Can New Mobile Service Providers Save Us From Complexity? Tello Goes For It

The battle for our mobile attention has put convenience and user experience on a pedestal and, as a result, a ton friction has been removed from our day-to-day activities: shopping, ordering food, banking, traveling… But it often seems that, to gain access to these conveniences, we have no choice but to wade through complex waters, aka mobile service providers. With two-year commitments, opaque plans and fee-tangled bills, many of the carriers that enable today’s celebrated mobile innovations are not, themselves, widely celebrated.
This is why consumers might want to pay closer attention to MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators). MVNOs give you access to the major US mobile carrier networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.), but with their own pricing and packaging. For customers, that can translate to lower rates, more flexible contracts and better customer service. Representing a smaller segment of mobile subscribers (just one in ten US subscribers a few years back) and competing against powerhouse brands, MVNOs are the underdog in the mobile service space. This is why when a new provider enters the fray they need to work hard to stand out.
This is the challenge for the newly announced Tello. Tello runs on Sprint’s network in the US, but has been operating out of the UK for two years already. (The parent company, KeepCalling, has been around since 2002.) At the core of Tello’s US offering is a pledge for “No Fees, Whatsoever,” as in no activation fee, no overage fee, no processing fee or early termination. Tello plans can be fully customized, so you’re not paying for something you don’t use (fitting for those who don’t use their phones to, you know, make calls), and can be upgraded or downgraded easily if you find, for example, you’re hitting your data limit. Technically data is unlimited as speed is throttled down to 64kbps once you hit your limit.
Things that are also good to know, if you’re thinking about switching providers, is that you can choose to buy a phone from Tello, but there’s also the option to bring your own. As mentioned before, Tello is a contract-free service, but for those who prefer to avoid plans altogether, Tello has a Pay As You Go option that gives you the chance to buy let’s say $5 and use it for national and international calls or texts.
Of course, Tello isn’t the first provider to tackle the pain points of mobile service. Ting, for example, offers a plan that allows you to pay based on usage and carriers like T-Mobile often cover the cost of termination to facilitate switching. But scratching out every fee and keeping costs low—Tello has a customizable plan that starts at $5 monthly, or (if you want data) $9/mo for 100 minutes of talk, 200 texts and 200 MB 4G LTE—gives the company a fair chance to stand out.
Still, one of the bigger questions that comes to mind is, if MVNOs are presenting such competitive offerings, why aren’t a larger share of mobile providers using them? Is it a testimony to long term brand effects of TV advertising? Are consumers still tethered to brick and mortar, taking comfort in having a place to go if something goes awry? (Tello, for example, is exclusively online.) While these factors may have a big impact today, they may lose their foothold as new generation of cell phone users and cord cutters come to market. Tello may be ahead of it’s time—though given early adopters always seem to be ready for the next opportunity to assert their early adopter-ness, that may be an advantage unto itself.

Apple changes everything, again

Apple’s long-awaited and widely leaked announcements for Apple Watch — which everyone thought would be the iWatch — and new larger Apple iPhones — the 4.7 inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5 inch iPhone 6 plus — represent a turning point, when Tim Cook’s Apple has finally moved out from under the enormous shadow of Steve Jobs. Jobs hated the idea of big phones, so the 6 and 6 Plus are a big departure away from his aesthetic, and the Watch is obviously Cook & Ive through and through.

I’ve written about the impact of wearables in business (see The future of work: 4 trends for 2014Wearables, earables, eyeables: Welcome to the next wave of computing) but Apple’s iWatch is going to take the company’s traditional path to category — defining ubiquity, starting with massive consumer uptake. Unlike the obvious business use cases of Google Glass, for example — like medical, security, military, engineering, and manaufacturing applications — Apple is starting with sensors that touch the wearer’s arm monitoring physical stats — heart rate, etc — as part of a focus on well-being. It’s an intentional emphasis on the personal (see Can we consumerize everything inside businesses?), rather than any business application. And we are going to have to wait until 2015 to see it, anyway.

There a great deal of apparently ingenious design in the Watch. The user experience is unique, geared around the watch form factor. The home screen is a palette of circular icons representing apps that you move with a finger. The touch interface differentiates between tap and press. Tap might open an app or start a song playing, while a press (longer than a tap) may bring up a menu, or some other non-tap action.

