How quickly can I launch a mobile service?


As we approach the MEX conference on 2nd – 3rd May 2007, I’ve been spending more and more of my time searching for answers to the questions raised by our 10 point MEX manifesto (you can read the full agenda here or download a copy of our PDF poster here – send me an email with your address if you’d like a funky A2-sized art version of this posted to you).

Of course, MEX isn’t just about findings answers. In fact, we hope you’ll leave with more questions than you had at the start: user experience is as diverse as the differing personalities in your customer base and truly customer-focused companies never stop asking questions of themselves. Our goal is to offer a creative environment where the brightest minds in the industry can explore and expand the myriad possibilities for enhancing the mobile user experience.

However, in the run-up to the event, I’ll be sharing some of the ideas and answers I’ve come across in researching the programme for the conference.

How easy is it for the average, tech-savvy developer to launch a mobile service and how long does it take?

As an experiment, I managed to start my own, revenue-generating text messaging service in about 24 hours. My users can text a keyword to a short-code to sign-up and I have access to a web-based interface which allows me to send them alerts, set the price for each message and manage the subscriber list. There are also handy features which enable me to calculate my potential earnings based on the amount I charge for sending each alert and the average revenue share payout rates of the UK operators.

I did this all through a web-site, without ever once having to pick up the phone or sign a physical contract with someone. The actual set-up process only took 15 minutes or so, but it took about 24 hours for my service to be manually vetted by one of the site’s staff. Apparently this was because it was a Sunday – approval times during business hours are claimed to be around 40 minutes.

Currently my service is limited to UK consumers, but I could use the same site to launch it in separate European markets if I wish. At the moment it is focused on text alerts, but I could also set it up to do voting, phone-in questions or even enable users to pay for access to premium web-sites.

The payout rates aren’t great however. I’m receiving about GBP 0.08 fo every GBP 0.25 spent by the subscriber. I don’t know many other media businesses which pay 68% of their revenues in distribution costs, but it’s not untypical in the mobile industry.

You can try creating a service for yourself at Zong.com. It’s free and self-service. If anyone comes up with something interesting, send me an email or post it as a comment on this article at mobileuserexperience.com.

Zong.com is operated by Echovox, a mobile messaging infrastructure provider, which also offers its own catalogue of content as a white label solution for operators and manages large-scale direct-to-consumer portals.

24 hours and virtually no hassle to start a revenue generating service. That’s not bad.

I first heard about Echovox’s idea when I was chatting with the CEO – David Marcus – last year. I must admit I was skeptical at first. When I was researching the service, originally known as SMSconnect.com, I could see a number of stumbling blocks which made registering new applications somewhat frustrating. However, it has evolved through several iterations and relaunched last month as Zong.com. It is a pleasure to use and suitable for those with the most rudimentary technical skills. They claim to power over 8000 services for about 6800 customers.

It’s a good start, but certainly not what one would describe as the cutting edge of innovation from the customer’s perspective. In fact, you have to have some pretty compelling content to justify charging customers GBP 0.25 to receive 160 characters of text. With any other delivery medium, this just wouldn’t fly – the mobile industry seems to dictate its own unique conditions.

What happens if I want to deliver a richer experience with more content, graphics and interactivity?

Wapple.net seemed like a possibility. They provide a web-based interface enabling customers to build mobile internet services with pages, graphics, content downloads, DRM and billing integration.

However, their basic package starts at GBP 20 per month and that actually includes very few of the more interesting features. A ‘Brand’ package, with support for billing integration, RSS feeds and click-to-call capability is GBP 220 per month.

I couldn’t even get access to a trial of the tools without commiting to a paid subscription. Wapple has the potential to really level the playing field for launching mobile content, but they need to look at the user experience of their registration process otherwise they’ll lose a lot of customers.

In went in search of alternatives at dotMobi, the company responsible for administering the top-level .mobi domain. They announced today that 400,000 .mobi sites have been registered so far and are engaging in a wide range of marketing and community support activities to promote the development of mobile internet sites. It’s founded and funded by Ericsson, Google, GSM Association, Hutchison, Microsoft, Nokia, Orascom Telecom, Samsung Electronics, Syniverse, T-Mobile, Telefónica Móviles, TIM and Vodafone.

Searching through the dotMobi forums I found references to a few different options for mobilising content. Consumers can try Gotzapp.com, which allows them to build packages of images, sounds and video using a PC-based client application. These can then be uploaded to the site and shared direct to friend’s mobile handsets. It’s not a revenue-generating application, but at least it fulfills the objective of creating a richer experience.

