Mobile tech, news, articles and product reviews

Author: Daniel Sherman (page 2 of 2)

EU investigation into roaming prices

The European Union Commission Thursday said it would launch a formal in-depth investigation into roaming prices charged in Germany by Vodafone Group PLC (VOD) and T-Mobile International AG (TMO.YY).

The regulators can impose fines of up to 10% of annual turnover if they find the two mobile phone companies guilty of abusing their dominant positions in the German cell phone market to set excessive prices for roaming, a service provided to cell phone users outside their home country.

In practice the levies are a fraction of the 10% limit.

The Commission said its aim was “to ensure that European consumers are not overcharged when they use their mobile phones on their travels throughout the E.U.”

E.U. officials in Brussels have been investigating T-Mobile and Vodafone since 2001.

Since the 1990s, mobile phone companies have charged higher prices for roaming than for conventional phone calls.

The E.U. Commission has been cracking down. In July it issued a threat to Vodafone and MmO2 PLC (OOM) about roaming rates in the U.K.

The problem, said E.U. spokesman Jonathan Todd, is that these companies have been overbilling foreign phone companies whose customers “roam” in Germany and the U.K.

Todd said the Commission had looked at other countries but “we established that Germany and England had the highest prices”.

E.U. competition commissioner Neelie Kroes had to absent herself from the case because she once served on the board of 02. Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso handled the case. It’s the third time Kroes has had to step down because of a conflict of interest.

Todd said that resolution of the Germany and U.K. investigations were “months away.”

As Dow Jones Newswires reported earlier this week, Vodafone has already promised the E.U. it will cut roaming charges throughout Europe this summer, according to an E.U. official who declined to be named.

When the new charges are applied, Vodafone clients will pay a flat fee for roaming calls, which will be much lower than the current charge of EUR0.89 a minute within the E.U., the official said.

Vodafone spokesman Jens Kuerten declined to comment, only saying that the company will talk about fees when it is ready.

Concerns for investors in mobile telecommunications

Slowing sales growth and increased margin pressure are shaping up to be the major concern for investors in mobile telecommunications equipment makers in 2005.

Market leader Telefon AB LM Ericsson’s (ERICY) fourth quarter 2004 gross margins Thursday came in below expectations in the face of intense competition. The company said the effect was specific to the fourth quarter – an assertion some investors appeared to doubt as the shares were marked down 7.8% to close at SEK20.20.

Market research firm Gartner forecasts the market for mobile network gear, which accounts for the majority of sales, will grow 5% in 2005.

That compares with estimated 10% growth in 2004, which helped major players show good revenue growth and recovering earnings to offset massive losses and falling revenue in previous years. Ericsson’s shares were up 64% in 2004.

Ericsson projects the market growing between 2% and 5% – both Gartner and Ericsson measure in dollars – and Gartner analyst Jason Chapman said he sees industry margins coming under pressure short term as there will still be a fairly high proportion of hardware sales during at least 2005.

Hardware sales typically attract lower margins than software. Competition for new contracts is fierce and vendors are forced to accept wafer-thin margins, hoping to increase them over time.

“Later, margins should be helped by a growing share of software as upgrades to third generation equipment show up in sales,” Chapman added.

Currently many new networks are being rolled out generating sales of hardware such as base stations and other network equipment. In emerging markets such as Russia, India and Brazil it’s primarily second generation networks using Global Systems for Mobile communications technology that is driving sales. In Europe, third generation network rollouts are now taking place on a large scale.

In connection with the fourth quarter earnings releases Alcatel SA (ALA), Nokia Corp. (NOK) and Ericsson all said that margins have been or will likely be negatively affected by low prices on some new orders the companies have signed for rolling out those networks.

Analysts are worried about the implications of these signs of margins weakness.

“We remain concerned that margins, both gross and earnings before interest and taxes, will remain under pressure through 2005,” said CSFB in a comment to Ericsson’s fourth-quarter earnings.

The bank sees Ericsson’s operating margin coming down to 20% in 2005 from 22% in 2004.

CSFB added that the mobile systems market remains one of the most competitive global industries.

Number two player Nokia said after its fourth-quarter earnings release on Jan. 27 that its targeted 14% operating margin in the infrastructure business will likely not be met short term, also blaming new network rollouts.

Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola Inc. (MOT), Alcatel and Lucent Technologies Inc (LU) showed a combined 14.5% sales growth from its mobile infrastructure and services businesses in 2004 measured in euros, according to calculations by Dow Jones Newswires.

Measured in dollars that growth was around 26%, implying that the major vendors gained market share at the expense of smaller ones.

