The Push to Make Every Mobile Phone Smarter
An interview with Seven's Co-Founder and CTO Trevor Fiatal.
Business users and consumers alike want their cell phones to do more, more, more. Texting has become second nature. Email is fast on its way to becoming a given, on every kind of handset — not just smart phones. And with the blockbuster success of Apple’s App. Store, and wannabe’s from Blackberry/RIM, Microsoft, and Palm, the industry is scrambling to push non-voice features and functionality onto users’ handsets. Seven is at the forefront of mobile email and messaging software and service, providing solutions that run (at this writing) on more than 450 devices. Six of the top 10 U.S. carriers and more than 130 worldwide use Seven’s mobile messaging service. Benchmark dialed up Seven’s Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Trevor Fiatal to learn what Seven’s working on today, and what he sees coming in the future.
Benchmark: Please tell us a little bit about Seven. What is your company’s focus, and what sets you apart?
Trevor Fiatal: Seven is the biggest open market push solution provider in the world. We do push email for what we call open market handsets, which are basically handsets that are not built around a proprietary push solution.
Think of us as an alternative to RIM (Blackberry), where instead of having to buy a particular handset that has a push solution bundled with it, you can go out to the market and take advantage of the vigorous competition in handsets and use one of those mobile devices as your mobile email platform.
We're the first and foremost vendor to provide wireless operators and device manufacturers with a mobile messaging platform that enables them to deliver push services of a number of different types. We do push email for enterprise users, as well as individual end users who may have a Gmail, Yahoo! or MSN mailbox.
Benchmark: What’s your mix of consumer vs. corporate business?
Trevor Fiatal: We're fairly well balanced these days. We find that, region-by-region around the world, the mix differs a little bit. In North America, the interest is very strong around consumer these days, whereas in Europe the focus is mostly on corporate email.
Benchmark: How do you fit into the competitive landscape? Blackberry/RIM has a well-established email solution, and now there's the iPhone, and Windows Mobile. Where does Seven fit in?
Trevor Fiatal: I would say that we're in a similar space to a number of other players. Certainly, RIM is in a similar space to us, but sufficiently different that we don't consider them our competition, because they make a hardware-based solution and they make their own handsets. And so, they're more of a co-resident of the ecosystem. Our competition tends to be more folks in the software side of the ecosystem, such as Visto for example.
Benchmark: And Apple?
Trevor Fiatal: For email, they have a core set of things that they manage, and they're not particularly open toward full-fledged replacement of their core messaging stuff. Similarly, RIM is built around email. But if you look at some of the other ecosystems, AT&T for example, we provide their Xpress Mail product that runs on every Windows Mobile phone that they ship.
Benchmark: And what about Android? It’s a bit of an elephant in the room, with Apple and recently, the Palm Pre dominating the discussion.
Trevor Fiatal: We are aggressively pursuing Android as we see this as being a very exciting opportunity for us. The Android market is in its early stages. What most people have seen are the one or two devices that have made it to market. But because of our position in the industry, we're 9 to 12 months ahead in terms of visibility into the plans of the operators and the various handset manufacturers.
And so we see the second and third wave of Android devices coming. And we certainly see that as having a really transformative effect on the industry in terms of adding an entirely new category of handsets to the table.
Benchmark: And you want to be right there to service it.
Trevor Fiatal: Certainly the open nature of the Android ecosystem has really opened the door for us and a number of other players to bring innovative stuff to the Android marketplace that wouldn't necessarily be easy to bring on other ecosystems. As you get further and further into handset makers starting to customize the Android platform, what we are finding is that one of the places where they're going to be strongly differentiated is in the messaging service and the push service that they provide for their phones. Once you get outside, for example, the T-Mobile G1 — which is a basically a Google-branded phone, it's all Google product on there — it very rapidly diverges into lots of other folks competing for space on the phones.
Benchmark: OK, so tell us a bit about how Seven works. Say for example, we're at our desk in the office emailing a colleague who's at the airport waiting for his plane, and we're using a Seven-powered service. What happens to our email?
