Thursday, February 09, 2012

The patent truth

This week the UK government will close consultation on draft legislation that aims to reward innovation by cutting corporation tax on profits made on patented technologies down to just 10 percent.  In what is a welcome shot in the arm for the UK tech industry and a recognition of the potential for innovation that lies too often dormant in companies and universities up and down the country, it does spark a wider thought about the significance being placed on patent portfolios (and suing those that infringe them).

While 2011 was littered with IPR lawsuits, 2012 shows little sign of slowing down.  Apple and Samsung continue to move around the globe, seemingly taking it in turns to sue each other in different jurisdictions.   However, in a twist on the saga, the EU is now investigating whether Samsung's use of patents to sue Apple is actually anti-competitive.   The point of contention is whether the patents fall under Frand, or standards-essential rules. Under those standards, patents that are generally used in a device -- such as for 3G or Wi-Fi on a smartphone -- are open for fair use between companies.

So, clearly there is more to this patent game than just collecting more and more of them.  Increasingly, one could be forgiven that suing to enforce patents has become the last refuge for a company that is struggling to make money ... you just have to look at Kodak suing Samsung (why always Samsung?!) over image patents, news of which broke on the same day that Kodak sought bankrupcy protection having singularly failed to capitalise on the move to digital, despite 133 years of leadership in the industry.

The point is, it's not about the patent.  It's not about what a widget does.  Simply slapping a patent on something doesn't mean it actually creates value.  Kodak may well claim to have invented the world's first digital camera in 1975, but if they can't make digital cameras that consumers want to buy, they'll still end up in the big photo album in the sky. 

Rewarding UK companies for innovation by giving tax breaks on patents reinforces this point.  The tax break isn't on the patent ... it's on the profits generated by the patented technology.  In other words, it's what it enables that is key. 

Too often companies claim patents as a badge of honour, almost as if simply having them proves they are innovative.  The question is though, how many of those patents actually generate revenue and actually create something of value?

The Patent Box legislation now coming to the end of its consultation phase is definitely the right way of looking at the thorny question of IPR.  Companies should focus on creating real value through their patents, and not simply see them as a litigious way to compensate for their own inability to create products that people actually want.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Everything's changed, nothing's changed

So after a protracted absence away from writing this blog I thought 2012 should be the year to reinvigorate it and so have dipped back into it today.  And then it struck me.  This blog is called "A Look Inside the Cloud" ... a title I gave it back in 2008 in homage to the "intro to telecoms" mini-lecture I give newbies when they start on the team here and which always begins with the drawing of a cloud on a whiteboard. 

But now, in the embers of 2011, some three years since I first started this blog, the title could be taken to mean something very different.

So let's be clear, this is not a blog about Cloud Computing, or indeed any other virtualised cloud-based marketing slogan.

It's a blog about the 'cloud' itself ... that is to say the real infrastructure behind the virtual (some might say vapourware) thing that is 'the cloud'.  It's about the ecosystem that makes it all possible.  It's about the experience we derive from it.  And it's about how businesses can make money from it. 

Call me old fashioned, but I call all that stuff 'telecoms'. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the subject of advertising...

While I'm on the subject of advertising and whether the promises mobile operators make and their partners really are accurate, you really can't help but love this spoof iPhone commercial.

Of course, the iPhone commercials in the UK have themselves been the focus of Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings on the grounds that they are "not quite true" (which to you and me means they are misleading). They've been hit for claiming users can access the "whole Internet" (you can't) and for exaggerating the speed of the apps and webpages being loaded.

Between the ASA and OFCOM, maybe mobile phone users will start to get a fairer - and more honest and straightforward - deal from the mobile industry.

"I'm on the train!... [click]"

On the day that OFCOM has released new guidelines to stop mis-selling of their products and services or from "engaging in dishonest, misleading or deceptive conduct", for once I'm not going to pick on them. On the contrary, I'm going to pick on Virgin Trains. Yes, I know this is a blog about the telecoms industry, but that's precisely it.

Yesterday I had the joy of a trip to Milton Keynes with a client, so we took the train. A direct service, and we wanted to be able to work, so we even paid the little bit extra and went first class. Now, in first class they have apparently "enhanced mobile coverage"... another reason for spending the extra so you can do business calls and make the travel time a bit more productive.

So, just how many times do you think my poor client's call got dropped due to poor coverage? Once? Twice? ... FIVE times in a 30 minute journey.

If that's enhanced mobile coverage, what the service is like in cattle class at the back of the train I dare not imagine.

