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as the first mobile operator in german-speaking countries t-mobile germany is introducing push-to-talk, a walkie-talkie functionality for GSM phones (given that the handset supports it). in addition to push-a-button-and-speak (and remain silent while the other side pushes) plus one-to-many-communication, the most interesting feature is presence detection: in a list of buddies on your phone’s screen you can see who’s online and in which “mode” (available, do not disturb, etc.).

i’ve tried PTT and it’s really fun (but can be intrusive: there’s no way to reject when in online mode). the US-operator nextel launched the technology already back in 1996. they claim it has increased their voice traffic between 2002 and 2003 by 37% and to make 20% of revenues with it. sounds like the next big thing, especially among the young, who already now spend most of their budget on SMS, ringtones and wireless chat, probably the target group t-mobile is aiming at. all big european operators have announced to launch or test the technology.

yet on the other hand there are indicators PTT might become stranded investment, due to some flaws of the model t-mobile (and most other operators) chose:

  • latency: t-mobile sends PTT (correctly speaking that’s called PoC – push-to-talk over cellular) as voice-over-IP. nextel on the other hand (being on a non-GSM and non-CDMA network) uses two-way radio. in difference to nextel’s PTT, PoC shows latency between messages, making the whole service less usable. disappointed customers of verizon who launched PoC last year have already dubbed it ‘PoC – piece of crap’.
  • target group: nextel’s PTT is mainly used by corporate customers, eg. to communicate with field staff, just the way walkie-talkies are used. success potential among a – supposed – teenage target group has yet to be proven.
  • interoperability: what doesn’t matter too much for nextel’s corporate customers is a possible showstopper for private customers: PTT doesn’t yet work accross operators and between handset from different manufacturers. MMS teaches us a lesson there. while european operators seem to buy those hardware-based solutions lacking interoperability, some asian operators such as hutchison india use J2ME-based solutions that work accross networks and even on legacy handsets, in this case fastchat. the problem there is just to get it installed on the handset, manufacturers will be unwilling to pre-install.

of course there are more success factors such as reasonable pricing, avoidance of clutter (MMS for example “does” far too much), permission-based buddylists and a usable interface. also clever integration with existing PC-based instant messaging networks and well-done operator-websites (with web-based communities) can create the needed momentum.

i expect more operators to launch PTT very soon. it will be a tough challenge, i hope their marketing departments have learned the lessons from the introduction of MMS and WAP.

update dec. 17th: mobilkom austria seems to have understood the target group issue, at least they’re running a test with the vienna police dept.


 

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[…] Ein Ausritt in meine Mobilfunkvergangenheit: Vor knapp vier Jahren führte T-Mobile Deutschland Push-to-Talk ein, eine Walkie-Talkie-Funktion für Handys. Ein Mobilfunkbetreiber, den ich damals beriet, versprach sich von der Technologie Big Business im Jugendmarkt. Meine Analyse des Produkts war hingegen weniger optimistisch: Push-to-Talk, a delicate issue. […]

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