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April 07, 2011

Cerego closes free learning service Smart.fm, rebrands (again)

Teaching-English-in-Japan-Education-iKnow" Cerego Japan has closed the doors of Smart.fm, its free "social learning" site. The closure took effect on March 31st and a new fee-based service called "iKnow" has been introduced as a replacment. iKnow was the brand the Smart.fm service was originally launched as in 2007.

Cerego Japan had aims of attracting a user base of over 1 million registered users with a free learning SNS that would be monetized through sponsorship. Over $20 million dollars of investment money has been pumped into the service (including $3.48 million from NTT in 2009), but the company has apparently been unable to reach its targets for user numbers or attract profitable sponsorship. Industry insiders had been expecting a radical overhaul of its business model.

The new iKnow service offers a free trial followed by a subscription price of ¥1,000 per month.

See Also:
iKnow website
Cerego Japan press release
SNS iKnow starts new learning service for finance and accounting English

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This article missed the biggest issue users are having with the transition from the free Smart.fm to the paid iKnow.jp:

The new paid service does not provide all the services featured in the free service. Period.

Namely:

* NO CONTENT CREATION TOOLKIT – This hits students the hardest. If you once used Smart.fm to build lists of vocabulary that were being covered in the classroom… well, you are out of luck. With the new paid version called iKnow, you can only study the lists provided by Cerego. Although Cerego claims a new toolkit is coming, the release date continues to get pushed back every month with no explanation as to why.

* NO REVIEW SYSTEM – That’s right, the vocabulary review system has been removed completely. Formally called BrainSpeed, the old Smart.fm review tools has been removed and the company has no intentions of bringing it back to the service… although being the #1 most user requested feature according to iKnow’s very own feature request system (called UserVoice):
(link: http://iknowen.uservoice.com/forums/97635)

* NO SOCIAL NETWORKING – One of the nice things about Smart.fm was the ability to interact and receive advice from other users through the mini-forums that were integrated into each course. These have been removed. Again, Cerego has made no announcement regarding their return in spite of the high volume of user requests submitted through their feature suggestion and bug reporting system (again, UserVoice).

* POOR SUPPORT – Many user requests filed through the company’s support system (UserVoice) largely go completely ignored. For the case of the #1 Top Ranked user ticket entitled “Bring Back the BrainSpeed” (referring to the vocab review tool), Cerego initially responded that they were “considering alternatives,” but have since left the ticket completely unattended for going on 4 months — despite continued user additions to the ticket begging for attention to be returned to the issue. Meanwhile, other users who report extremely long load times or inability to use the site due to a failure on behalf of iKnow to deliver content reliably also go completely unattended.

In short, many users were upset with the move from free to paid, but even more users are upset by the horrible degradation in the quality of the service and the deaf ear iKnow directs towards its users.

The user base that has tried to stick it out with and succumed to paying for access to the service found only a scaled down version of what they once had. What’s worse… it’s being rewritten as people use it… so things are constantly breaking and being fixed.

In all reality, Cerego migrated to iKnow.jp too early, asking users to pay for an incomplete and inferior version of the Smart.fm product. As a result, iKnow users are upset by the quality of their purchase and are even more upset by the lack of communication with Cerego.

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