The tools of the user experience pioneer

One of driving principles of the MEX conference is to identify the tools for delivering better mobile user experiences today, here and now. Obviously this is a mission which needs context – and MEX is designed to provide an environment for discussing all of the intangible qualities which comprise the user experience – but it is essential that this debate is grounded in the reality of the tools we have available.

The session entitled ‘Exploring the key technology enablers of the mobile user experience‘ will cover this in detail.

Rob Woodford of Macromedia will deliver the keynote presentation for this part of the agenda and he will be joined by Mats Nilson, Managing Director of the OMTP Initiative, John Forsyth, Head of Propositions at Symbian, and Yoram Salinger, CEO of Red Bend Software. The session will be chaired by Chris Jones, Director and Senior Analyst at market intelligence firm Canalys.

I had a chance to catch up with Gary Kovacs, Vice President of Product Management and Marketing for mobile at Macromedia, when he was in London a couple of days ago and talk through how Macromedia is positioning itself to provide the tools for developing great user experiences. Kovacs himself is a veteran of mobile user interface technologies, having been President of Zi Corp, the predictive text input company.

Of course, Macromedia has made its name in ‘experiences’. It’s Flash technology underpins the animations and interactions of countless web-sites designed for the desktop environment. It’s developer community – currently numbering about 1.3m – is among the most active and innovative in the tech industry, primarily because it opens development to a wide group of designers and creative professionals who do not have technical programming skills.

Macromedia has been switching its attention to the mobile industry by degrees. In 2001, it started working with NTT DoCoMo to provide a ‘lite’ version of Flash for DoCoMo’s i-Mode handsets. The idea was to enable third party developers to create rich content which could then be charged for on a premium subscription basis. Kovacs told me that today, DoCoMo derives some USD 800m in annual revenues from Flash-based mobile applications. Given that DoCoMo’s average share of third party content revenues is around 15 percent, this would suggest mobile Flash is a USD 5.3 billion industry in Japan alone.

When Samsung saw the success of Flash in Japan, it approached Macromedia to integrate the technology into some of its handsets. In doing so, Samsung realised that Flash could be an effective tool for handset interfaces too. It created the ‘CEO’ phone, which used rich graphical animations as part of a menu system designed entirely in Flash, and distributed one to the CEO of every major company in South Korea, its home market. Now Samsung is using Flash MMI, Macromedia’s mobile interface technology, for a wide range of its handset products.

Samsung is not alone. Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have all licensed the technology too. Of course, ‘licensed’ can be a somewhat misleading term in the mobile industry – many companies proliferate their platforms by essentially licensing their technology for free, but Kovacs insists that all of Macromedia’s 10 handset licensees have commited to upfront fees and ongoing royalties for Flash. Demand, he says, is very strong and handset manufacturers are undertaking most of the work to port Flash to their platforms themselves.

What is attracting these companies to Flash? One of the big drivers is the underlying trend in the handset industry towards greater segmentation, deep customisation and shorter product development cycles. Flash has always been used to prototype interfaces; now UI designers can port the prototype directly to the handset without having to go through the lengthy process of re-coding in a C-based environment.

Macromedia’s business has been built on providing great toolkits for developers and its mobile effort is no exception. It is working to ensure greater integration between its desktop and mobile environments and synchronising the release of client and development kits. Later this year, it will introduce Flash Lite 2.0, both the mobile client and the desktop development kit, providing greater support for over-the-air updates and deep integration with handset applications.

The other significant factor driving demand is operator influence. Following DoCoMo’s example, operators around the world are looking to Flash for several reasons. Firstly, it drives third party content development. It also provides an effective tool for customising the handset interface to provide a consistent experience across a range of devices from different manufacturers. Last but not least, operators can deliver their own information services in Flash.

Macromedia is supporting all of these efforts. Kovacs showed me some of the examples they have been working on for operator customers and they are very impressive. One demonstrated an operator portal which enlivened standard operator information services such as news and weather with new presentation techniques. It was one of the most usable interfaces I have seen for some time, not least because most of the content was cached locally in the Flash application, dramatically reducing latency when navigating the portal.

The other demonstration, Flashcast, was even more interesting. Flashcast provides access to a network of third party content, ranging from games to news, all developed by Macromedia’s partners. At first Macromedia planned to act as an aggregator for this content, offering it to operators as part of an overall package of technology and content, but now Kovacs plans to work with individual operators to enable them to offer their own catalogues and third party aggregators, such as Nokia Preminet, to grow the market for third party mobile Flash.

Macromedia’s mobile platform, comprised of developer tools, client application and third party content, answers many of the requirements of user experience pioneers. It enables consistency in interfaces across a wide range of devices, it’s supported by an easy-to-use integrated development environment and it’s foundation in vector-based graphics allows applications to scale easily across virtually any screen dimensions.

As a company, Macromedia is also winning the hearts of partners by adopting an open approach to its business. Developers don’t feel threatened by Macromedia’s ambitions in the mobile space and industry partners such as operators and handset manufacturers are comfortable Macromedia’s agenda is compatible with their own.

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