So the second annual Forum Oxford conference is done and dusted. We reported here a year ago about the first confernce, that many long-term experts in the industry had raved about it as having been the best event they had ever attended, including several CEO level execs. We had a very high bar to reach this time. What was so pleasing to me, was when several of the people who attended both events, said this time it was even better.
The big draw to the event was, again, the speakers. Ajit Jaokar, Peter Holland and I had worked very hard, on a volunteer basis, and managed again to find exceptional speakers from companies that are either major players (like Nokia, Vodafone, Google) or newcomers trailblazing the industry (Blyk, Xtract, Itsmy) or doing radical innovations (Fjord, Mi-Pay, MTV) hot in the news, or companies making business with the industry's hottest names (MyNuMo with iPhone, Polkomtel with Google). There were services topics, customer topics, technology topics, business topics, marketing topics and strategy topics - even some mind-boggling disruptive concepts.
So many of our audience commented to me that the speaker lineup was incredibly balanced and covering a wide range, with topical matter. Again we knew it would have an UK bias to the speakers and audience, but we had speakers from the USA, Germany, Finland, Poland, Brazil and Hong Kong. The audience included members not only from Europe but also from North America, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
And beyond the companies involved in shaping this industry, and the breaking stories happening for it; there were the speakers themselves. We had four authors (Alan Moore, Christian Lindholm, Ajit Jaokar, and myself) who have authored or co-authored a combined 9 books for the industry. We had a fantastic opening keynote by Mark Selby of Nokia. And then inspiring, passionate, deeply knowledgable - and incredibly insightful - speakers such as Jonathan MacDonald of Blyk, Luciana Pavan of MTV, Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis and Simon Cavil of Mi-Pay.
We had a remarkable audience. Two thirds were registered members of Forum Oxford, but a third of the total conference were active members at Forum Oxford who contribute to it. So a very large part of the audience were already accustomed to commenting to thoughts posed by other members of the communify. This fostered a most lively and insighful discussion at each of the Q&A sessions after the speakers. As a change from last time, we had doubled the Q&A time after each speaker, and yet we had lots more questions than we had time to take. The discussion was far more beneficial than the presentations, and featured several passionate exchanges of opinions between fellow Forum Oxford members, starting right from the second presentation, by Jonathan MacDonald of Blyk, with fellow Forox member and author Mark Curtis, the CEO of Flirtomatic, on whether their customer target group - both companies serve the youth and young adults in the UK - do or do not use the mobile internet. A most fascinating exchange of two highly respected experts giving diametrically opposing viewpoints while working in companies that have grown dramatically in the same market niche. Beautiful. This is what a conference is at its finest.
And of the conference, what level of competence and thought-leadership. A full 25% of the audience were CEOs or Managing Directors by job title. We had several authors and many leading mobile bloggers again at the event.
Again like last year, the fact that we got so many such high calibre experts into the same place at the same, resulted also in the breaks being a beehive of activity, with intense conversations and introductions and business being exchanged. Again as a response to last time, we lengthened the breaks and still, the crowd was so involved in the discussions, we had trouble herding them back to continue the event at each break. To illustrate how intense the dialogue was, more than half of the total conference stayed on to the drinks reception after the event - bearing in mind that this was a Friday evening, and most Brits at the event would need to go home often at considerable commute. Two hours later, when the bar closed, we still had more than a dozen continuing the vivid discussions and only then they broke up into smaller groups heading for dinner.
SPEAKERS AND SOME HIGHLIGHTS
I cannot hope to do justice to the full event by fairly commenting on the speakers, as I was co-chairing the event and thus could not always give full attention to the speakers (we booked Q&A questions in order, already while the speakers were presenting, so I monitored our audience continuously). I apologize for all the wonderful insights that I now forget to mention. But a few that I have to mention include:
Nokia, Mark Selby's views on the future of our industry, and the role of the mobile phone in it, were the perfect start for the day. Predictably Mark echoed the themes familiar to our readers at this blog, that mobile is emerging as a media channel. What I also thought was quite revealing, is that top execs at Nokia HQ monitor the discussions at Forum Oxford (no surprise in iteself, but very revealing that Mark would say it also in public). Mark pointed out that in the future brands cannot control the discussions with customers - as an example he said that husbands don't own their wives, and nobody wants to be controlled by someone else.
