Hello, hello??? Skype, the VoIP fiascos and the UAE’s telcos (oh, and also the TRA)

Skype may be finally available by accident in the UAE but I doubt that Du took action after listening to the consumer. In fact, does anyone in the UAE’s telco sector listen to what consumers want? (Credit: Blakeandkaty.com)

Who hasn’t heard of VoIP, or voice-over-IP for those of us who are allergic to abbreviations. Or, put in a different way, who has not heard of Skype? The software, which allows users to call other users for free over the internet or call phone lines for (usually) lower fees than it’d cost to use a telecommunications operator, is the most popular VoIP software on the market today. Skype is free, it can be downloaded in a matter of minutes, and it’s incredibly handy. Skype and other software products have been out for what seems like an eternity (Skype was released in 2003 and I’ve been using it since 2004) but all of this malarkey might have passed you by if you lived in the UAE. Why? Well, let’s put it this way, Skype may cost the UAE’s two telecommunication companies quite a bit of cash and so it and other VoIP products designed for public consumption have been banned in the country.

The UAE’s telcos, Du and Etisalat, and the country’s official body for the industry, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, have played a merry dance with consumers to sidestep the issue. In a series of flip-flops that would make any politician proud the TRA took the lead in terms of banning Skype only to change its stance in 2010 when the body claimed that the country’s telco operators were free to license VoIP solutions.

Of course the telcos didn’t take any action, Skype’s website remained blocked and while people could download the software via third-party providers you wouldn’t be able to charge your account and make net-to-phone calls without a friend loading our account from outside of the UAE (the exception used to be the Free Zones where Skype was for a time in 2004-2006 unblocked – of course this changed in due course).

After years of talk and no action, something strange was spotted by the hawks at the National newspaper this week. Skype’s website was accessible for people who used the internet service provided by Du; they could open accounts and load money onto the service. The original article is here and is worth a read. The country’s other ISP Etisalat is still blocking Skype.

The mystery deepened the next day after the media rushed to Du for a quote. While initially tight-lipped Du did release a statement as follows:

“There has been no change in the treatment of VoIP traffic, including Skype, on our networks.”

So, Skype is available from Du. It can be used to make calls and yet there’s been no change. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I’m sure the confusion over the issue will continue for some time. Microsoft, Skype’s owner, claims to not know what is going on. And there’s no suggestion that Etisalat, the other larger ISP, will unblock the service any time soon. If anything is a lesson in bad communications then this should be it.

Let me contrast this with the rest of the region, where Skype is freely available and not blocked. And don’t even get me started on Apple’s Facetime which is also not available in the UAE and yet accessible across the rest of the GCC.

A decade after its release and we’re still no closer to understanding when VoIP software will be freely available to use in the UAE. Even the launch of Blackberry’s Z10, which uses a solution called BBM Voice to make and receive calls over data networks (ala VoIP), was apparently delayed by the UAE’s refusal to allow use of the programme in the country. And I quote:

On Sunday afternoon, BlackBerry announced that the phone would still go on sale, but it was confirmed that the BBM Voice would not be available when the device was launched.

“We are currently in talks with BlackBerry on launch of BBM Voice and Video services,” Farid Faraidooni, chief commercial officer of Du, said in an emailed statement. “We shall soon commence testing phase to assure the right consumer experience. We remain committed towards launching new and innovative services that add value to customers in the UAE marketplace.”

Etisalat could not be reached for comment.

For a country that prides itself on being a hub for the region’s tech sector I’ve always found this issue embarrassing. It smacks of greed, of protectionism, and of not wanting to adapt to today’s technology where it will impact revenues. In other markets such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the regulatory body acts on behalf of the consumer. Unfortunately, we’re some way off that concept here. So for now, I’ll be using my Skype as much as possible. I’m hoping that all of you good people in the UAE will join me online and on Skype sooner rather than later.

Has Nokia refound its mojo? And is Microsoft responsible?

Years ago, there was only one, the phone to rule all phones. No body ever asked for a phone. They asked for a Nokia. Saudi Arabia was the land of Nokia. And the rest of the Gulf wasn’t far behind. One tale I was told about the Finnish phone behemoth was that Saudi was the largest market worldwide for Nokia’s Communicator series of phones.

Saudi ten years back. Yes, Saudis loved their Nokia Communicators (this isn’t a Communicator but they’re about the same size).

And the came Apple, followed by Samsung, HTC, Blackberry and other mobile devices of all shapes and form. And Nokia was no longer the same company that it was before.

But then, there was a change. Nokia came together with Microsoft. And something new was born.

The Lumia 920 in all its glory. Yellow is optional.