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The ‘crown’ on the Watch is a fob set on the right hand side of the bezel, but this one works like the old iPod clickwheel. You can tap it to go home, and twist it to zoom in and out of content, or to move through menu items. Lastly, there is a ‘social button’ below the crown which is dedicated to pulling up a list of contacts to call them, message them, or send them a ‘taptic’ message that they can feel if they are also wearing a Watch.

Apple also has devised a new system called Glances for the Watch experience, to get information from your iPhone to your Watch. Swiping the Watch face moves through cards of information from selected apps, like the new notifications widgets in iOS 8.

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Presumably, other iPhone app makers will be sending notifications to the Watch through this Glances interface, and that may be the first and most important connection from the Watch to work technologies. For example, a task management tool could display today’s to-dos on a card, or the number of updates in a work chat could be shown. It’s conceivable that work tech Watch apps could be created, but they’d have to be based on voice input since typing is not an option.

The new NFC-based Pay system that Apple laid out last week for the new iPhones has larger business implications, but is still largely a consumer play. Who doesn’t want to stop carrying around a stack of credit cards? It’s been reported elsewhere that Apple’s timing for Pay is great, since retailers are confronted with a looming deadline for upgrading their point-of-sale systems to deal with EMV (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa), the international standard for credit cards which relies on an embedded chip in the card. It provides a much higher level of security, and requires new hardware and software. Apple’s throw weight in the market presumably will tip the balance, and retailers will opt for systems that support both EMV and Apple Pay.

I’ve pre-ordered a iPhone 6 Plus, and sometime in October AT&T should be sending it along to me, so any serious discussion of its impacts on my way of life and work will have to wait. But this week we will see the release of iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite. I’ve been using Yosemite in Beta for a month or so, but I didn’t want to go through the headaches of joining the developer program to download the beta of iOS 8 for my iPhone 4S. So I have not had the opportunity to experiment with new features. I am particularly interested in new services like Continuity, and the revamped iCloud (see iCloud Drive is the Dropbox killer of Jobs’ dreams).

Note that my 4S is now obsolete and no longer available from Apple. Luckily, it turns out to be the oldest iPhone that will be capable of running iOS 8, or I wouldn’t be seeing any of the new generation of Apple’s mobile platform until October.

Nothing that Apple showed last week has led me to change my opinion about the enormous impact that iOS 8 and Yosemite will have. Leaving aside Pay and Watch, the reconstruction of the Apple OS’s to allow a more open interconnection between third party apps — like sharing data — and just as importantly the redesign of iCloud to come up to the now-standard distributed virtual file system (a la Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive) repositions the company as having the best solution for building apps for business. As I wrote in the second quarter analysis and outlook, focusing on the new notifications capabilities,

One of the biggest shifts — and one that will prove especially relevant for work technologies — is the new role of notifications. We already realize that there is a tremendous gain in productivity with notifications since we don’t have to fire up an app to see some critical reminder or a message. But in this generation we will be able to respond to notifications without starting an app. For example, responding to a chat message directly from the lock screen on an iPhone. This is more than a slight convenience since it allows us to remain in the work context and get back to what we are doing without a hiccup.

The notifications center is going to become the center of our iOS world. This is augmented by the new notification widgets: small pieces of app code that run in the notification center. These can be of any sort, like news or weather apps, but the biggest bang in the work tech sector will be connection: remaining in touch with our work teams, getting updates on work activities, and so on.

My recent research note on contextual conversation makes the case that we are in the middle of a major transition in work tech. We are seeing a shift away from now-traditional “collaboration” tools that are geared for company-wide styles of work and broadcast communication towards small-group conversations based on the chat metaphor. I don’t want to reproduce that argument here in depth but I maintain that Apple’s fusion of platform, devices, and services will underlie and accelerate that transition, and in particular, Apple’s iMessage, Facetime, and other messaging tools may be defining the next generation of conversational connection.

It’s September, and Apple is rolling out the new software platform that is likely to redefine what computing is for the next five years, and three new bits of hardware: two mobile and one wearable. Brace yourself.

The organizational challenge of disruptive technologies

As firms grapple with implementing the mobile, cloud, and big data technologies that are transforming their businesses, getting the organizational process and procedures right for managing those implementations is often the greatest challenge.

Computerworld this week covers an IBM survey on the mobile strategies of 600 enterprises, finding in effect that only half of the companies surveyed currently have an effective mobile strategy. No more than 50% of the participants reported that their mobile strategy is aligned with the overall business strategy, that the organization has a clear funding mechanism for mobile initiatives, that there is executive-level oversight for mobile initiatives, or that there is an established governance structure for mobile initiatives. Although only 20% of the firms believe they have a superior or leading mobile strategy today, 44% anticipate pulling ahead of their peers in the next three years.

