Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Communications as Consumer Electronics

As more and more mass market communications gear becomes an extension of the consumer electronics business, more of the rules of that business start to apply. Among the key rules are: keep the price low, make it simple to use, address a real need, design attractively, build retailer relationships and adhere to standards because one requires volume. Every January, hundreds of new products are shown at the Consumer Electronics Show, and most of them fail.

So consider MobiGater, a USB device that transfers Skype calls to a mobile phone without using SkypeOut credits. The €270 ($370) box works like any other plug-and-play USB device. Once connected to your desktop computer, all Skype calls are redirected to a mobile. Heavy mobile users in markets with high costs might find the gizmo worth buying and using. But there will be issues. It always is tough to sell a peripheral that costs as much as the processor the peripheral is supposed to be used with.

The user requires an additional SIM card for the MobiGator, so while the Skype call might be free, there's the cost of the mobile SIM cards to deal with. The historic tipping point number for a popular consumer electronics device used to be $300, so MobiGater remains just a bit on the high side. On the other hand, recent sales of high definition flat panel TV displays have broken clear of the $300 mark.

The longer term problem is simply that the cost of calling, and the effort one has to put into reducing those charges using Skype and MobiGater, simply don't solve a big enough problem to drive mass adoption in many markets and customer segments. VoSky has a similar product aimeda the home and small office user. VoSky's Internet Phone Wizard allows users to make Skype calls from anywhere with a cordless or regular phone instead of the computer speakers.

The Internet Phone Wizard also supports outbound Skype calling from the regular handset. PSTN is the default. A couple of key taps switches the phone to Skype mode. The device also can be used to create a virtual second line.

Still, the consumer electronics market is brutal. Most products fail, or succeed only quite modestly, in some niches. To really change end user behavior requires a huge carrot in terms of advantage. There's no question the MobiGater and VoSky devices are useful to some people with high calling costs and heavy mobile use. It just isn't so clear there's a mass market for either.

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