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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Failed Disney Mobile Phone Service

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Disney is no stranger to dipping their toes into a new venture.

Walt himself took the company from animated shorts to features, to live action films,

and even to theme parks.

Decades later the company would explore everything from retail stores to cruise lines to state fairs.

So when the cell phone industry began to explode in the early aughts, it was no surprise that

Disney gave it a shot.

Enter, Disney Mobile.

Like their other ventures, Disney saw a corner of the market to capitalize on.

By 2005/2006 75% of 17 year olds in the United States had their own cell phone.

That ship had sailed.

However, only 42% of 13 year olds had their own cell phone, and that number was still

on the rise.

Thats where Disney decided to step in.

Theyd market Disney Mobile not only to the growing market of phones for kids, but

to their parents as well.

It would be a family network with a priority on ways to monitor and limit what kids could

do on their phone.

But you see, it wouldnt be their network.

I mean it would, but it also wouldnt, because Disney Mobile would be an MVNO.

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator.

In short, MVNOs are mobile networks that have almost everything a regular cell phone carrier

would have.

Their own branding, their own pricing model, their own customer support team and their

own deals with phone manufacturers.

The one thing MVNOs dont have, however, is an actual cell phone network.

That, they lease from the major carriers, such as AT&T or Verizon.

Its a way for companies to get into the industry without the infrastructure costs

of building their own coverage.

By the mid-aughts, MVNOs were on the rise, with over 175 either launched or in the works.

Their appeal at the time was that they could build their mobile service around a specific

niche in order to reach a certain market.

Virgin Mobile, for instance, focused on teenagers and young adults who might not meet the credit

requirements that major carriers set by specializing on pre-paid service.

The short lived Ampd Mobile catered to media heavy users, offering videos, music, and games.

More and more companies saw this quickly growing industry, and realized that if they found

their own unique corner, they might be able to build a business out of it.

That includes Disney, who wasnt even new to the MVNO game.

Back at the end of 2004, ESPN had announced their own take on the trend, with mobile ESPN.

Leasing usage from the Sprint PCS network, mobile ESPN would offer its users everything

from video highlights from recent games, to up-to-the-minute scores.

It would be the mobile network for the die-hard sports fan.

Taking that idea to their overall brand, the next step would be Disney Mobile.

Announced in the summer of 2005 and estimated to have a $100 million investment, Disney

Mobile would primarily focus on parental controls for phones aimed at kids.

Boy: And I can get all kinds of themes, ringtones and lots of cools games, like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Girl: Whoa!

You must have the coolest mom ever.

Boy: Yeah, pretty much.

Mom: And I can check his phone usage, locate his handset, and even control when he can

use his phone.

All from my computer or Disney Mobile handset.

Coworker: Whoa!

You must be the coolest mom ever.

Mom: Yeah, pretty much.

Launching in 2006 and partnering with Pantech and LG Electronics to offer two phone options,

the cell phones would have what was called Family Center features.

Parents would have the ability to limit and monitor the number of minutes, text messages,

and downloads their kidsphones were allowed.

On top of that, theyd be able to pick and choose what days of the week and what hours

of the day the childrens phones would make calls and texts, with an obvious exception

to 911.

The Family Alert feature would allow the parents to send a message to the kids phones that

the children would have to read and acknowledge before they could continue using it.

Lastly, the Family Locator feature would use the phones GPS to let parents know where

their kids were.

In a surprising turn, the phones themselves were moderately priced and designed.

The handsets started at $60 with a plan, and while they did feature the Disney Mobile logo

on them, they were otherwise completely normal flip phones.

No Mickey Mouse or other cartoon branding.

At launch, Disney Mobile was fairly well received.

People already knew that cell phones were no passing fad, and so there was no stopping

the eventual rise in kids using them.

So it was considered a good thing that Disney was throwing their hat into the ring to try

and ensure they were as safe as possible.

While Disney wasnt public with any numbers, there were early talks to bring the service

overseas to the UK and other countries.

However it would only be a couple of months before red flags started to show up.