It's timely then that OFCOM have decided it's time to clamp down on dodgy sales tactics ... maybe they can sort out the inflated claims and promises operators and their partners make at the same time too.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Why Orange/T-Mobile merger means less subscriber choice

The big news today is undoubtedly that of the merger between Orange and T-Mobile, to create the UK's biggest operator with 28.4 million subscribers. Of course, the companies are lauding it as bringing "substantial benefits to UK customers", but will it really?

Consider this. Vodafone and O2 have already announced a network sharing deal (essentially this means that they will consolidate 2G and 3G cellsites, but they'll keep their own Node Bs, RNCs etc.). T-Mobile is similarly already the host for '3' and for MVNOs such as Virgin Mobile.

So, merge Orange and T-Mobile and the subscriber really is down to a choice of just two networks.

Sure, they'll have their own OSS/BSS and equipment at the edge of the network, but if mobile is about anything, it's about the RAN. It's about coverage, quality of service and (call me old fashioned) being able to get a dial-tone and make a call. You can have all the choice of price plans and shiny devices in the world, but if you keep dropping a call, can't get coverage in your home, or have a painfully slow mobile data experience, what's the point? And if you can't switch network to one with better coverage, where's the consumer choice?

As we saw earlier this year from OFCOM's coverage map, 3G coverage remains far from nationwide. Merging Orange and T-Mobile may save over £3.5 billion "over time" (a helpful comment that gives no indication of timescale), but will these savings be invested in extending mobile broadband coverage?

The simple situation seems to be that while UK subscribers may have lots of brand choice in terms of which operator they choose, ultimately they will have the choice of only two networks.

Doesn't this sound like something that should excite OFCOM?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it

If like me you thought MWC 2008 was too big and actually quite enjoyed the more manageable and businesslike atmosphere of this year's Congress, then you'll probably mixed emotions at the news that Nokia will not be exhibiting at MWC 2010.

While the GSMA has tried to reassure other exhibtors that Nokia "remains committed" to MWC and the GSMA itself, it really is a sign of changing times.

Let's be honest. MWC is unrecognisable from the cosy industry get-together that was 3GSM in Cannes. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The show (and I mean 'show', not 'Congress') was starting to become preoccupied with mobile entertainment and consumer devices. But it's not a consumer show, it's an industry event.

While sad news for the GSMA, it's perhaps reassuring news for the mobile industry. Maybe now it can get back to focusing on the business and the technology that powers it, and lose the fixation with celebrity keynotes. And anything that makes it easier to find catch a taxi in Barcelona in February can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Finally, someone who REALLY appreciates mobile phones!

In proof that 2G certainly isn't dead and can still bring unbounded joy to people's lives, the Pacific island of Nauru has declared today a public holiday in celebration of the launch of its first mobile phone network, courtesy of Digicel.

Admittedly, it is unlikely to set the world alight with its subscriber numbers (Nauru is the world's smallest independent nation with just 10,000 inhabitants), but it nevertheless is a good reminder of what mobile communications is really about, while the rest of us get caught up in hype around 4G and how mobile is going to save the world. Realistically, will this stop Nauru from disappearing into the sea as the oceans rise due to global warming? Well, no, of course it won't.

Mobile communications aren't going to save the world, but they can improve the quality of life by bringing access to otherwise disconnected communities. Indeed, maybe Nauru should go back to its previous name, now that it really is a Pleasant Island.

Friday, August 28, 2009

How to complain

OK, so the English are renowned for our manners, our politeness and our stiff upper lip. Which is clearly why OFCOM has felt it necessary to produce a video guide for consumers about how to complain about your telecoms provider.

The complaints procedure as it is today, is itself a cause for much complaint. A neighbour of my mum's signed up to Talk Talk in the Asda carpark (yes, I know signing up to anything in the Asda carpark is rarely a good idea) and then had to endure a month of intermittent service and the constant frustration of having to contact the call centre (using her prepaid mobile) and re-explain her situation on every occassion. Three visits by engineers later, and a failed attempt by Talk Talk to get her to pay "thousands" to get the fault fixed as it was on her property (even though the previous engineer had said the fault was kerbside) and she finally has a service. Oh, and was it fixed by Talk Talk? No, of course not. It was fixed by a good old BT engineer.

Today, you have to endure 12 weeks of this before you can complain to OFCOM for 'Alternative Dispute Resolution', but under new plans coming into force on the 1st September, this will come down to eight weeks. Still not good enough to help my neighbour Lorna, but a start.

So, if like me you're too English and really hate to create a scene, here's some helpful advice from your friendly OFCOM:

PS. TalkTalkHell has a helpful guide on how to complain here ... and three years on, and it seems they are no better at customer service.