Trevor Fiatal: So as an overview, one of the most interesting things about our service compared to the way some other folks have done it in the past, is that we don't actually ever store copies of your email inside our system. We have a 100 percent real-time system that only actually grabs the data and moves it around when everybody's hooked up and ready to talk. What that means is that, unlike a store-and-forward system — for example, on Blackberry, where copies of your email get forwarded from the mail server into the Blackberry system and they're queued up there for eventual delivery — with our system it's 100 percent real time. So when you're looking at what happens in a scenario like that, the key thing to keep in mind is that real-time aspect. That's where we carefully monitor performance and our try to stay on top of things. So in that specific scenario, let's say that you're sending from your email account to your friend's Yahoo! account. And he has a Windows Mobile device with his Yahoo! account enabled for push using a Seven product on there. What happens is that, when you send that mail to Yahoo!, we have basically a custom partnership integration with Yahoo!, where we tap into their notification system internally and we get notified that there's a change to his mailbox, meaning that one or more messages have arrived and there's something interesting for him to receive from that mailbox.
At that point what we're going to do is basically wake up his phone and get it online and immediately transmit those changes to his phone. So it's a very short cycle from you transmitting to Yahoo!, to delivering it to his mailbox; then Yahoo! pokes us and says hey, there's something new. We grab that out of the mailbox and immediately deliver that down to his phone and his phone goes off and says there's new mail.
Benchmark: And it really doesn't matter whether it's a Yahoo! account, a Gmail account, or a privately hosted email account — the mail's going to go from me to whatever server, and just wait there until you push it out.
Trevor Fiatal: That's correct. And the same for your work email as well. For corporate email, whether you're an individual user who just wants to connect to your own personal mailbox, or you're an enterprise admin who runs our enterprise edition, we have a similar function that gets your email contacts and calendar out from behind the firewall pushed out to your phone as well.
Benchmark: OK, so with millions and millions of users depending on Seven for their mobile email, contacts, and calendars — billions of transactions every month — that's a lot of traffic to manage. How do you stay on top of it to know your performance is where it needs to be?
Trevor Fiatal: Because we make the software as well as provide it as a service to others — meaning that we have a strong operational component here at Seven — we have a significant amount of investment in internal monitoring systems and visibility into our own product. We're able to probe and test our own systems and pretend to be a handset that's checking for email and do end-to-end checks that way. But ultimately the complete test for any system is to actually use a handset, in this case the ones that we've embedded with the Keynote service, and run our product on those and actually gather test results and use that to generate real-time alerts that say hey, the failure rate's above a certain level for connections, to show us when there are network issues and to give us that outside perspective on what we're doing.
Benchmark: OK, but the usual conundrum for mobile testing is that there are so many handsets out there, scores of them. How do you determine which to monitor?
Trevor Fiatal: What we find is that you can usually — despite the sometimes bewildering diversity of handsets out in the marketplace — you can usually boil it down to families of handsets that are reasonably similar. So what we try to do is pick the most popular, the most representative families of handsets, and usually we'll take the most popular individual model out of that family and pick that for insertion into the monitoring framework.
So for example on Windows Mobile OS we'll have a Samsung Blackjack 3 embedded, which is by far one of our most popular Windows Mobile messaging devices. By picking representative devices, we're able to get the coverage we need across a number of different platforms. And really, it's not as critical as you might think to cover every single model, as long as you're covering a good representative sample.
Benchmark: Are you doing external, real-device testing continuously, or on some kind of scheduled basis?
Trevor Fiatal: We've got a number of devices that run 24/7 in continuous test. It's about eight devices right now if I recall correctly.
Benchmark: These are actual devices, not handset emulators?
Trevor Fiatal: Correct. These are actual devices that have been embedded into the Keynote monitoring product that we use, that are actually physically connected into a test system that allows us to remotely see the screen and basically automates the test. We're connected into the device control such as the keyboard and so forth that allows us to run automated tests 24/7, and periodically interrupt those tests for things like upgrading to a new version or testing the upgrade process, for example — adding different kinds of mail accounts, changing our mix of test cases that we use. And it is real actual devices running these tests on live operator networks.
Benchmark: So you have a good perspective on how the device is handling things, and you obviously have your own internal monitoring of your network. But no matter how well all that's performing, you still can only perform as well as the actual carrier network.
Trevor Fiatal: Certainly. And that's one of the places where having an outside perspective like Keynote is particularly helpful for us, because our product has to be designed to be resilient no matter what's going on in the network. And it isn't even just the wireless operators, because as much as they get maligned for network quality issues and everything else, the Internet's not 100 percent reliable either. You have congestion. You have traffic issues. And you have unreliable networks there as well.
