Thursday, 15 January 2009

The lure of dual-mode mobile phones

I've just arrived back in London after an enlightening few days in New York around the National Retail Foundation's annual retail conference "NRF 2009".

I met some very interesting people and was delighted to give a presentation to them alongside Lisa Fretwell, Cisco UK's Director, Retail & Consumer Products, and Jon Stine, director of Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) focused on the retail market. Cisco are of course known for their innovative networking products and it's no surprise to me that the majority of routers and switches serving the Internet come from this company.

Lisa and Jon invited me to join them in giving a presentation on an innovative subject which has been pleasantly niggling the back of my mind for some time now:

The more I look at the mobile phone offers available to the consumer, the more I notice the prevalence of "dual mode" phones. These offer both cellular and wifi connectivity enabling the user to surf the web, access emails, even place Voice over IP phone calls using either their cellular or wifi connection.

I have both my Apple iPhone 3G and Nokia E61, both of which can perform these cellular/wifi tasks with ease. I have owned the E61 for two years now and its total reliability in the face of the experience I have put it through (dropping, bending, genarally sitting on it and more) is impressive.

And I mean impressive! What other consumer-grade gadget is put through the horrendous wrangler of daily life that a mobile phone is subjected? What other consumer-grade gadget of the complexity of a mobile phone has the survivability and 24/7 reliability of a mobile phone?

And yet... as a retail organization Tesco prepares itself to spend many thousands of pounds on gadgets for store use specific to singular task or two (for example, stock checking). These portable barcode scanners, industrial quality pocket pcs and other devices that do one thing. They do it well but they can cost several times as much as an unlocked 'full price' dual-mode mobile phone.

So here's my question: Why not use a dual-mode mobile phone to perform these tasks? Roam the phone onto the wifi network and use the myriad software features available to such phones (such as the built-in camera) to scan barcodes, and run the applications as web-based 'software as a service' applications, or downloadable Java applications? These applications would only function (or be available) when the phone roams onto the in-store wifi network.

More: why not stop paying for devices altogether and get staff to use their own dual-mode phone?! People tend to look after their own devices more than someone elses - it's human nature (do you really look after a hire car as well as your own car?!).

So get staff to use their own dual-mode phones with applications that only work in-store. Provide security so a staff member has to have their phone registered (MAC address and more) to work on the in-store network. And then give them a £5 towards their call-credit each month if they do use their phone for work purposes!

Suddenly the cost of acquisition, depreciation, and maintenance of devices just goes away... do you like this idea yet?!

OK, don't stop there! Get customers to use their own mobile phones for all kinds of useful services when they walk into the store and can roam onto the internal wifi network too. Imagine a customer being able to open their web browser and use a product locator service when they are in the store - it could save both customer and staff time. Better yet, how about they upload a basket of items to the company web site before they leave home, then get their mobile phone to access a service that gets them round the store 'sat-nav' style in the quickest time?

OK so the devil is in the detail. But it's not a big devil. Let's think of the customer experience here:
  1. They arrive at the front of the store
  2. They see a sign that says:
    Use our wifi - start your browser and select 'Tesco' from your Wifi list'.
  3. They duly open their browser which causes the phone to list the available access points and they choose 'Tesco'.
  4. Their web browser tries to get to whatever home page the customer has set up - but is of course directed to a 'landing page' much the same way that you see a landing page when accessing the internet through a hotel wifi service, and you have to provide your credentials and possible payment details to proceed.
  5. The landing page offers services such as 'find a product' and, once marketing get this idea, a whole host of marketing messages.
OK, that's enough for now but I'll explore this idea further in the coming days.
This is going to be good.


  1. Nick,

    I work in Dundee CSC in the Direct BST but I have been "opn the phones" for GHS, CC, Store Reception and obviously Direct.

    These ideas are very exciting!

    I've followed your blog or a while, loved the Microsoft developers presentations.And the API!
    All great ideas!

    One of my colleagues suggested another idea.
    On the grocery site, the cust has a basket which has a running total exc discounts etc. How about cust's use the barcode scanner idea and have something like that?

  2. Hi Nick,

    Have heard you quite long time ago during a session in France (mail order company exhibit).

    First of all, I'm also an E61 addict, and since 3 months an E71 one. Believe me, this one is even better...

    You're right, the devil is in the detail (hmm, retail ?, sometimes ;-) ...

    Whenever you're talking about customers'phones ou employees ones, you'll get very soon concerned by privacy. You took the car rental example. I propose you another one, your family car : you can use your own car for GOING working not FOR working...unless you get paid for it.

    In my opinion, that's the key point : customers or employees will need/ask to be financially interested.
    Like an equipment credit for a selection of "dual" smartphone or pda, following the strict security policy of the IT Dpt.
    And for customer, a loyalty scheme taking in count the equipement (?).

    Well, as you said, all this is definitely interesting !

  3. Nick, Nice discussion piece, but with respect maybe you are barking up the wrong tree with wifi/dual mode. We must remember that busy mums with babies do lots of the shopping, and they are not going to mess around with their phones. If we are asking them to use their phone - the experience needs to be stupid simple :-).

    Think SMS and Picocells/geolocation maybe?

    Happy to chat.

  4. Nick, I have cross posted this at

    I think you make this overly complicated for the average Tesco user.

    I have an E71 and 2 Master's degrees but I still have problems connecting to WiFi access points.

    Why not let consumers access these "special offers" via their standard mobile internet connection BEFORE they get to the store - and enjoy the full utility of the mobile in their journey and experience on the way to the Tesco store.

    It's got to be something my mum could do or your standard Tesco shopper won't even bother.

  5. Target in US is doing great job in taking advantage of mobile internet.
    I was in US during Black Friday,
    instead of blind hunting I found closest store with highest stock on items on sale. Website even gave me directions.

    As for the store wifi... forget about wifi install couple of femto or picocells and you dont have to worry about mac/wifi configuration
    just use phone numbers to enable access


As this blog grows in readership - and because it carries the Tesco brand - I have had to become more careful about the sort of comments that are acceptable. The good news is that I'm a champion of free speech so please be as praising or as critical as you wish! The only comments I DON'T allow through are:

1. Comments which criticise an individual other than myself, or are critical of an organisation other than Tesco. This is simply because they cannot defend themselves so is unfair and possibly libellous. Comments about some aspect of Tesco being better/worse than another equivalent organisation are allowed as long as you start by saying "in my personal opinion.." or "I think that...". ... followed by a "...because.." and some reasoned argument.

2. Comments which are totally unrelated to the context of the original article. If I have written about a mobile app and you start complaining about the price of potatoes then your comment isn't going stay for long!

3. Advertising / web links / spam.

4. Insulting / obscene messages.

Ok, rules done - now it's your go: