Welcome to ZenUnwired; a blog dedicated to tracking developments in technology and strategy, and to deciphering the impact of these developments on wired and wireless ISP's, device manufacturers, OS and application developers, and most importantly - you.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Android Fragmentation, Visualized

I came across a really interesting post by the folks over at OpenSignalMaps on Android Fragmentation today. Over a period of 6 months, OpenSignalMaps logged over 681,900 new devices that downloaded their app, from over 195 countries, and created visualizations of the fragmentation within the Android ecosystem. You can read the entirety of the post here, but I found the two maps below really telling.

This visualization represents the 599 distinct brands that OpenSignalMaps tracked in their study

This visualization represents the 3,997 distinct devices that OpenSignalMaps tracked in their study
Really gives you a perspective of the problem Google is dealing with; doesn't it?

The Low(er) Priced Tablet War You Have Probably Never Heard Of

Of late, much has been written about the impending launch of a smaller, cheaper iPad, popularly dubbed the 'iPad Mini'. The Mini is rumored to be sporting a 7.85 inch screen, and other cheaper components, and is expected to cost between $249 and $299. Analysts also report that the Mini is designed to be Apple's secret weapon against Android tablets; specifically, the Amazon Kindle Fire.

These rumors will be put to rest one way or another later this year. And as we wait for that to happen, most folks seem to have ignored the fact  that Apple is already in the middle of a low(er) priced tablet war,  and going by the trends I have seen, seems to be winning.

Apple has always maintained a refurbished store online. However, over the past few weeks, the deals - especially on iPad's - have been getting a lot sweeter. Take for instance this deal: You can buy a 16GB Wi-Fi only iPad 2 on Apple's refurb store for $319! (other models have been similarly discounted). And that includes free shipping! Compare that to the $199 you will end up paying for the Amazon Kindle Fire. I agree, the $120 difference between the two is pretty large.  But that said, here is what the extra $120 will buy you:
  • A larger screen
  • A better processor
  • 8GB more in storage
  • Front and back cameras
  • The latest operating system, and
  • An infinitely better app-store (iOS haters, please don’t deny this fact)
If that's not enough, Apple is also throwing in a one year warranty (the same warranty as a brand new iPad), free ship to store, etc.

To some, that might not still seal the deal. But for many, many people out there, it does. Being a gadget-geek, I tend to track some of the deals-focused forums/sites out there. Take a look at these threads on SlickDeals (Link 1, Link 2, Link 3) set up specifically to track the refurb sale of the 16GB model. These three threads alone have garnered nearly 230K hits. Also, the time-line indicates that Apple cannot keep up with the demand - Whenever Apple replenishes its stock of refurb tablets, it tends to sell out in minutes. That’s a sure sign of winning, is it not?

Whether you think that that the Apple deal wins over the Kindle Fire, or not, you have to admit that this deal has all other Android tablets beat. For instance, today, on the DailySteals website you can buy the Moto Xoom 32GB for.... $350!!!

Here's the bottom-line: Whether or not the iPad Mini is real, it is clear that Apple is trying to do to the tablet market what they’ve done to the MP3 market — dominate. And unless Google's got magic Android Jellybeans, this war just might be entering its last phase.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The End of Unlimited Data

Verizon Wireless struck another nail in the 'unlimited data' coffin today when it announced that it plans to eliminate the $30 per month unlimited data plan that it still provides to 3G customers who were "grandfathered" into the plan because they were data customers prior to the company's switch to tiered data pricing last July.

How did we get here?
Just a few years ago, all carriers were touting their unlimited data plans, and were ecstatic whenever a customer signed up for one of these plans. Then came the iPhone, followed by a multitude of Android devices, and being data hogs, they decimated carriers data-related margins. In just a couple of years after these devices launched, the data business went from being highly profitable to one in which carriers now have to fight to retain their profitability. And to make matters worse, the onslaught of these devices is far from over. We now have iPads, Android tablets, connected game consoles etc that are still consuming data at record speeds. However, the main offenders are still smartphones.  

The carriers reaction
Carriers are now rapidly moving away from unlimited data. About a year ago, both AT&T and Verizon started offering only tiered data packages to new customers (new customers paid for what they consumed vs. old customers continued to have full access to the buffet). T-Mobile followed suit shortly thereafter. Sprint however, continued, and still continues to offer unlimited data. But towards the end of last year Sprint quietly pulled its unlimited offering from all of its data devices except for on handsets (incl. Smartphones).

Therefore, at the end of last year, this is how things looked:
  • On AT&T, Verizon & T-Mobile, existing customers were "grandfathered" into their unlimited plans, meaning, they got to stay on their unlimited plans whereas new customers got only tiered data plans, meaning, customers had to estimate how much of data they would use prior to signing up for their contract, and then stay within their limit each month, or paid overage charges if they went over their limit (just like in a voice plan - you bought say, 900 minutes, and you had to limit your calling to 900 minutes or less each month)
  • On Sprint, old and new customers alike could buy unlimited data plans
Now, with Verizon's announcement, the tides seem to be shifting once again. Verizon is now forcing existing customers - the ones who were grandfathered in - to choose a tiered data plan. The Twitterverse exploded today with mostly negative comments on Verizon's move. Assuming Verizon sticks to its guns in the face of all of this negative publicity, and is able to move the grandfathered customers over, then I am willing to bet that AT&T will follow suit. Its an open question however, whether T-Mobile and Sprint will also follow. T-Mo is hurting for growth, and Sprint is using 'unlimited' as a differentiator, and therefore it might be difficult for both these carriers to move away from their current offers.

Where do we go from here?
The Industry seems to be moving closer to a concept called 'shared plans'. This is how it will work - say you have a laptop with embedded 3G, an Android phone and an iPad. Today, you probably just have one data package from your carrier for your phone, and all of your cellular data consumption occurs on that phone. In the (near) future, carriers will let you buy data packages that you can use across all of your devices. So say, you buy a 5GB plan, you can use the 5GB across your laptop, phone and iPad. Taking this a step further - say instead of having an individual plan, you have a family plan. In the (near) future - you would just end up buying a voice (minutes) package and a data package from your carrier, that you and your family can then just use on any device of your (family's) choosing. Makes you wish you bought that 3G/4G enabled iPad now instead of the Wi-Fi only model that you bought right?

How much will this cost?
Verizon's data share plan is scheduled to launch in mid-summer but no pricing details have been announced. But if current plans are anything to go by, you should expect to see pricing in roughly the $8-$10 per Gigabyte range (based on the 10GB plan from Verizon, AT&T & T-Mo). Of course, if you buy fewer GB's, you will pay a higher price, and vice-versa.

So how much data will I need?
  • Start - Smartphone Bill: The best place to start is your current smartphone bill. An analysis of a few of your bills will give a rough estimate of how much you really use on average. 
  • Add - Connected Devices: Do you want a 'connected' laptop? do you want a connected iPad? what other devices do you want to want to have connected? (Note: laptops and iPads consume infinitely more data than smartphones).  
  • Deduct - Wi-Fi Offload: what percentage of your data needs will be met by Wi-Fi? 
  • Add - Family Usage: what devices does your family own? What devices would your family members like to have connected? 
  • Add - Usage Escalation: Finally, see this chart below from Nielsen to estimate how much usage tends to increase in ONE year

Voila! You have your estimated usage!

In the final analysis, Verizon's move today was surprising, but not unexpected, especially to Industry observers. With Sprint being the lone holdout, it looks like the days of 'Unlimited Data' are finally over.

Monday, May 14, 2012

In a Nutshell: The 2G Spectrum Mess in India

In 2008, 122 new 2G licenses were issued but on a first come, first serve approach with the price being the same as the prior licenses issued in 2001. However, when there were more applicants than spectrum available, the natural thing was to have conducted an auction. That did not happen.

