redesign | mobile: Why Google’s MVNO is unlikely to make a huge impact

The Information reported that Google will be launching an MVNO, reselling wireless service from the Sprint and T-Mobile networks. This has little chance of making a significant impact on the U.S. wireless market.

What is an MVNO?

To understand what Google is doing, it’s important to understand what an MVNO is. The acronym stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. These are companies that buy network service from companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon at wholesale prices and then resell them to consumers at retail prices. Often, these prices are much lower for low-usage customers than the big brand names. The MVNO handles pricing, packaging, marketing, billing and customer service. (This is a simplification.)

Why do MVNOs exist?

There are three big reasons:

  1. Carriers suck at specialty marketing. Virtually all of carrier marketing is focused on the mass market. Going after smaller segments isn’t their thing. With MVNOs, they let someone else handle that. Consumer Cellular (one of my favorites) targets seniors. Tracfone targets lower income customers. Even retailers like Target (Brightspot) and Walmart (StraightTalk) have their own mobile brands.
  2. Carriers are focused on increasing ARPU, because that’s what Wall Street looks at. If you look at what gets marketed, it’s typically plans that start at $100. Their financials can separate retail from wholesale ARPU.
  3. Carriers have excess network capacity and want to make money for it.

What Google lacks

  • Customer service. This is something that the company is not known for; although its service reputation isn’t nearly as bad as PayPal’s, it is a brand associated with little to no service. (To be fair, I had a great experience with Google Drive phone support.)
  • Retail. Google has no retail experience to speak of. There is a reason there is a wireless company store or three every block in urban areas — it works! Even Apple has its own, highly lauded distribution network.
  • Marketing. Having a hugely successful product with almost no marketing has resulted in Google’s almost complete inability to market products. See: Google Wallet, Nexus, Google TV, Google+…

Some have compared a Google MVNO with Google Fiber. Yes, both are in communications. But Google Fiber is bringing something unique to customers — extremely high speeds. A Google MVNO would have no such differentiation. Being on lesser networks would also make it harder to draw customers from the big two, substantially limiting the market.

It’s extremely bold for Google to try an MVNO. It’s something that not even Apple or Amazon has attempted. And both companies are much better at customer service and retail.

redesign | apple: What’s wrong with how Siri is responding to a request to send a message?

The big issue here is that Siri says “I’ll send your message.” Was it sent? Or is it stuck somewhere? Will it be sent immediately or 10 minutes from now?

The interface doesn’t reflect that the message was ever sent.

Apple does things like this because they want Siri to appear conversational. In some cases, it responds “Done.” to the same command. If you were to ask a friend 10 times to do something, the response each time might vary: “Yup” “Got it” “Done” “I’ll do it.” etc. That makes sense when you’re talking to a human. Not so much when you want predictability from your phone.

From redesign’s Victor Marks:

Bonus points for this comment:

Apple clears the message information off the screen and wastes a lot of real estate.

redesign | google: What’s the most obvious thing wrong with this Google Maps experience?

Google is telling us “No route found”. This a fairly simple request, from my location to Target. But Google didn’t check to see if there was connectivity before presenting the error message. This shows a common problem in UX design.

Such error messages should come from the server, not presented locally. If there isn’t connectivity, the user should be told to check connectivity or turn off airplane mode.

Android can detect airplane mode directly. I couldn’t find a similar check for iOS, but the app could test for connectivity in other ways.

From redesign’s Victor Marks:

And:

redesign | apple: How would you improve this iMessage experience?

There are three keys to solving this puzzle:

  • The hashtag #lowbandwidth.
  • The E indicator in the status bar, showing that the phone is on and Edge network.
  • The stuck “Sending…” indicator.

My answer here is to fall back to SMS when the data network doesn’t work. Apple has created its own messaging system that runs over your phone’s data connection. In most cases, this is good. It allows Apple to deliver a richer set of features, free international messaging and can be faster.

