I know someone with a great idea for a mobile service. They have access to unique content, strong marketing channels into an established customer base and a target demographic which is typically equipped with the latest handsets.
I’d like to illustrate a point about the structure of the mobile telecoms industry by stepping through the process they will need to undertake to make this service available in a single country.
As a starting point, they will need to research the most popular handsets among their target audience. Why? Because developing a service compatible with every handset on the market seems to be a task beyond even the largest mobile-specific developers, let alone a small publisher with little experience of the mobile business.
Let’s assume they have the resources to develop for the top 5 handsets used by their demographic.
Once they’ve determined the relevant devices, they are presented with a choice: should they try to take advantage of the unique capabilities of each handset or would it make more sense to ensure consistency by developing for the lowest common denominator? It’s a complicated decision.
The range of handsets could span anything from Nokia’s 7610, a 2.5G device capable of running native C+ applications on Symbian OS, to Sony Ericsson’s W900i, a 3G handset which relies on Java MIDP 2.0 for third party applications, but also has Macromedia’s Flash Lite engine installed. They have different screen dimensions, different implementations of the Java virtual machine, different ways accessing applications and different network download capabilities.
If they choose to optimise for each handset, it is likely they will need several different development environments: one for the native Symbian application, another for Java, another for Flash Lite and – just to be on the safe side – a version which uses XHTML/WAP 2.0 to ensure compatibility with the less capable handsets.
Of course, as a small publisher, it would be prohibitively expensive to buy all of these tools and train or hire a developer. Outsourcing would seem the most sensible option, so they will need to go through a search and selection process to find a suitable development partner.
With the development work underway, they can turn their attention to the problem of delivery. How can they make the service easily available and generate revenue? There several options: text triggers which bill using premium SMS, integrating with a third party payment platform, a direct relationship with the network operators in their chosen country or perhaps even licensing their application out to an established publisher which already has distribution infrastructure in place.
Each of these scenarios comes with its own complexity in terms of technical integration.
There is also no guarantee the user will be able to ‘re-discover’ the application once it is installed on their handset or accessed through the browser. Every handset has a different way of downloading, storing and accessing applications – sometimes the biggest challenge a developer faces is providing clear enough instructions for a user to locate their application once it has been purchased.
And then there is the question of revenue share.
This will vary wildly depending on volumes, whether they happen to be in favour with their billing provider and which operator their customer is with. It can range from 85% of revenues to less than 50%. It’s hard to think of any other medium in which such a large proportion of revenue is swallowed by distribution costs. Most publishers in ‘traditional’ businesses work on the basis of distribution costing approximately 5% of revenue.
Assuming they manage to navigate through all the stages of this process and deliver their application to the market, they will have succeeded in making a service available to a subset of the mobile user base in a single country.
This scenario raises a very important question: are we, as an industry, doing enough to help unleash the creativity of publishers, content owners and individual developers?
They are presented with technological and commercial complexity at every level; at best this restrains creativity, at worst it represents a complete barrier to entry.
These challenges are the result of structural inefficiences in the mobile industry. At the heart of the matter is the continuing trend for handset manufacturers, operators and platform providers to differentiate using proprietary technology. For all their talk of open standards, there is little incentive for these key players to embrace a truly open approach because without significant changes to their models such a move would rapidly commoditise their businesses.
The day when deploying a mobile service is as simple and democratic as launching a web-site is still a long way off.
At the next MEX conference, we’ll be looking in detail at the challenge developers face when trying to deliver their user experience on mobile. I’d be particularly interested to hear from any companies who are working in this area and offer tools which simplify the development and distribution process, or operators who are taking a progressive approach in this area. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or add your comments to this article below.