In the fall of 2006 it was announced that mobile ESPN would be halting operation at

the end of the year.

It was rumored that the service, at that point, only had tens of thousands of subscribers

when the business model demanded hundreds of thousands to make it viable.

Yet at the same time, when it came to mobile news sources that year ESPN was ranked third,

just behind Yahoo and CNN.

ESPN was plenty popular, but the public didnt feel like they needed a phone dedicated to it.

The closure of mobile ESPN raised eyebrows.

It would be the first major failure of a popularly branded MVNO.

Beyond directly putting Disney Mobile into question, it had the public wondering about

all MVNOs.

If a household name like ESPN couldnt win over enough subscribers, how could the little

guy? Disney assured the public that the folding of mobile ESPN didnt mean anything for

Disney Mobile.

They were wrong.

Just a little over a year later, in September of 2007, it was announced that Disney Mobile

would shutter at the end of that December.

When questioned about the decision, Disney argued that it was a matter of the economics

needed to make it work.

However what they didnt mention was that their primary selling point, the parental

controls, were quickly becoming standard features for cell phones.

It also didnt help that their reasonably designed phones meant that there wasnt

any novelty to the hardware of Disney Mobile.

Owning a Disney Mobile phone rapidly shifted from having this phone designed for families

to just having a regular phone with the word Disney on it.

And while this is more speculative, something else happened between the launch and closure

of Disney Mobile.

Steve Jobs: And we are calling it iPhone.

Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

Now Im not going to try and argue that the iPhone was the first smartphone.

It wasnt.

However what Apple does well through their brand is popularize relatively new technology.

They help bridge the gap between obscurity and ubiquity.

So while I dont believe the iPhone had any direct responsibility in the short life

of Disney Mobile, I do think it presented writing on the wall for Disney.

Smartphones were the future, and that short-lived idea of MVNOs that focused on packaging a

brand or content and carving out a market was going to die off.

With the adoption of smartphones, users were going to be able to access the internet more

or less the same way they would at home.

That meant you didnt need a phone specially made for sports or games or cartoons.

All you needed was a phone.

Today MVNOs still exist, however theyre not that popular in the United States.

The ones that remain dont focus on specialized content, but instead depend on more specialized

plans and pricing.

As for Disney Mobile, while it shuttered in the US, it found some moderate success overseas

in other markets.

Disney partnered with 3 Italia for an Italian Disney Mobile called Disney Mobile 3which

was pretty confusing since there wasnt a Disney Mobile 1 or 2.

They worked with Globe for a Disney Mobile in the Philippines, and perhaps most successfully

they launched Disney Mobile in Japan along with DOCOMO.

The others came and went, but Disney Mobile in Japan is still around.

They had found that of the over 3.5 million users regularly utilizing Disney mobile sites

in Japan, around 75% were women over the age of 20.

So instead of focusing on families they shifted their attention to that demographic.

And instead of offering up phone features that were easily emulated, Disney Mobile in

Japan instead focused on the one thing nobody else could copy: their brand.

They began to sell phones with Disney branded wallpapers, icon sets, and even video content.

Most importantly though, they began to sell exclusive Disney themed phones.

Disney had learned a lesson from the failure of Disney Mobile in the US, and that lesson

was apparently: Do the exact opposite of what they already tried.

Disney Mobile was afascinating venture.

On the one hand its hard to blame them.

They were chasing a potential gold rush like many of the other MVNOs that would also flop

as quickly as they appeared.

On the other hand, many of their decisions seemed especially odd.

They intentionally chose to not leverage perhaps their most valuable asset, their own brand,

and instead focused on a bunch of phone settings that could easily be cloned.

It was short-sighted.

Perhaps it was a lesson in the value of taking time to properly plan things out.

Sure they might not get in on the bottom floor, but theyre also that much less likely to

become a footnote in the companys history.

I want to give a quick shoutout to Kevin Perjurer of Defuntland for suggesting the topic.

If you like documentaries on defunct rides and parks and television shows, be sure to

check out his channel.

The Description of The Failed Disney Mobile Phone Service