The portents didn’t speak well for the partnership between the two companies. I remember owning a Windows-based SPV phone about ten years ago. While the phone did last, it wasn’t the easiest device to use. Microsoft hasn’t had a good track record when it comes to mobile operating systems. And Nokia’s Symbian has died a death. How would the two companies compete with Apple’s iOS software and Google’s Android platform?

As a reformed optimist and a gadget monster I took the plunge and ordered a new Nokia Lumia 920 on its release last month. I liked the look of the hardware – the Lumia has a 768 by 1280 pixel screen which is slightly larger than the iPhone 4, a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor, 32Gb of storage, an eight megapixel Carl Zeiss lens camera, NFC, Bluetooth, HSDPA and HSUPA connectivity and all the Wi-Fi that you’d need. The phone is chunkier than most, weighing in at 185 grams and with a dimension of 130.3 by 70.8 and 10.7mm, but I like my phones chunky and plumpy.

Going beyond the hardware, what I liked most about the new Nokia Windows-based lineup was the software. The operating system is simple to use with tiles on the front page to heavily-used applications and functions. The front screen can be easily customized to meet the needs of the user, it’s intuitive and copying files to and from the phone is so simple (though Microsoft still needs to work on the Windows Phone app which tends to crash when copying music). I can also sync files to my desktop and laptop using Microsoft’s Skydrive. All in all, the phone’s operating system is a joy to use and Microsoft is heading in the right direction when it comes to usability (though I’d love to see more shortcut buttons or tiles.

But there’s more good stuff to come. Nokia has long been a leader in the maps space following its acquisition of Navteq in 2008. The maps on the Lumia 920 are rich with detail including 3D rendering, they’re simple to use and most importantly they’re full of detail. With Nokia Drive you can do away with any other GPS software and hardware you may use for driving. Again, the system is easy to use, the voice directions are clear and I haven’t found any glaring mistakes in terms of geography and topography.

The most fun thing about my Nokia 920 experience so far is the Nokia City Lens, which is the smartest use of augmented reality so far. Basically, the City Lens allows you to look at the screen and view what locations of interest are nearby (be they restaurants, hotel, museums, shops, or even famous sights). Once you click on a point of interest you’ll be able to view pictures, read reviews and be guided there by Nokia Maps. Much of the content on Nokia City Lens is consumer-generated, which is going to make the application even more interesting as time goes by. As my brief explanation hasn’t the app any justice have a look at the embedded video.

I have tried the camera and true to form Nokia’s cameras as wonderfully clear. There’s much more I need to play around with on the camera settings, but I leave the photography to my talented wife.

And the downside? The applications, or lack of, currently available for the phone. There’s no Instagram as of yet and no native Twitter application, Whatsapp is still unstable, and compared to the iPhone and Android-based phones Microsoft needs to do more to convince developers to create apps for Windows 8 Mobile.

Having tested the phone both at home and abroad I know that Nokia is onto a winner. The Windows 8 environment will grow and develop with time and Nokia has bet its future on the operating system (it’s only crashed twice, which is remarkable for a Microsoft device). I’d love to see Microsoft publicize the operating system more (they’ve been surprisingly quiet in talking about Windows 8 Mobile despite it being crucial to their vision of a connected PC-phone-tablet ecosystem).

The question is now, will Nokia pick itself up again in the Gulf? While Blackberry is dying a death globally, the Canadian manufacturer is still doing remarkably well in the Gulf due in part to its Blackberry Messenger Service. Apple retains bragging rights to the best smartphone around, despite (in my view) doing remarkably little with the device since the launch of the 3GS. And then there’s Google. Can anyone stop the search giant with its Android operating system?

I’m certainly hoping that Nokia comes back strong. The product is one to shout about. Will its marketing be strong and bold enough to cut through the disappointment and ambivalence that many people feel about Nokia today in the Gulf to rediscover the love affair that they once had with the Finnish giant? Toivotaan niin Nokia! Game on Apple!

Bahrain’s order to reinstate unemployed employees, students and #BHSacked

The recent events in Bahrain have been covered from a to z locally, regionally and globally. Much of the conflict between the government, its supporters and opponents has gone online. Bahrain has seen a surge in the use of social media this year both pro-government and pro-protestors.

As the conflict in Bahrain has ebbed and flowed much of the debate has gone online. One group of Bahrainis who have been particularly vocal have been those who lost their jobs and university places due to their actions and views which they expressed publicly.

This group, led in part by the medics sacked from Salmaniya Hospital and other medical institutions, have been pushing for their reinstatement. The campaign, much of which has been directed online via Twitter and Facebook, has been given added impetus by the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report which investigated human rights abuses committed following the events of 2011 in Bahrain.