Blyk's Jonathan MacDonald was one of the most anticipated speakers and he actually went quite a bit beyond just his topic of user-generated ads - I loved hearing that yes, the number one complaint by
Blyk's users is that they want more of the ads! Yes, this is the way to the future of advertising, where ads transform into becoming seen as content, by the recepients. We know the Blyk story here quite well, but Jonathan also went further into how the very nature of consumer and brand discussions must evolve. A thought-provoking contribution. Both Alan and I know Jonathan very well so we'll of course keep our eyes on Jonathan's musings into this direction, at his blog
Another great friend of ours, William Volk best known now for his company MyNuMo that we often write about, was there to talk about building apps for the iPhone. He talked about how quickly games can be deployed via MyNuMo (such as the hilarious Whack-a-Ballmer variant of the familiar Whack-a-mole game, after Steve Ballmer had said something particularly unpopular). It was a particular treat for the Forum members to see Bill in person, as he is based in California so he is seldom seen in Europe, but he's one of the five most active members of the Forum, helping just about anyone on just about any topic. So nice to be able to give him the floor as well, to let him give his views on our world. He had also brilliant visuals for his presentation, including a funny slide about operating systems (with Vista the leather-clad gay guy, you had to see it to underestand it...)
MTV's Luciana Pavan gave a whirlwind tour of what all MTV is doing in the space, from the UK to Belgium to Italy to Israel to Japan. A most insightful presentation, with so much info in her slides, it could have filled a whole day at a standard telecoms event all by herself. Some of MTV's innovations into the converged space we have talked about here at the Communities Dominate blog, but Lu had many cool new items, such as - the MTV MVNO is doing very well in some markets, such as in Belgium where they have taken 16% of the total subscriber base. Wow. Luciana showed quotes from users about mobile phones from MTV's latest consumer survey, and it included such statements as "the mobile is a symbol of coolness" and "the mobile is my best friend". What a powerful endorsement of the youth market and their gadget-of-choice (by a company best known for TV broadcasting).
Luciana also told us about how MTV is adjusting to this new world. For example when they shoot Jackass, they have two camera crews at the tapings, one shoots the show for the TV broadcasts and another crew shoots the same action for the small screen of mobiles. Clever. now they have trained specialists who understand each medium and customize the content optimised for that screen size etc. Lu showed examples from many markets, so in Germany for example MTV has a service called FunkySexyCool, which is essentially a mobile dating/flirting service quite similar to Flirtomatic of the UK, that we've discussed here at the blog often. Luciana also told us that MTV often uses Israel as a test-bed because it is such an advanced market in mobile and digital convergence. Finally from Japan, a glimpse of the near future, MTV Japan runs a service called Flux, in which users generate video content, which is rated, and the best content is then shown on the TV channel. Cool.... I wish we'd have had 2 hours for Luciana Pavan, always one of the most interesting presentations around mobile (and youth).
After lunch, Alan had the afternoon keynote and did his bit for Xtract, so this was not quite the "standard" Alan Moore/SMLXL presentation that many have seen, it was more Alan telling a story about Xtract's quest into that area which Alan calls the Black Gold of the 21st Century, ie the social context of our consumption. This was actually the most requested company and presentation over at the Forum, and Alan did a nice job explaining how far this science has come. Today any marketer could use Xtract's tools and methods to dig into massive oceans of data. Like all of Alan's stories he took us on emotional rides giving a human face to a topic many might think is unbearably boring (some could have assumed this topic would be the classic view about telecoms billing systems and data mining, enough to put the most passionate accountant to sleep - not to mention this was set to the graveyard shift, after lunch).