Instead, what happened was that there was an arbitrary line drawn under the applicants. Getting into such a list in time smacks of insider prior information and corruption – especially as in some cases, applications only had to be filed the same day for licenses to be granted in time.
In February this year, the Supreme Court of India ordered that:
  • The allotment of spectrum was "unconstitutional and arbitrary"
  • The allotment of all 122 licenses was to be cancelled, and
  • The spectrum allocation to be re-done properly, that is, auctioned off in a fair process.

Companies Impacted by the Supreme Court's Order include:
  • Uninor (Joint venture between Unitech Group (India) and Telenor (Norway)) - 22 Licenses
  • MTS India (Joint venture between Shyam group (India) and Sistema (Russia)) - 21 Licenses
  • Loop Mobile (formerly BPL Mobile) - 21 Licenses
  • Videocon Telecommunications Limited - 21 Licenses
  • Etisalat-DB (Joint venture between Swan Telecom (India) and Etisalat (UAE)) - 15 Licenses
  • Idea Cellular (Joint venture between Aditya Birla (India), Axiata Group Berhad (Malaysia) & Providence Equity(USA)) - 13 Licenses
  • S Tel (Joint venture between C Sivasankaran (India) and Batelco (Bahrain)) - 6 Licenses
  • Tata Teleservices - 3 Licenses

For further reading; click here

Monday, May 7, 2012

Roaming - A High Level Overview

How do you define "Roaming"?
The term "Roaming" originates from the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), and is defined as the ability for a cellular customer to automatically make and receive voice calls, send and receive data, or access other services when travelling outside the geographical coverage area of the home network, by means of using a visited network. Establishing roaming between network operators is based on a Roaming Agreement.


If I am a customer with a mobile phone, what does Roaming mean to me?
If you have a mobile phone you can take it with you when traveling to another region or country and you can place or receive calls without changing the SIM card.

What are the different types of Roaming?
  1. If the visited network is in the same country as the home network, this is known as National Roaming (e.g., Sprint and Verizon)
  2. If the visited network is outside the home country, this is known as International Roaming (e.g., Vodafone UK and AT&T USA)
  3. If the visited network is of a different technology, this is known as Inter-Standard Roaming (e.g., CDMA and GSM)
A distinction is also made between Inbound and Outbound roaming:
  • Inbound - when the operator acts as the "Visited Network"
  • Outbound - when the operator act as the "Home Network"
How does International Roaming work?
Cell phone carriers from most countries have roaming agreements that basically allow you to use their wireless network when traveling abroad. Generally you do not need to do anything - the foreign carrier will take over so to speak and you will see another carrier name on your cell phone's screen once you are in another country. What you do have to do is call your wireless carrier before leaving your country and activate your roaming service. This is not a default feature (it implies extra costs).

Do carriers implement all Roaming partnerships the same way?
No. There are different models that could apply when you are ready to establish a roaming partnership with another provider. These models include
  • Bilateral Model: Roaming implemented directly between two operators without using an intermediary
  • Roaming Hub Model: Hub providers offer a mobile operator instant global roaming through a single contract.
  • Sponsor Model:  Allows a mobile operator to establish roaming using the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) of a sponsored Operator - a quickly and cost efficient way to expand coverage worldwide.
Each model has its own advantages and disadvantages, and you have to select the best one that fits your business strategy.

If I have International Roaming enabled, will my mobile phone work everywhere?
It depends. Sometimes the cellular network used in the country you're traveling to is not the same as the one used by your carrier. In this case you must have a cell phone supporting both networks. Call your wireless carrier for specific info.

How do I make calls while in another country?
Note that you cannot dial the numbers in your phone agenda as they are - you must add/drop some digits depending on the location you are at, and the country you are dialing to.

How do people from my home country call me?
People from home can call you AS IF YOU WERE HOME. In other words they do not need to add any digits to the number they usually dial when calling you.

Who pays international charges for calls I receive? Does this change if I an unlimited plan?
You do. Unlimited plans generally are applicable only when you are within your home country. You will be charged for each call – usually by the minute – for any calls made or received while you are traveling outside your home country