Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

Prepaid mobile services have been around for quite some time in many countries worldwide. This financial model offers cellphone services for those that either cannot or choose to not opt for postpaid plans. Pay-as-you-go of sorts. This was the first plan my kids got on cellphones and as their financial ability, but at least as important, their usage increased, they then migrated to postpaid plans with the appropriate size buckets of voice minutes and SMS texts (for my daughter, UNLIMITED!).

As long as the plan had the right balance of bucket size and payment size (a perceivably good price-performance on what you get), then prepaid remains an attractive option for many of us. Usually the biggest advantages are the lack of contracts or commitment periods associated with postpaid, although some wireless operators (usually MVNOs like Virgin Mobile and Cricket Wireless) offer postpaid plans without contracts or commitments.

The first basic question that prepaid users ask is, “do I use the service enough to justify a postpaid plan?”

  • Will they talk or receive calls on the cellphones to go for a higher minute plan?
  • Will they need some more advanced features that only postpaid plans offer, such as 3G data?
  • Or do they need to have just enough connectivity with a mobile device without taxing their monthly budget?

There is another large group of devices that have been coming online that are asking the same question. The mobile compute platforms such as laptops and netbooks (or the cleverly named smartbooks such as HP and Qualcomm’s recent announcement) are increasingly being connected to mobile networks in addition to WiFi.

There is a recent flurry of noise from the mobile operators on prepaid mobile broadband plans with megabyte and gigabyte buckets available for as little as $10 for 100 MB, in the case of Virgin Mobile USA. But the larger operators such as AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless will offer prepaid mobile broadband to complement their postpaid options. I think prepaid as an economic model is ABSOLUTELY made for:

  1. connected platforms now such as laptops (to avoid the “everything they can eat, and they will” problem operators encounter with data hogs)
  2. emerging connected devices later such as cars, gaming platforms, eBook readers (bundled today in the Kindle but I predict this will change)
  3. many other multimedia and entertainment devices…can you say iSlate?

Recently Tariff Consultancy published a report stating that:

“Pre Pay Mobile Broadband will become the norm for the majority of users to access the Internet worldwide, with a third of a Billion users by the end of 2013″

The notion of “becoming the norm” is the operative phrase here. Similar to how cellphones have become the norm for communications and ultimately having resulted in cannibalizing fixed line services, is it feasible to think that mobile broadband will cannibalize fixed line Internet access? At a minimum, it will be complementary in that high use devices such as media servers, Hulu, Playstation Online, torrent servers, or groups of PCs and Macs will demand more than what the mobile network (or even local femtocells) would be capable of providing. But in either developing countries or smaller connected households, the advent of $10 or $20 (or even less in some countries) to last a month or two for web and email connectivity is more than sufficient to serve their needs.

SocioConnectitis: Addicted to #Connected #Media

Mobile devices and technologies have afforded us mere mortals the ability to communicate with each other, answer practically any question, access practically any media or content available on the Internet, and entertain ourselves in ways never thought possible 10 years ago.  Since the advent of data communications over cellular technologies such as GSM/GPRS, EV-DO, and HSPA enable the immediacy of these desires.  The air interface alone, however, is not enough to allow flesh and blood to engage and interact with the digital media in that virtual netherworld.  We need devices.  Blackberries, Droids, Symbian devices, and my favorite, the iPhone, bridge the chemically and electrically induced emotions and needs for digital “connectedness” and the digital itself.

But the ways our brains are being rewired where we grow accustomed to checking emails in the kitchen, updating our Facebook status in the bathroom (yeah, could be gross), following our Twitter community sitting in front of the TV, or posting a new vid to Flickr standing in front of the BBQ while grilling some steaks (hey, the thick ones take a while) is taking the “attractiveness” of mobility to all-new heights.

BTW, I’ve personally done all of the above on my iPhone while at home NOT sitting in front of my Mac.  In fact I’ve caught myself pulling out my iPhone to open up TweetDeck or WordPress WHILE I’ve been sitting in front of my Mac with TweetDeck or WordPress already open.  WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH ME?!?!