I also tried Mobizcard.com. The sign-up process was quick and easy. Within a few minutes, I was able to add RSS feeds to my fledgling mobile internet site, configure colours and styles, upload images and arrange site navigation heirachies. I’m still playing with it at the moment, but it seems to be a good way of developing a fairly rich mobile internet site.

The dotMobi site should be applauded for offering a comprehensive range of style guides, developer tips and resources. Setting aside the sometimes fierce debate over whether there is a requirement for a separate top level domain for mobile sites (this seems to come up frequently when dotMobi is mentioned), dotMobi is doing some great advocacy work to encourage the development of mobile content.

James Pearce, VP of Technology for dotMobi, will speak at the MEX conference on 2nd – 3rd May 2007 as part of the panel debate on ‘Tearing down the walled garden’. The keynote speaker for this session is Bill Schwebel, Senior Vice President of AOL Wireless and President of Tegic Communications. Other speakers include Chris Goswami, Strategist at Openwave and Omar Bakhshi, User Experience Consultant at iBurbia. I hope you’ll be able to join us for the debate.

Our MEX manifesto statement addressing this area reads: “Tearing down the walled garden will enhance the mobile content experience and release value for the industry. The objective should be a free market for content and applications, based on open standards and accessible to all. We think the current fragmentation of formats and channels to market is holding back growth.”

After spending a few days trying to get hands-on experience with the business of launching mobile services, I’ve found we’re some way from achieving that free market. Quite apart from the limitations of interface imposed by mobile handets which are yet to deliver a truly enjoyable form factor for content consumption, key parts of the service development infrastructure are missing.

In particular, I think we need to see:

Simpler development tools, made freely available and accessible to the average user. Building a mobile web-site should be no more difficult than a traditional desktop site.

Better payment integration. There should be easy ways to monetise mobile services, whether they are text, MMS or mobile content pages. Providing developers with access to transparent billing services, fair revenue share and alternative options like third party advertising is key to the long-term development of mobile data services. It sounds simple, but if developers can’t get rewarded, they won’t innovate – that’s the situation we have currently.

Clear channels to market. Thus far I’ve only explored the options for developing mobile services – I haven’t even started on the marketing aspects and how to build up a subscriber base. Currently developers either need to have the resources to do it on their own or negotiate a partnership with an operator. This excludes the majority from getting decent traction for their service. I’d like to see the development of global service directories where users can choose from a huge range of mobile data applications and developers can get good exposure for their work.

I’d like to hear from any developers who’ve had their own experiences of launching mobile services, particularly those coming at this question from outside the mobile industry, and any companies who are trying to make it easier for small content providers to get to market. Please post your comments to the blog below.


4 Comments

Add yours
  1. 1
    Max Melchior

    IIRC i-mode had mobile service infrastructure and profit sharing figured out when they launched 7 or 8 years ago – and I still wonder why Western operators haven’t been able to do something similar…

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    Nice article! Zong’s approach makes sense because many companies would look to mobile/SMS to support existing services/products rather than as a new revenue stream. Hopefully something like that will be available in North America soon.

  3. 3
    Marek Pawlowski

    As a follow-up to this article, Bryan Motteram of Mantic Point got in touch to tell me about a service his company has launched recently: StreamThru.

    It provides free SMS updates on flight status. The user simply enters some basic flight information on the StreamThru web-site and then receives an alert 4 hours before their flight to confirm whether or not it is on-time. A further alert is sent when the flight is ready for boarding.

    This isn’t exactly rocket science, but two things impressed me about StreamThru: firstly, the ease-of-use. The web registration process and entering flight details is incredibly simple and very intuitive. Secondly, the business model.

    StreamThru is free for the user and Mantic Point achieves this by working with airport retailers to offer advertising. By using the service, customers opt-in to receive up to two text messages per flight providing special offers from relevant airport retailers. For instance, on a recent flight from Heathrow to New York, I received a discount offer from a Heathrow-based retailer of British memorabilia.

    It is a great example of effective mobile advertising. As a user, you get a useful service free of charge and the advertising you receive is genuinely relevant. For advertisers, they get the opportunity to target a key group of busy people in one of the few bits of down time they have during a working day.

    Check it out at http://www.streamthru.com.

  4. 4
    Cam Bricks

    I recently approached Wapple with regards to setting up my Wap site and find the site easy to use, full of excellent tools with endless possibilities. There is an ever increasing number of “new” tools available and the systems are quick to set up and importantly you do not have to purchase a full package if you do not require.

+ Leave a Comment