Ahead, sales growth is seen being higher for services related to mobile infrastructure than for the gear itself. Ericsson said it sees the services market growing 10% in 2005.

Siemens AG (SI) no longer discloses figures for the mobile networks unit and Nortel Networks Ltd (NT) has yet to disclose its full year 2004 earnings due to accounting problems.

Watch TV While on the Run

New services let you watch TV on your mobile phone, but it may be tough on your eyes.
Tired of gabbing, writing text messages, and playing games on your mobile phone to kill time? Try watching some TV.

I’ve done just that for the past two weeks. And the experience has been, well, entertaining, to be honest.
Let me say from the start that I’m not a big TV viewer, but when I view, it’s generally in one of three areas: news, sports, and movies. All three are available in the Live portal of German network operator Vodafone D2, one of Europe’s first operators to offer a mobile TV service.

The mobile TV offering, designed especially for higher-speed 3G (third-generation) phones, currently offers a series of rotating shows, a sports channel that gives a roundup of the Saturday games shortly after they’ve finished, a news channel updated four times a day, and full-length movies. Live news or sports coverage is not available today but is technically possible and likely to be offered in the not-too-distant future, according to Vodafone D2.

Put to the Test
Because mobile TV is about viewing on the go, I checked out the service in a car, train, and streetcar. Reception in all three was fine as long as I remained in a 3G cell–which meant that when I recently boarded a train in Frankfurt, I lost reception shortly outside of the city. That’s a shame because I think many train commuters (and Germany has plenty of them) would readily use the mobile TV service.

Third-generation coverage is still spotty because most operators in Europe, including Vodafone D2, are initially concentrating on big cities. However, coverage will be gradually extended to major roadways and railways, and later to smaller communities.

The streetcar test was interesting. I found nearly everyone standing near me in the crowded compartment trying to get a peek of what I was watching: the N24 news channel.

The highway test was a lesson in itself. I let my young boys, who are under 12, view some programs on the phone–Motorola’s sleek E1000–while I sped around the autobahn near Dusseldorf. They went wild. So, there’s a toy for kids on long trips, I guess, but not only: drivers caught in hours-long traffic jams (not uncommon in Germany) should be interested, too.

Mobile TV, of course, isn’t just for people physically on the move; it’s also intended for those waiting for a train or taking a coffee break or even sitting in a cab waiting for a passenger. I asked a cab driver what he thought about the service after I tested it during a ride. “Nice,” he said. “Really nice, but I doubt I can afford it.”

Paying the Price
For sure, pricing will be crucial to the success of mobile TV. Although the service is currently free as a promotion, in April Vodafone D2 will begin charging about $4 per hour after the first two free hours as part of the monthly subscription fee, which, depending on the volume of minutes, ranges from $26 to $125. However, more differentiated fees, such as pay per view, pay per time, pay per news, or sporting event, are in the making.

For kids, those fees can add up quickly but they’re not the primary target group, according to Vodafone D2, which sees the most potential in 20- to 30-year olds, as well as businesspeople in that age bracket and older.

Noteworthy Note Takers for PDAs

PhatPad and BugMe add pizzazz and pictures to handheld memos.

I generally don’t use my PDA for taking notes, much less for drawing. But maybe that’s because I’ve never had the tools to make the effort worthwhile. I’ve recently been playing with two note-taking apps–PhatPad on Hewlett-Packard’s Pocket PC Phone Edition-based IPaq H6315, and BugMe on my PalmOne Treo 600–and I’m impressed by how much they expand the capabilities of these handhelds.

Both PhatWare’s PhatPad 1.3 and Electric Pocket’s BugMe let you scribble or draw with your stylus in colors and stroke widths you select. Both also let you attach alarms to those notes–hence the name of Electric Pocket’s app, I imagine. And both include tools for sharing those notes by turning them into image files and saving them to a memory card or e-mailing them from a connected handheld. The two apps do have a few differentiating features, however.

Pocket Phat
Click here to view full-size image.The $20 PhatPad requires Windows CE 3.0 or later. Basically, this means the app can run only on Pocket PCs of vintage 2000 or later. When you launch PhatPad you get a list of notes you’ve previously saved; you can either work on one of those, or start a new note.

By default, new notes start on a background that looks like a sheet of lined notebook paper. But you can change the background color by tapping on Options in the Tools menu and choosing from among five options. You can also either eliminate the lines (by unchecking Horizontal Grid in the View menu) or add vertical ones to make the sheet look like graph paper (by checking Vertical Grid in the View menu). I couldn’t see a way to change the grid size, however.