But SMS is more robust because it uses a separate signaling channel. (This is why you should use SMS in emergency situations.)

One of my frustrations with a lot of mobile design is that it ignores low-bandwidth use cases. That’s important for areas where there is sparse coverage. It’s also important if you want your app to work reasonably well in international markets.

Some other answers from Twitter:

This really works best in normal- or high-bandwidth situations. Pre-fetching also uses data that a user on a metered data plan might not want to use.

I use Glympse for this, largely out of habit. But the latest version of iOS does include sending location.

redesign | ux: How would you improve this Google Maps experience?

This quiz if focused on the items shown in the picture, specifically Budget and Avis. (Judging from the Twitter answers, that was unclear.)

Frequent travelers often rent cars. This involves picking up the car and eventually returning the car. Google could automatically track where you began your rental (in my case, Avis). When you want to return to the airport, instead of directing you to the airport terminal, it could automatically guide you back to the rental car return. One way to do this is to use GPS trace data. i.e. look at the paths of people who have rented from Avis and look at where they return the car.

Bonus points for showing me the last gas station on the route so that I don’t get stuck paying $9 a gallon to have the car rental company refill the tank. (Travel tip: You should almost never accept the prepaid fuel option.)

Some Twitter answers that reflect other issues with Google Maps.

redesign | travel: Travel gear 2007 vs. 2015

I’ve been traveling all of my professional life. As the years have passed, so have the tools I use when I travel.

Here are my 2007 travel gadgets:

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And now:

IMG_20150111_101218Many of the things in the top picture have been consolidated into my iPhone 6:

  • Garmin navigation GPS/Palm.
  • Garmin hiking GPS.
  • iPod.
  • Phone.
  • USB sticks (I just mail or cloud the contents).

Others have been obviated by technology. I no longer carry Ethernet cables or the router to provide WiFi for me.

My current line up includes:

  • GoPro and accessories. (This is a ski trip; not taken for pure business trips.)
  • A bunch of cables and accessories stored in a GridIt.
  • A Lumix DMC-FZ70. 60x optical zoom FTW. (Don’t usually bring my DSLR.)
  • A power strip. Great for sharing power with others at airports.
  • A SOL Republic Punk speaker. (It’s smaller than a Jambox.)
  • A nano SIM cutter. I use this only on international trips, but it’s small enough to leave in my travel bag.
  • Car power adapter. Always be charging!
  • A 5-port USB charger. Always be charging! This one has a separate cable to deal with tricky hotel room situations.
  • Massive Mophie. Always be charging!
  • LiveScribe 3. It’s the real deal for note taking and syncs great with Evernote.
  • An Asus Chromebook. Unlike my MacBook Air, I won’t be heartbroken if I lose it at security.
  • iPad mini 3.
  • iPhone 6.

I’d probably ditch the Chromebook, but Google gives you 12 free gogo passes with each Chromebook. That alone is worth more than the cost of the Chromebook. Having it lets me stay productive in the air.

redesign | tech: My top 10 evaluation criteria for a smart watch

I’ve been testing both Pebble Steel and Motorola’s Moto 360 for the past few days. That’s got me thinking about what’s important to me in a smart watch. My top 10 evaluation criteria for a smart watch are:

  1. Compatibility with iOS, as my primary phone is the iPhone 6.
  2. Battery life.
  3. Notifications of important events. I find the most valuable part of a smart watch is the ability to discreetly check email and phone calls. I was in a meeting with a Pebble VC last month and neither of us noticed that we had been checking our watches.
  4. Price.
  5. Style.
  6. Ease of use.
  7. Fitness features such as step counting and heart rate.
  8. Lack of annoyance to others.
  9. Ability to change style quickly (i.e., from fancy occasions to casual outings).
  10. Tells the time.

I haven’t worn a watch regularly since 1998, but I’m willing to start for the right smart watch.

What am I missing? What is important to you in a smart watch?