Among the other tidbits: The subset of those firms reporting the best and most pervasive use and management of mobile technology reports both greater plans to increase mobile funding next year and a greater mobile strategy role for the chief marketing executive. Overall, the CIO is seen to have the most influence, as would be expected, with the CFO number two when it comes to funding, the line of business number two for generating ideas and setting or managing priorities, and the chief technology officer number two in providing governance.

The role of governance is critical in a firm’s ability to manage rapid innovation. One banking industry participant is quoted as stating, “Our governance structure—which includes representatives from finance, risk, operations, customer service, product and application development, project management, technology, marketing and strategy—has been immensely effective in terms of increasing the precision and speed with which we deploy mobile solutions.”

And banks shall lead them

Banking has always been an early adopter of new technology. Bank of America offered a glimpse of how it is juggling the innovation of technology with the requirements of the bank, as reported by American Banker. Hari Gopalkrishnan, the bank’s eCommerce, architecture and segments technology executive described an application process whereby the bank’s best programmers are first brought together to create functional code. The bank’s compliance officers follow immediately thereafter, to assure that requisite encryption, opt in/out, geo caching and other standards are incorporated into the application.

Bank of America took first place honors for user experience, accessibility, and alerting platforms in Javelin Strategy & Research’s annual mobile banking survey, as also reported this week by American Banker. As evidence of the rapid adoption of mobile bankers, the survey found 45% of consumers had used mobile banking in the past 90 days, up from 26% in 2012.

As seen in the IBM survey, executives in other industries are expecting mobile’s importance to grow as rapidly—but they don’t believe their companies are organizationally ready to handle it.

Tools conceal or reveal, depending

Two stray posts caught my eye today, and each offers a key insight, which when juxtaposed may seem to be in conflict, but they aren’t, really.

The first is from Nick Grossman, who is sharing tasks with his wife, Cescalouise, in the new version of Wunderlist:

Cescalouise and I have started using Wunderlist to keep track of shared to-dos (bills to pay, stuff to buy, etc).  I’ve been a user of Wunderlist for a number of years now and have written about it before.

The shared lists in Wunderlist actually seem to be working for us.   Whenever she adds or updates an item, I get a notification, and vice versa.  This is helpful, for me at least, and can hopefully help her get less annoyed at me for forgetting things 🙂

I mentioned yesterday that I thought it was working pretty well, and her response was: “We’ll see. Systems cover up symptoms.”  Which is a fair point, I think.  It’s easy for me to waste time fiddling around with a perfect system and feel like I’m making a lot of progress, while not actually changing the underlying thing (in this case, not paying attention to things as much as I should).

So, tools can conceal, because you’ll naturally pay attention to what they display, not what’s going on behind the blinking lights.

The second piece was from Noah Brier, who quoted Rafe Colburn, who said this about about dysfunctional engineering teams:

Preference for process over tools. As engineering teams grow, there are many approaches to coordinating people’s work. Most of them are some combination of process and tools. Git is a tool that enables multiple people to work on the same code base efficiently (most of the time). A team may also design a process around Git — avoiding the use of remote branches, only pushing code that’s ready to deploy to the master branch, or requiring people to use local branches for all of their development. Healthy teams generally try to address their scaling problems with tools, not additional process. Processes are hard to turn into habits, hard to teach to new team members, and often evolve too slowly to keep pace with changing circumstances. Ask your interviewers what their release cycle is like. Ask them how many standing meetings they attend. Look at the company’s job listings, are they hiring a scrum master?

So, Tools > Process, as Noah styled his piece, in which is elaborates on the concept, and then introduces some tools that he and his colleagues at Percolate are building for their own coordination, internally. (I hope to revisit those tools in a later post, because I am going to get a peek at them soon.) Tools trump process, because, as Noah says,

Products, after all, are far more scalable than process, which requires constant training and reminding (as new people come on board you need to train them on your process).

I have argued long and loudly that transitioning to social business means moving away from role-based, flat jobs, and where the decisions are baked into processes. Instead, coordination of work happens when individuals decide they want to ask for guidance or advice, or to task someone with part of an activity, and instead of blindly following the workflow wired into some workflow diagram, the “rules” are just another sort of information.

So tools can reveal, providing great insight into the dynamics of cowork, for example, or they can conceal, because what is being displayed isn’t what is truly important. This is why social tools user experience is so critical.