Thursday, April 19, 2007

Will Users Pay for Features?

Alec Saunders and David Beckemeyer are consistently worth listening to. This from David, who asks really good questions:

Fring is technically impressive, but I'm still wondering about its utility

I have mentioned Fring a few times before. The most recent post left it that I had not been able to complete the setup because I never received the SMS from Fring on my phone.

I sat down with Boaz Zilberman of Fring at VON and he was able to solve whatever glitch was happening at Fring that was preventing the SMS and I was able to get Fring 2.0 installed on my phone.

Luca Filigheddu calls Fring "the most complete multi-protocol IM VOIP client for mobile phones" and I would have to agree. That said, I still find myself asking, is it useful?

Like many other cell phone users in the US, I have GPRS data service rather than a true 3G data service with my carrier. My first experiences with Fring over GPRS were not very good. More recently, I have had much more acceptable call quality on Fring GPRS-based calls. It probably depends a great deal on signal strength - while one may be able to make a standard GSM call on a weak signal, it doesn't look like one has any chance of doing a GPRS Fring call unless the GPRS signal is very strong.

This is understandable, at least to anybody that knows the technology. I am amazed that Fring works at all over GPRS and the fact that it's possible to have a decent quality call using it is an amazing technical achievement by the Fring folks.

The entire Fring application is really well done, clean, and slick, also a nifty technical achievement.

At the same time, most customers don't care about technical achievements. They want to solve problems.

Fring is cool and the SIP support works with PhoneGnome so I will use it sometimes, but now that I have it, including SIP support (thanks Fring!), I'm still left wondering, does it really have value, not just to me, but to casual phone users?

For US calls, I already stay within my minutes so there is no cost savings opportunity to place the call via VoIP and, therefore, dialing the old-fashioned way is both more convenient and more reliable for those calls. That reliability factor is a big one, as echoed by many comments to an earlier post on the subject. Perhaps consistent is a better word. Unless I'm calling another VoIP freak, the risk of the call not working isn't worth the benefit (what benefit again?) in most cases. The situation may be different for others, say those outside the US without such a minute bundle model, or if I were making a lot of international calls. Even if that were the case, however, it would still depend on the cost of my data plan. If I'm on a data plan that charges by the Kilobyte, a VoIP call could well cost more than a GSM call. I can already make single-stage international calls using national minutes with a free phone application and my PhoneGnome (or two-stage calls with something like AllFreeCalls.net if it comes back on-line).

If I'm roaming, this is even worse (I think). Roaming fees are so complicated I'm in constant fear of accidentilly using the data channel when traveling. I always shut down any apps that use the data channel (including Fring) due to this concern. So if I'm outside my service, say in Europe, there's no way I'm going to gamble with the mobile data roaming fees and use Fring (again, the VoIP call over the data channel costs more than the same call over the voice channel). The exception would be Wi-fi, assuming I can find a cheap enough hotspot and I have a dual-mode phone (and can figure out how to work it, see this post on theN80i.

That brings up an interesting question. If a VoIP call does cost more than a plain GSM call, are some people actually willing to pay MORE to place a Skype or Fring call because of an added benefit, in particular, presence? I'm not a big Skype user myself (I'm one of those that just never had a good experience using it) and I seldom find my Fring buddies online, so I have not yet seen this to be a big advantage fo rme. However, I can see it being something to look into. That would be an interesting case. So how about it? We've always thought of VoIP as a way to save money, but might you get so much value out of knowing the party is there to take your call that you would actually PAY MORE to place a Skype or Fring call (because of the mobile data rates) because of that added value?

I know in my case, I'm more likely to place a call on my cell using VoIP to access an added capability (say like the call recording feature of PhoneGnome) than I am to use VoIP on the mobile just to save money.

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