Nothing and everything, depending on your generational or conservative persuasion.  If you’re reading this blog, or especially if you’ve gotten to this post from a shortened URL, you are likely also suffering from SocioConnectitis.  Defined as: “the insatiable and irresistible need to engage and interact with our social digital media and content. This is sometimes accompanied by narcissism (how many mentions did I get today?), paranoia (why haven’t those friend requests been accepted yet?) and a false sense of urgency (I really, really need to upload those Flip MinoHD vids to Facebook because I’m sure they’ll be helpful in curing cancer).

Where is all this headed?  For sure this second nature (soon to be first nature) act of interacting digitally won’t even be differentiated from breathing or waking up in the morning someday soon.  This is the case not just for industrialized societies, but even the poorest countries and regions are experiencing this.  Maybe not iPhone-class urges yet, but they get the notion of connectedness and those are the seeds of SocioConnectitis. And the device vendors want to cash in this growing behavior with the QUE, more Droids (someday they’ll be sentient beings), iPhone 4G (whatever that is), iSlate, Kindle DX x 10^8, and so many other windows into this digitally delectable world.

Now what? As Andrea True Connection says, “More, More, More.” Or Britney Spears says, “Gimme More.” I’m loving this disease.

GSM Hacking Trial

This week on Dark Reading there was more talk of the cracking of the GSM A5/1 over the air encryption. There is certainly a lot of attention swarming to this topic, rightly so given the pervasiveness of mobile. In addition the hacker community is making statements of the A5/3 encryption who is built into some of the 3G standards.

I think that the biggest concern does lay solely with the cracking of A5/1, but that there is a HUGE community of software programmers interested in “seeing” how vulnerable these encryption protocols actually are and if they can break them. In general this is a good thing to overcome the Kool-Aid Syndrome (where carriers and mobile technologists because too enamored with legacy and the status quo) and get telecom vendors, standards bodies, and carriers to think innovatively and out of the box. However it’s only a good thing if malicious behavior does not reign supreme.

Imagine if the confidential mobile communications of a government official or corporate CEO were intercepted and held for ransom. Imagine if terrorists were somehow to exploit this vulverability to their advantage. As with any socially and globally impactful technology, there are two sides to the coin: the good side and the dark side!

How do we solve this both near term and long term? Do we ban cellphones in certain instances or environments? Is this even feasible given the human appendages that cellphones and smartphones have become?

Too Strong to be Weak

I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by technology and how technologies are adopted by people. In the past I’ve written about the concepts of strong-specific and weak-general. These concepts are not mine (I wish they were). Instead they were originated by Bill Buxton who is currently a researcher at Microsoft Research. I first learned about Bill while reading a book called The Invisible Future: The Seamless Integration of Technology Into Everyday Life.

The reason for this momentary occurrence of awakedness (don’t know if this is a word) to the strong-specific and weak-general concepts was from an article I recently saw in FastCompany called Tracing the Evolution of Consumer Electronics. What’s Next? The article is really more of a set of family trees showing the apparent origin of certain products back in the days right after the primordial ooze. For example, the Kindle 2 traces back to the original days when, ahem, paper books and book presses were the hot thing…can you imagine that! There are many other interesting lineages for the iPhone, Blackberry, Wii/PS3/Xbox, and other devices.

The core question presented by this article is: will a single device ever unite them all? In my most humble opinion, NO FRIGGING WAY! I could be wrong on this and I’m sure there will be technological innovations that we can’t even conceive of or imagine today.

I have an iPhone (3 in fact), Kindle (2 in fact), iPods, netbooks, media center PCs, PS3, laptops, Macbook Air, Razr’s, PDAs, a drawer full of cellphones and smartphones (the graveyard of those that didn’t pass muster), digital picture frames, cordless telephones, LCD TVs, LCD monitors, other MP3 players that came and went, and I’m sure a few other devices that I’m forgetting.