In its report, on pages 406 and 407, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry called for the reinstating of those who were fired from their posts. To quote verbatim from point 1664.

More generally, the report confirmed that, following on from HM King Hamad’s Eid speech, it was decided that there would be no further dismissals when the remaining 1,423 cases were reviewed. The maximum penalty upon review would be a 10-day suspension from work and salary. In other words, 1,423 dismissals by the public bodies have been overturned by the CSB and these people have already gone back to work on normal pay.

Despite the official statements there still seem to be many on the island who have not returned to work. Protests have been ongoing before the release of the BICI report at the end of November. Activities by those demanding their reinstatement has been stepped up over the past week. These protests have been extensively covered online via social media. Using the hashtag #BHSacked protesters have extensively uploaded pictures and videos of their protests.

One of the sacked doctors today protesting outside Bahrain's Ministry of Labor

They’ve also sent their messages to prominent journalists on twitter such as @nickkristof. Check out the link for a video shot from an iPhone today at the protests outside Bahrain’s Ministry of Labor.

What’s most interesting from a corporate communications point of view is how many of those who support this group have set up their own twitter accounts in the name of companies who have laid people off, including Alba and Gulf Air. Here’s a link to one tweet from a profile called antiBatelco (I’d love to embed but Twitter still hasn’t rolled out the option yet). They’ve used company logos for their account profile pictures. None of the companies affected seems to have taken to social media to defend their actions.

So what does the government of Bahrain do? What can it do? Not much legally, seeing as the human rights commission appointed by the King himself has stated that those who were fired be reinstated to their jobs. There’s little hope that people will fade away after a period of time either. As those protesting are both unemployed and educated there’s little hope that they’ll either stop protesting or taking their cause online.

The difference today is how social media and the use of images and video can keep a campaign running and running. Both sides in Bahrain have been quick to take up the use of online tools to argue their cases. However, digital media changed who now has the most share-of-voice and influence. Social media has exacerbated that shift. A group of motivated and IT-savvy activists with a couple of iPhones and Blackberries with internet connections can now challenge their governments. Where do we go from here? For those protesting back in Bahrain, it’s to get back to work.

Google, Blackberry and Apple, where’s the Arab content?

I had the chance to sit with some very switched on and influential telecoms executives twice this week. While the first was a shin-dig for the most widely respected telecoms awards ceremony in the Middle East, CommsMEA, the other was a tea and dinner with a number of senior people from Saudi Arabia.

I love to sit down for a tea or a coffee. You hear more over a cup of warm water and a tea bag than you will ever do in an all-day meeting. The one thing that the executives were discussed was a content portal. One in particular was fed up. He told me, Blackberry and Google move too slow. All Google wants to do is sell Adwords rather than provide our country and region with a portal to sell applications.

Let me tell you a bit about apps, in case you didn’t know. Those programs that you can download to your smartphone are big business. The global leader by a mile, Apple has sold or given to iPhone owners 18 billion apps through its online store. Apple today offers over half a million apps to customers worldwide. Well, anywhere apart from the Middle East that is.

The problem for most of us consumers in this region is that we cannot pay for content online for our smartphones. Why? Because our credit and debit cards aren’t accepted by these online gateways. While consumers with a US or Europe-based credit card and address can choose from millions of songs, apps, and videos, those less fortunate souls in nearly all of the Gulf can only access free-to-download programs (the one exception is the UAE where Apple launched an online content store for local credit and debit card holders in August of this year).

What annoys telcos so much is that they’ve deployed state-of-the-art data networks based on LTE technology. In other words, they’re ready and waiting to see consumers download hundred of megabytes of data a day. Data is the next big cash cow for mobile carriers in the Middle East. So it’s annoying to see yourself all ready to go out and having no ride to get there.

But while Apple rules the roost when it comes to content, where’s Google and Blackberry? Everyone I know in this region has a Blackberry device, and yet the only application people seem to use is Blackberry Messenger or BBM for short. Similarly, Google’s Android mobile phone operating system is winning fans from across the region. So why aren’t they willing to beat Apple at its own game and roll out content stores for the region?

It’s getting to the point of desperation when operators have to develop their own online content and app store. But if that’s what it’ll take to get Google, Apple and Blackberry moving then so be it. Similarly, the more apps we shift in this region, the more content we’re actually going to get in Arabic (there’s always been a issue in the Middle East with the lack of Arabic-language applications for smartphones). The more content we have in Arabic, the more apps the operators and content owners will sell. It’s simple logic, and it’ll make lots of money. So what are you waiting for Google, Blackberry, and Apple. Where’s the Arabic content.

The only thing I’d like to know is whatever happened to Microsoft?

PS Claire good to see you at the CommsMEA event. Did you ever hire that comms director?