FEATURE: Richard Siber

Richard Siber, founder and president of SiberConsulting LLC, has spent nearly half of his life giving advice to the world's most influential wireless companies. And they listen. The former partner in the Communications & High Tech practice at Accenture, where he propelled the firm's worldwide wireless consulting business, has gained a unique perspective on the industry through his work with a broad range of players in the global wireless ecosystem. These days, Mr. Siber is helping scores of technology enterprises raise capital and private equity funding, and he's a highly sought after board member. Mr. Siber currently sits on the boards of Integrated Mobile, Digit Wireless, JumpTap, SingleTouch Interactive and InCode Wireless. The 21-year wireless industry veteran is also chairman of the Technology Council for SavaJe and is a member of the advisory board for Sonim Technologies. I spoke with Mr. Siber this week about the evolution of the industry and how content services will appeal to the masses. --Lynnette

Are there still age-old issues that continue to pop up for this industry, despite the passage of time?

We're still in the same industry conundrum that we've been in for more than a decade, and that is: How do we acquire a customer who is going to grow and adopt new services? And how are we going to keep that customer loyal? Acquisition and retention are still two major issues that all members of the wireless ecosystem face. Because it's no longer a carrier-only concern. The second aspect of this is that the wireless ecosystem has become much more complex and has a number of interested parties, which makes it even more challenging to effectively balance and serve. What do I mean by this? I mean that the device continues to become more multi-functional and more complex and the point of sale and distribution channel is more important than ever. The services and the devices that are enabled through so many third party partners become more complex, more challenging to both explain and to use, and it means the stakes are even that much higher because the carriers continue to spend $5 billion a year on network improvements and expansion that enable smarter handsets and services. Getting people to buy, adopt and use and to keep educated customers is the Holy Grail that we face.

What has surprised you the most when it comes to the evolution of the industry?

I have probably a two-hour answer. I've been in the industry more than 20 years, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been an early participant in this industry and witness its incredible expansion from an economic standpoint, including its impact on societies, emerging countries and on individual users. Having been part of this for so long, it's refreshing now to attend meetings to not only see many peers I've known for a decade or more but also this other group of much younger individuals in their late 20s, early 30s who are not slugging it out about technology or the underlying infrastructure, but are bringing new ideas, new products, new services, new demographics, new capabilities from other adjacent industries like media and entertainment. I'm glad to see 20 somethings exploding into the gaming space, the content space, music space and bringing their energy and different experiences to the wireless industry.

We've gone through the "Hey, I'm calling you from Great Wall of China" or from a lift at a ski resort or the far corners of the world to the discovery phase of content. It's not about where you can make the call from, but what you have access to for information. That in itself is an inflexion point or a catalyst for this industry all in itself. But it all comes back to the ecosystem and the importance of having harmony and cooperation. Carriers have spent a lot of money. They're not a transport layer. They are a critical component of the ecosystem, and we need the device manufacturers to continue to evolve and provide speed and battery capability so that users can take advantage of these high-speed networks. We need the content providers partnering in a cooperative model with the carriers and providing reason and motivation for people to use their devices more than for just voice. Then you need to make the user experience better and easier, and lastly we need a smarter distribution channel than we've ever had to date that educates the users on all of these great capabilities.

Would you say that content discovery is the biggest hurdle to its adoption today?

Discovery and the user interface are enormous obstacles today. You do have the infrastructure, high-speed networks, smarter devices with processor and great batteries, but getting people to find what they are actually looking for is perhaps the biggest obstacle, and that relates directly to the user interface. You do have these companies that have emerged to enable the user to better interact with devices and content. Single Touch Interactive is providing an easy-to-use interface via voice abbreviated dialing, Digit Wireless offers a much easier ability to input text while companies like JumpTap provide white-labeled solutions for discovery.

Here's an example of how difficult it is to navigate through wireless content. On one particular carrier, you put in the word "tunes" to search for a ringtone, but you get Looney Toons cartoons as opposed to a ringtone. Research shows that the vast majority of people that put in a key word want to take action once the carrier supplies them with the content they are looking for. The problem is at least two-fold. One, T-9, predictive text and triple tapping have not proven to be the silver bullet. Two, when people go through discovery, they want their information at their finger tips for very particular reasons, and they want to take action with that information. They want to buy something or download something. It has a double negative impact if you can't find what you want when you want it. Single Touch, for instance, is offering a short code of sorts that allows people to hear the content available to them. The conversion rate is more than 40 percent. So more than 40 percent of people make a purchase. That is three times more than Internet purchasing stats. In addition, more than 80 percent of those who used the service had never purchased anything before.

In 2000, the industry witnessed the amazing success of iMode in Japan, and you pointed to the service as something the U.S. industry should take its cues from. Did the industry take anything away from that?

iMode was not about a technology, it was about a business and that business model was widely successful during a five-year period of time. Now we're beginning to see how important off-deck content is becoming again to all members of the ecosystem. It enables the carriers to truly open up the power of the Internet through a higher speed network and a better user experience on a bigger screen with better user interfaces. The key message is that iMode was about a business model, and those carriers going to a complete business model and aggressively going off portal and off deck are those enjoying greater successes right now. Still just scratching success compared to what iMode achieved.

Richard Siber Dossier
Current Reading: Lots of Vince Flynn and Dan Brown.  I get pulled into these thrillers and devour them.

Favorite mobile app: Single Touch abbreviated dialing code, #147, followed by JumpTap's search app.

Current project: Helping raise a lot of money, and very active on the M&A front.

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