I believe the primary reason for why we will ALWAYS possess an array of strong-specific devices and NO ONE device will do all of what the FastCompany article devices do is due to how we interact with the devices and applications on those devices. For example, the way we interact (and expect feedback and interaction with us) with a music player is very different than how we interact and expect interaction with our senses with a cellphone. Granted, while the iPhone is supposedly a convergence of these functions and an adaptive screen and UI will present the varying forms of interaction, I’m one of many that will state the iPhone isn’t much of a phone. If I wanted a real phone, I’d use my Razr. The iPhone is more of a weak-general device and we all know its weaknesses.

The size and Mobility Quotient are defining factors as well. If the size is larger than my cellphone (my Kindle for example) then I won’t be taking this everywhere with me so don’t bother putting music functionality (yes, it’s in the Experimental section) or voice calling into it. If the Mobility Quotient is high, then I will generally interact with it on an on-demand, “snacky” basis rather than a more dedicated, in-your-face manner as I am doing right now on my Air. While I can write this blog entry on my iPhone, only large doses of mind altering drugs will compel me to do that.

‘Nuf said. But am I all wrong on this? Can flexible or rollup displays create a truly useful weak-general, one-size-fits-all device? Can voice, gesture, or Vulcan Mindmeld new interaction models solve the “keyboard barrier” that so many devices suffer today? Are we headed towards a Nebulous Future, per the FastCompany article, where it’s not about singularly and vertically designed devices but rather a distribution of functions that collectively create the experience? For example, the compute and connectivity is always in my wristwatch, but depending on what I am intending on creating or consuming the connectivity may be vectored towards a large display or interaction modality that matches my “intention”. Who, what, or how will that “intention” be determined?

Who knows. For now, I’m just content to speculate about Apple’s tablet device being announced around CES…I MUST HAVE ONE!

Cellphone ‘o Cellphone, Where Art Thou?

ABI Research recently conducted a survey on the security issues of mobile voice calling. Specifically the concern that cellular voice calls can be either intercepted and decoded, or that the cellphones themselves can be infected and infiltrated with malware that can render it remotely accessible by a hacker or someone who wants to eavesdrop on conversations.

In Dark Reading, an article titled Most Enterprises Ignoring Mobile Voice Security, discusses the findings of the survey from ABI. It states that while mobile voice interception and its vulnerabilities are a high concern to the people surveyed, only 18% of respondents have actually implemented mobile voice encryption. One of the key triggers to this concern seems to be around the announced cracking of the A5/1 encryption for GSM voice from a hacker conference earlier this year. In addition, there will be equipment in the sub-$1000 range available to intercept and decode the over-the-air conversations.

I think there will be issues in the deployment of end-to-end mobile voice encryption.

1) The link layer encryption and authentication protocols will be in place and heavily invested by the carriers and handset OEMs.
2) Additional application layer encryption must be resident and match both ends of a voice conversation, especially in a cell-to-cell call. This will be a challenge given the plethora of handset OEMs and the additional plethora of handset models and OS variants they support.
3) The user experience will need to be completely transparent, including all the key exchange and mgmt. If the user has to doing anything more than pick the number and press Send, there will be significant user dissatisfaction. Ultimately the user just wants to have a call, not worry about security or encryption.

It seems to me that the true security concerns do in fact lay in the shoulders of the enterprise as the report states. The enterprise, whether a govt agency or a corporation, has sensitive information and communications that they can allow to be exposed due to regulatory or governmental policies, or even national security. Until the technology completely solves itself, evolves, and becomes easy to use and pervasive enough to be fully relied upon, all enterprises with this concern need to take the following measures.

A) Identify the physical areas throughout your offices and locations that represent the greatest threat if information or communications at those locations were to leak.
B) Implement a No Cellphone policy at those sensitive locations. They might include boardrooms, trading floors, stock exchanges, classified information facilities, call centers, security operations centers, executive offices or suites, etc.
C) Deploy a Cellular Location and Analytics system or service, such as from AirPatrol Corp., to detect, locate, and perform detailed analytics within a geo-fenced environment, i.e. the sensitive areas. This system can be deployed as an in-house system or service for 24×7 monitoring. Or can be selected as a one-time vulnerability assessment to take a snapshot over a short period to see how bad the problem may be.