A zoom tool in the View menu lets you see the whole note, but everything gets very small. The default is a partial view of the sheet with scroll bars on the bottom and the right side to navigate to off-screen areas.

Colors and Shapes
PhatPad is reasonably generous in its ink palette, letting you choose from 39 colors. A handy button alongside the palette icon brings up your stroke width options: from skinny (1 point) to thick (9 points), with every point size between.

Need some help refining your doodles? Click Correct Shapes in the Tools menu and it tidies up your circles, squares, and triangles–at least, some of them. It ignored some of my larger circles, but did fine with the smaller ones.

Another nifty feature: You can select part of your note or drawing using a selection tool, then switch to a move tool and drag the selected material around the screen. A Text Note option in PhatPad’s View menu divides the screen in two, so you can enter text in the upper half using your preferred Pocket PC text input method. The lower part of the screen remains available for drawing. And even without using Text Note, if you also purchase PhatPad’s Calligrapher handwriting recognition software for Pocket PCs, you can turn handwritten notes on PhatPad into editable text: You jot down a note, select your handwriting, click Recognize in the Tools menu, and Calligrapher turns the handwriting into text that you can edit or copy-and-paste into another program. Bought separately, Calligrapher costs $30. But through the end of August, PhatWare is offering Calligrapher and PhatPad as a bundle for $45, a $5 savings. I didn’t have Calligrapher, so I can’t vouch for its efficacy.

My biggest hassle with PhatPad had to do with the way the application interacted with the text input tools in Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC Phone Edition (the latest version of Microsoft’s Pocket PC software). Basically, I had difficulty making the OS’s tools go away so that the PhatPad screen wasn’t diminished by a text input area or software keyboard when I was just trying to draw a diagram with a few jotted notations. Somehow the app didn’t seem to realize that the Windows Mobile text input area wasn’t needed. The Transcriber (which does handwriting recognition on the fly for most apps) has the smallest screen footprint–but when I turned it on, it tried to recognize my scribbles and, when it couldn’t, made them disappear.

The problem is, PhatPad won’t let Transcriber or any other text input tool work in a regular drawing: They will work only in a Text Note area, if you choose to create one. I finally figured out how to get rid of Transcriber (tap on the X at the right side of the toolbar) so I could get back to working on my diagram.

Overall, I’d say PhatPad dovetails nicely with the Pocket PC’s general corporate orientation by providing the tools to create simple diagrams and sketches with editable text annotations.

Annotations, Anyone?
Electric Pocket makes versions of BugMe for several smart phones and PDAs. I tried out the $20 Palm OS 5 version, and found it to be a bit more ambitious than PhatPad, especially in terms of its graphics tools. (There’s a separate version for handhelds based on earlier versions of the Palm OS.)

The extras start with a selection of graphics tools reminiscent of those in Microsoft Windows’ venerable Paint utility. In addition to a pen for freehand drawing, there are tools for drawing straight lines, squares, and circles; creating filled circles and squares; and filling any enclosed area with color.

BugMe clip art
Unlike PhatPad, BugMe comes with a selection of clip art–arrows, balloons and the like–that you can use in your drawings. A panning tool lets you move these elements around; it also works with text that you can add anywhere on your note by choosing a text tool. But you can’t select and move your own drawings the way you can with PhatPad. If you choose the panning tool and place the stylus on anything but a text block or clip art, it moves the entire note instead.

BugMe tools
But what I really like about BugMe is that you can use it with something other than a blank screen–a photo or a map, for example. I was able to select one of the images I’d captured with my Treo 600’s camera and annotate it using the entire range of BugMe tools, even adding text using the Treo’s keyboard.

However the Treo’s lack of native support for Graffiti meant I couldn’t try out another BugMe feature: It can create screen shots of any Palm app. To do this you use Graffiti’s command stroke (a diagonal sweep from lower left to upper right) on the screen you want, then launch BugMe and tap an icon that completes the screen capture. You can then annotate the image the same way you can annotate photos.

BugMe dialer
Another neat feature: If you type a phone number, e-mail address, or URL from your contact list into your note, BugMe recognizes it and creates a link. Tap that link and it either dials the number, initiates a blank e-mail message, or activates the browser to view the Web site on a connected PDA. You can also e-mail notes within BugMe from a list of saved notes.

BugMe’s 24-color palette is slightly less extensive than PhatPad’s, and it has fewer stroke options (six, varying in shape as well as size). There’s no handwriting recognition option, either. Still, I’m finding it a fun addition to my Treo: If nothing else, I’ll be sending some interesting digital postcards when I travel.