So as a result we have to continually improve and refine our product to deal with these situations automatically without any manual intervention required to keep things running. The ability to put stuff out and test it in the real world, and to be able to catch those cases where, without impacting real users and using them as guinea pigs, but instead using a good test bed with actual devices behind it, enables us to continually refine so that, by and large, most users don't ever notice when there's a network issue because our system automatically handles it.
Benchmark: OK, so let's move out to the bigger picture. Few areas are changing as quickly as mobile. What do you see on the horizon in the next 12 to 24 months? How do you see things changing, and how will you take advantage of those changes?
Trevor Fiatal: I think one of the most exciting things that's really been driven in large extent by the rise of application stores for mobile devices, is that people are transitioning from a phone being a mobile talk appliance into being something that has network-aware applications that actually do interesting stuff. And not all of these applications are big heavyweight things like push email and contact sync and calendar sync — our core stuff — but data-intensive applications that bring a lot of value to what you do on your phone simply by giving you real narrowly focused access to network data.
That is different from the way people used phones traditionally, which is maybe you load a few games or a few ring tones or a few other things. You may go get those things over the network, but those aren't network-connected applications.
Increasingly, people expect their phone to come with some reasonable variety of push email, some reasonable way to synchronize their contacts and maybe their calendar. Some fairly reasonable way to get some additional applications to tailor their phone to do the things that they want to do. And that's a very exciting thing for us, because we're in the space of providing network-enabled applications and delivering data to devices. It really opens up a lot of opportunities to go in and do really smart stuff with the network and with data delivery, and to really streamline that and make it efficient.
So Seven's focusing an awful lot on how do you get 5, 6, 10 applications that all want to talk on the network to play nicely together, to coordinate usage of the radio and to basically use a common set of technologies, so that you can do pretty neat stuff but it doesn't suck your battery dry in four hours.
Benchmark: So we should expect Seven to move beyond email, contacts, and calendars.
Trevor Fiatal: Oh absolutely. As an example of that, just within messaging we're seeing a lot of interest, and we think we can bring some pretty interesting solutions to bring together all the different non-voice communications channels on your phone. Not just email but SMS and MMS, voicemail, your task list and things like that, and really break down those walls in between them. It becomes a whole new thing when you go from having email on one application and SMS in another, to being able to take an individual SMS message and attach it to an email message that you're sending to somebody. It becomes a much more powerful, PC-like platform when you start to break those walls down.
Benchmark: Sounds a bit like Google Wave for the mobile platform.
Trevor Fiatal: Google Wave's interesting because it's principally focused on real-time collaboration and data sharing. And certainly there are places where we're going to be tapping into the power of Google Wave with the stuff that we're doing to enable you to move those things around and to get access to those. Google Wave creates the medium, but it doesn't necessarily give you access to the data that you might want to put into it. That's the other piece that we provide — we connect all those data sources into things like Google Wave, as well as your existing channels, and enable you to do things like grab an SMS conversation and send it to somebody via Google Wave.
Benchmark: What impact is all this going to have at the handset level? Are all phones going to become smart phones?
Trevor Fiatal: One of the interesting industry trends is that, because network-aware applications and push services are becoming such a basic part of the value proposition, more and more handset manufacturers will be starting to bundle push solutions into their handset products, where it's not just RIM who's going to be shipping phones to include a push email solution, for example.
Increasingly it's going to be that all the major phone manufacturers are looking to get into this space, because I think everybody looks at RIM, and to a lesser extent Apple, and realizes how much additional value they get from engaging with the user on the level beyond simply selling them a piece of hardware. And a large part of what Seven does is supply the technology and the infrastructure to companies that want to build that deeper connection with their end users, and want to basically establish that additional value and provide more than just a piece of hardware — a complete value, a complete service package that goes beyond just the buy decision for this handset versus that handset, and turns it more into a multiyear relationship with the end user, where you get value from a large OEM like Samsung or LG or Sanyo or somebody like that, well beyond the initial purchase.
Benchmark: And we're sure Seven will play a big part in providing that value. Good luck, and thank you for your time.
About Trevor Fiatal
Trevor Fiatal is a member of SEVEN's founding team and Chief Technology Officer. In this role, Fiatal has focused on driving SEVEN's strategic technology, intellectual property, and operational excellence efforts. He contributes across SEVEN, from product design and development, to operations, marketing, and customer advocacy. Prior to co-founding SEVEN, Fiatal spent three years as a technology architect and agent of change within @Home Network and the post-merger Excite@Home. Fiatal studied Computer Engineering (hybrid CS/EE) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.