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'Smart' phones, stupid punters?

The extent of the failure of mobile data

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The frustration of trying to lead a turbo-cool MobileLifestyle™ has been revealed in all its button-bashing, customer service monkey-abusing lack of glory.

A survey* of 15,000 "faulty" devices by mobile data provider WDSGlobal found 63 per cent of the one in seven new phones which are returned have nothing wrong with them.

Given each return cost operators at least £35 to test, refurbish and repackage, the bill to the UK mobile industry is estimated at £54m, with the global cost weighing in at a profit-denting $4.5bn.

WDSGlobal communications chief Doug Overton said: "The mobile phone has become the poor relation to its consumer electronic cousins - MP3 players, digital cameras and mobile gaming devices all generally provide a more fulfilling out-of-box experience to the consumer."

Marek Pawlowski, mobile user experience analyst at PMN, describes the findings as "not particularly surprising". The expontential surge in take up of mobile devices has not been matched by data services, which have more limped up a linear revenue curve.

Punters expect a negative experience when buying a new phone. Apologists would argue that a modern mobile phone is closer in complexity to a laptop than an iPod, so a less intuitive user experience is inevitable.

However, so much has been staked by operators on making a success of becoming content providers and providing more services than just voice and text messaging. The risk of the value-added side of the network business now being tainted with the IT nightmare brush must be a paramount concern within the industry.

A big part of the problem lies with retailers, many of whom do not furnish staff with the expertise to advise punters properly. A mystery shopper survey found just 20 per cent of assistants were able to provide even a moderately competent description of the benefits a BlackBerry could offer. Orange is trialing a new model for its high street stores in Notting Hill, incentivising staff on how much buyers use data services once they have bought a phone, rather than paying commission on the sale itself.

Email is still the underexploited killer app for mobile data. MMS has never taken off, and six years down the line, looks like it never will. A £50 bet one industry insider made that it was doomed to failure has been called in. Perhaps networks are hoping users will pool their communications when their quadruple-play offerings touch down and so passively simplify the set-up process for mobile email.

Efforts by Vodafone to support mobile email for businesses, like dedicated expert support staff, are countered by a very "hit and miss" experience for consumers, Pawlowski said.

Overton agrees problems lie within networks as well as with GCSE-lite shop staff. There is a lack of communication between product development, which fulfills its brief by constantly churning out new offerings, and customer support.

The complications of dealing with the ensuing chaos of new settings, over-air updates, and dealing with dissatisfied users is divorced from development. Eerily, WDSGlobal's services are sold on the idea of cutting support costs.

Pawlowski says no matter where the problem sits, what matters is the user experience is broken, and the responsibility for that will always ultimately lie with operators. On all fronts there is "a long way to go". ®

*The survey of returned phones was conducted on customers of "one of the top three retailers in the UK". Spookily, Tesco mobile is "powered by WDSGlobal".

Bootnote

The impenetrability of the operators' Great White Hope was demonstrated when one veteran Reg technology journalist was forced to return a Nokia N90 to a PR agency after finding his determined attempts to download episodes of the Sugababes mobile video documentary series hopeless.

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