There have been a couple of news stories recently which have highlighted the growing importance of OTA (Over The Air) platforms. In Japan, DoCoMo is facing a major public relations blunder after savvy customers realised they could purchase highly subsidised OneSeg digital TV handsets, cancel their subscriptions a few days later and still enjoy access to the TV service. Rival operators Softbank (formerly Vodafone KK) and KDDI automatically lock-down this feature once the subscription is terminated, but DoCoMo has been unable to do so and is thought to be losing as much as USD 320 in subsidies from each handset.
The largest Japanese operator is now rushing to release a new version, but some 120,000 handsets have already been sold.
Aside from the embarassment caused, the problem underlines the business case for OTA update platforms which enable operators and handset manufacturers to send remote software updates to devices. These platforms, from vendors such as Innopath (which supplies to DoCoMo’s rival KDDI) and Red Bend Software, enable everything from the core OS to individual features and applications to be modified on the fly.
They comprise several components: a client on the device running at an extremely low-level in the pre-boot stage to enable updates to the OS, a download manager for sending new software to the handset and a control panel to collate and approve firmware versions before they are marked for delivery. Innopath provides an end-to-end solution, while Red Bend specialises in the client component and works with partners such as Insignia, IBM and mFormation for the server elements.
Most OTA deployments to-date have focused on these ‘bug fix’ scenarios where an operator can justify the investment by comparing it with the cost of physically recalling handsets. However, the next generation of platforms will likely target the requirement for individual feature upgrades: e.g. users requesting the addition of a new application to their handset, modifying an interface element or receiving the latest version of an on-device portal.
Red Bend has been quite progressive in this area, demonstrating its Embedded Feature Delivery (EFD) technology in February of this year. Yesterday it announced Opera, the web browser company, would use it’s EFD technology to provide remote updates to its software. This will allow Opera to support the deployment of its browser as a pre-installed application on handsets and ensure users always have the latest version.
EFD is also a useful tool for companies with ambitions in the on-device portal business, enabling new versions of the client to be sent reliably to huge numbers of handsets. In this sense, it is already a key technology enabler of the mobile user experience. I expect to see further deployments of this technology if operators embrace the user-driven personalisation scenarios explored in previous articles such as ‘A vision for the retail environment‘.