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A couple of things caught my eye this morning while I was looking through email inboxes. The first was a story from the BBC that reported that mobile phone users find it difficult to understand how to use the features of the phones, and the second was a podcast interview which had been recorded using Skype.
Firstly mobile phones: handsets are complicated, and most users only know enough to make and receive calls. A high proportion of users know how to create and read SMS messages, and in fact in the under 20s age group this will be 100% of users. Other than that, phone features are greatly underused. I read somewhere recently that iPhone users are five times more likely to download and use an application than users of any other smart phone. This is a combination of ease-of-use of the phone together with the clever marketing of the Apple iTunes "AppStore"; Apple have created an end-to-end experience that doesn't exist for any other phone. Of course this leaves the competitors (SonyEricsson, Nokia, RIM, Palm etc) all running to create their own AppStore, to see if they can sell more apps. In fact some of them (like Nokia) already had an online application download system for some time, although it is quite difficult to search and use.
And then Skype: Skype has been a huge success, at least among the technically literate. In the podcast niche it is a godsend, as it allows users to make long distance and international calls for free; the audio quality is often good relative to the PSTN; it has integrated conference ability and because it runs in the computer it's quite easy to record conversations. However, there is much that people don't like about Skype: it needs to run in a computer, so the PC has to be on to take calls; it is more complicated to drive than a phone. Also many people don't like to take spontaneous calls on Skype, as they don't always have their headsets plugged-in. From a personal perspective, I also don't think the user interface is very easy to use and have often triggered calls by accident. Incidentally, Skype recently launched their own mobile app, that can be dowloaded into many mobile phones, although not yet the all-conquering iPhone. So this really is a niche-within-a-niche, as it is addressing (a) users that know what Skype offers and (b) those that know how to load and use applications on a smartphone.
So we can learn from this firstly that voice is important, since in reality it is the only reason that people are buying mobile phones. Skype has its own special niche (largely among Western 'nerds'), but fixed phones are easy-to-use and universally installed, and that means that people will pay international phone charges even still. So don't expect conventional voice to go away anytime soon: the challenge for the telco business is how to add voice on to every other kind of service, for example voice-enable internet applications and business processes.