any more and might go fixed-wireless. Certainly, as Telco 2.0’s Keith McMahon points out here, the ex-Be DSL infrastructure is bowing out.

Google’s crack at running a whitespace database starts this week, and British tech company TTP is planning to use the white space for rural broadband.

Meanwhile, can KPN push out fibre faster than the DSL revenues erode?

In Australia, mobile broadband prices are rising, as the carriers re-build their margins and try to manage traffic growth. Vodafone-Hutchison Australia is still getting a beating, though. Australia, of course, is building a huge national broadband network: now France is looking at a major (€27bn) project to bring FTTH to 50% of the country.

Telefonica had results, and the big story is that they became a majority-Latin American company in Q4. Net profits slid, down 27.3%, affected by the horrible economy in Spain, Italy, and Ireland.

Dan Rayburn argues that Latin America is about to become a huge online video market.

Meanwhile, Telefonica Digital, their own-brand OTT division, bought AcmePacket’s SIP servers and load-balancers to support the scale-out of TU Go.

DTAG posted a loss, because it had to write down the value of T-Mobile USA as a result of the MetroPCS acquisition. The core fixed business is stable to declining slightly, with the mobile side telling the usual story of a dire European economy and regulatory pressure on roaming and termination. However, Poland and the US were brighter spots. T-Mobile USA, in particular, managed to eke out some subscriber growth from M2M and MVNO partners.

Meanwhile, one of the MetroPCS shareholders is becoming difficult.

QTel reported profits up 14%, and took the opportunity to rebrand itself as “Ooredoo”.

The GSMA shook up its OneAPI initiative, so now the developers will talk to a proxy managed by Apigee that then works with the carriers’ systems. To put it another way, after all this time, the carriers still haven’t implemented the API consistently, which defeats the point of having it. Apigee’s box of tricks is meant to resolve this.

Perhaps we could try another industry initiative? Firefox OS, which we saw as a prototype at the last MWC, launched at this one with the backing of a lineup of 16 major carriers, notably Telefonica, which is planning to ship the phones in Brazil, Spain, Colombia, and Venezuela later this year. Mozilla and its new friends hope the phones will cost around $100.

Of course, the big question is whether the devices are any good. Telefonica and Mozilla showed off some phones built by ZTE, which resembled nothing so much as very basic Android devices and suffered by comparison with Nokia’s Asha 311. As Charles Arthur points out, the value of the radical openness of the Web has to be very great to make up for dodgy hardware. Telefonica makes their case here.

There’s certainly a market for cheap smartphones, but the question is whether cheap ‘droids and the Ashas will eat it. Safaricom has said it’s going to stop shipping featurephones in Kenya.

This was the first MWC where you could quite literally make your case, by walking over to the Nokia stand and using their 3D printer to run off a custom case for the Lumia 920s. Nokia, in general, seemed a bit perkier than they have been lately. They won an award for one of the Ashas, which set the Nokia staffers off dancing a Finnish conga (think a conga, but rather too well-organised) around the booth. And the Here.com location and mapping product is genuinely impressive.

Everyone wants to be a mobile OS, it seems. As well as Firefox OS, Intel hasn’t given up, and the various mobile Linux projects pre-Android have now been rolled up into Tizen, which is promising gadgets this year with the support of Samsung, NTT DoCoMo, and Orange. Marc Dillon’s Sailfish project, which aims to deliver the great lost Nokia MeeGo OS, is out there - the OS looks classy and snappy, but it speaks volumes that they are still demonstrating it on N950s.

And Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, showed off the mobile flavour of their product. CEO Mark Shuttleworth wants Ubuntu to be a unified solution for the PC, the tablet, the phone, and the TV, and the phone UX is clean, beautiful, and search-centred in a way everyone expected Android would be. Shuttleworth’s vision is very much about design, and that probably has more chance of success than appealing to wholemeal HTML or Symbian nostalgia, but the problem will be the same as it is for all the alternative OSs - getting enough carrier and vendor support to achieve critical mass.

After all, as Horace says, each device class goes with a distribution model, and in mobile it’s the carrier. LG has just bought WebOS in order to use it on their TV products, or rather, it’s hired the HP WebOS engineers. So what is the distribution model for future TVs?

For sheer shiny, though, you needed the Sony booth and the Xperia Z.

Apple doesn’t bother with MWC. They were far away, watching their courtroom triumph over Samsung get rolled back on appeal, and producing video adapters that contain software.

The lawyers may get another workout soon enough, as Samsung announced its new “Wallet” app, which may further arouse litigious spirits in Cupertino.

Motorola’s stand at MWC was remarkable both for its size, growing to fit the new Fira, and the scarcity of products on it. Google says they’re running off the existing stock, and they’ve also just hired Guy Kawasaki, notorious Apple fan. Perhaps more interestingly, the Japanese government has advised Android users to only download apps from their carriers’ app stores, not Google Play, after a spate of fraudware.

Even more MWC gadgets.

A grim warning in the cloud: “If Amazon wins, we all lose!”, says the CEO of VMWare. He’s especially concerned about the public cloud winning customers from the private cloud. ReadWriteWeb is sceptical.

At MWC, Juniper and Tele2 were arguing that operators need to learn to add value to generic cloud services, or end up with the “dumb cloud” - very much the message of our Cloud 2.0 report.

We’re sceptical about PaaS vs IaaS, but here’s a case study of scaling up to 1 million users with Google AppEngine.

There’s $2 trillion in hardware, software, and IT services spending out there.

Meet Trusted Advisor, an app in Amazon Web Services that scans your install and works out what you’re doing wrong.

And here are two case studies on how to deliver liveblogging at very high traffic, by using basic
flat files.

Sometimes, the cloud fails.

Groupon is losing money again, and the CEO has been fired, departing with a snarky all-hands letter. Meanwhile, Yahoo! is shutting down a substantial list of products, the week after Marissa Mayer ordered all its telecommuters to appear at the office, perhaps in order to be counted.

We’ve had the Facebook IPO in a blitz of hype, the sickening slide, the comeback, and now it’s back to the slide, as it emerges that many of the biggest investors (like Peter Thiel) took the opportunity to get out during the rally.

Evernote gets hacked.

What music is on people’s mobiles in the Sahara? Find out here.

Horace sizes Apple iBooks and then puts it all together to understand the iTunes media ecosystem, with fine charts. You’ve got to love this one:

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The golden line is the “historic” digital music biz.

And here’s Alan Quayle’s MWC roundup.

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