At the end of the day, the enterprise needs to do what they can do. There will be an awful lot they won’t get the wireless operators to do for them. Security is most definitely one of those things (the enterprise services “SI” part of a carrier corporation notwithstanding). Security adds friction to increasing ARPU. The enterprise needs to take ownership over everything occurring within the confines of their domain.

Do you agree with this? Would love to get point and counterpoint on this topic.

Always Connected Criminals

I’ve written on the problem of contraband cellphones in the past and how bad of a growing concern (and public safety threat) this issue is to the respective corrections officials dealing with it. My recently, Richard Stiennon of ThreatChaos forwarded me an article who reports on a lot of news in Pakistan of how Omar Saeed Sheikh, a militant being held in Pakistan for, according to the article, his arrest in Feb 2002 for the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl, threatened the President and Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan…using his cellphone in a Hyderabad prison!

The article titled, Jailed militant’s hoax calls drove India, Pakistan to brink of war, states “‘Omar Saeed Sheikh was the hoax caller. It was he who threatened the civilian and military leaderships of Pakistan over telephone. And he did so from inside Hyderabad jail,’ investigators said. The controversy came to light after Dawn broke the story, exactly one year ago, that a hoax caller claiming to be then Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was making threatening calls to President Zardari.”

“The very next morning, Nov 29, Hyderabad jail was raided by intelligence agencies and over a dozen SIMs were recovered along with two mobile sets. Majid Siddiqui, the jail superintendent, was suspended. ‘I don’t know much but it is true that some mobile SIMs and mobile sets were recovered from Omar Saeed Sheikh when he was in Hyderabad jail.”

It’s been said before that criminals would gladly conduct their illicit enterprises from within prisons using cellphones because it’s the safest place to be. This certainly rings true of the case of Omar Saeed Sheikh whose cellphone had a SIM card from a UK wireless operator so looked like a UK cellular device roaming in Hyderabad. And over a dozen more SIMs were confiscated during a raid to obtain the contraband. This is only the scratch on the scratch of the tip of the iceberg. This problem will continue to grow without an effective technical solution to detect, track, and monitor or confiscate the contraband devices in all prisons worldwide. These Always Connected criminals will simply continue to easily obtain the same great devices and services that we as productive consumers enjoy and take for granted every day.

To Jam or Not To Jam

Today I commented on TechDirt’s article by Carlo Longino on cellphone jamming and how “no one should profit from criminals”, namely the carriers. There are not too many ways that the carriers would be able to discriminate from all the calls coming from within a correctional institution which ones are known legitimate and which ones are known or suspected illegitimate. The problem is contraband cellphones is an incredibly hard problem to solve throughout the entire world! My own company, AirPatrol Corp, is involved with channel partners in the US, Canada, South America, Western Europe, and part of AsiaPac on sales opportunities to correctional institutions for a geo-fencing system to detect and locate cellphones throughout a prison with the intention of then dispatching correctional officers to the specific locations where violations are occurring.

My specific comment on TechDirt involved an ideal solution of detect, locate, then intelligently jamming (if it’s possible) the violating cellular devices. Indiscriminate jamming won’t solve anything as it’s reactive, short term, and harmful to a huge array of authorized cellphone users both within the prison facility and possibly outside. It’s no wonder the FCC has not come up with a response to the varying pleas from correctional institutions to legalize it, or at least provide a process by which they can apply jamming on a needed basis. BTW, if a process is required to get permission to apply jamming for each occurrence determined to be warranted, then it’s already too late!

This is certainly not an easy problem to solve, but I strongly believe that a proactive sensing, location, and focused cell signal “quieting” system which can also record forensic information for prosecutorial purposes would be preferred over nondiscriminate jamming.