The presentation which most impressed me this time, was Simon Cavill from Mi-Pay. He talked about the role of mobile phones in Africa, with countless brilliant anecdotes (people often have their phone active only 17 days out of the month, making it difficult to receive calls, etc). Simon pointed out that while phones are aspirational in the West, in the developing world, they are even more so. The single most desired object is a mobile phone. But that all was just the dressing to his big idea. We now are witnessing the shift of mobile voice minutes (and SMS text messages) becoming a new currency. That people in many countries now shift minutes from one customer to another, and that in effect is becoming a new equivalent of money. But this is such a radical thought, I'll blog about it more, separately. But brilliant and very funny presentation by Simon.
We heard also from yet another active member of the Forum, Krzystof Procska of Polkomtel/Plus in (the Vodafone affiliate mobile operator in Poland) who have recently been the global launch customer for the Google Search Appliance (a customizable search engine which is particularly well suited for mobile operator use). Kris told us funny stories about this project.
Antonio Vince Stabyl the CEO of Itsmy talked about their social networking service on mobile in many countries from Germany to Italy to the UK and USA. He said for example that only 4 seconds after the UK earthquake, the first user-generated content about the earthquake reached their service. 4 seconds from event to reporting, that is citizen journalism at its core today. Only on mobile.. He also said that you should not try to mobilize the web, that it is like to try to car-alize an airplane.. Vince also made a brilliant point, that the leaders in any new media will be new companies, not the established leaders on a previous media. So don't expect a BBC (TV, fifth mass media) or Google (internet, sixth mass media) to be the dominant company in the newest media (mobile, seventh mass media).
The last speaker of the day was Christian Lindholm of Fjord, to talk about user interfaces now in a post-iPhone era. He was asked to agree to speak last, partly because we did "plot" to try to keep people from the audience from leaving earlier. And quite amazingly over 80% of the audience was still firmly planted in their seats as Christian came onto the stage. And we got that typical Christian view, part inspirational, part insightful, part irreverent. We again laughed. A key take-away was the basic principle, that the two primary design limitations for mobile phones, are that 1, it has to be pocketable, and 2, it has to be operatable by one hand.
There was much much more, our friend and 3-time author Ajit Jaokar, David Pollington of Vodafone, Niklas Blum of Fraunhofer Fokus, Matt Landeg of Google etc, but I didn't have good enough notes on all of those as I was chairing the event. I apologize to my friends for not mentioning more of them at this point.
Oh, and yes, then there was the debate. This was another suggestion that came from the Forum members as we were planning the event. So the members knew that Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis and I often argue at conferences and in writing and on our blogs and of course at the Forum about the industry, in particular the role of the PC/laptop vs mobile phone for the future of the internet. So we were asked to stage a "proper debate" about this topic. We had 30 minutes, and did a "real" Lincoln-Douglas style (one person vs another person, rather than team debate) debate with constructive speeches, rebuttals, and cross-examination of both speakers by each other. It was great fun for both of us (we of course would not convince each other ha-ha) but apparently also it was greatly enjoyable to the audience, a very different type of presentation to the event (and many said it was a highlight, thank you so much for those comments).
And the jokes.
Another very striking part of the event was the humour. All speakers were very professional speakers and accustomed to providing jokes into their presentations. Beyond that, the atmosphere of the event was very pleasant, so the audience burst out laughing numerous times, and often we'd get a comment from the floor which brought laughter, and almost invariably a further funny response by the speaker.
The funniest line? As Simon Cavill was presenting about mobile payments for Mi-Pay, MyNuMo's William Volk exclaimed suddenly "you are printing money", to which Simon deadpanned., "no we're creating a whole new currency." The audience roared.
The early comments at Forum Oxford and the first blogs about the event are superbly positive. I also got a glimpse of the feedback forms for the event, which seemed to be utterly positive (would you recommend the event for a friend - seemed like every form I saw, that point was marked "yes"). We will get the final feedback summary from Peter Holland of Oxford a bit later. I also intend to collect a link of the conference feedback by bloggers a bit later, to be added to the end of this review.
This is clearly the must-do event for the thought-leaders in the mobile telecoms industry and for those in related industries from the internet, media, banking etc, and to those wishing to understand this rapidly growing economic opportunity, the analysts, investors, etc to join. We will host it again next year around April in Oxford. If you read our blog, I suggest you already pencil in that date to be in Oxford. We will strive to once again improve on near-perfection.