Trends from 3GSM, pt. 2

The annual 3GSM trade show, by virtue of its size and the ubiquity of participation, provides a good opportunity to get a general understanding of what’s happening in the mobile telecoms industry. This year I was only able to spend a day at the event, but one of the strongest impressions it left was the huge increase in visibility for the Windows Mobile platform. It was everywhere: in addition to a wide range of new device announcements, it was also the demo platform of choice for many smaller developers eager to show off their latest innovations.

Microsoft announced Version 6 of its mobile OS just before the conference, introducing a few incremental improvements like support for HTML email, the addition of Office applications to both the ‘Professional’ and ‘Standard’ editions, smart dialling and closer integration with Windows Live. However, this was very much an evolutionary upgrade – a fine tuning of a model which has started to work for Microsoft in a way I never imagined possible even a couple of years ago.

Looking back at Microsoft’s history in the mobile business, there has always been a fear the company would stifle innovation and its platform would constrain hardware manufacturers to a limited range of form factors. Flash forward to 2007 and it seems nothing could be further from the truth. Windows Mobile can be found in everything from consumer-focused clamshells to data-centric, laptop-style communicators.

Other historic fears of high prices and draconian developer conditions have also proved unfounded. Windows Mobile devices are competitively priced, with many hitting the market at a mid-range price point after operator subsidies, and it has one of the most vibrant developer communities in the mobile business.

It has taken Microsoft a long time to reach this point. For years the user experience of Windows Mobile products was complex and ill-suited to the mobile environment. I tried to use several Microsoft devices in the past and always found myself giving up after a couple of weeks of frustration at being unable to perform basic communication tasks without numerous steps. However, through a series of gradual improvements and listening to partners and users, Microsoft has reached a point where the platform is suitable for a much wider group of users.

I certainly don’t expect to see Windows Mobile devices achieving mass consumer status any time soon and nor is this Microsoft’s goal for the platform. They will continue to build a strong following among those who value data services and like the possibility of further customing their handset with additional software. I don’t like to use terms like ‘professional’ and ‘prosumer’, as customer segments are rarely that simple, but as a broad grouping this is probably the best way to describe the rapidly expanding customer base for Windows Mobile.

Zi Corp – genuine interface innovation

Zi Corporation is a good example of a smaller developer which has recently woken up to the value of the Microsoft platform. It launched a Windows Mobile version of its Qix mobile interface product at 3GSM. According to Milos Djokovic, CEO of Zi Corp, this was in response to requests from specific operator customers.

I first saw Qix two years ago and it remains one of the few genuine innovations in mobile interfaces. It uses Zi’s predictive text engine from the idle screen of the phone, allowing users to search for anything on their handset simply by entering the first few letters of what they’re looking for.

Qix works by comparing the text entered with a constantly updated index of the phone’s contents. It tracks contacts, bookmarks, music files, images and applications. If I start typing 5-6-4-6 (J-O-H-N) it immediately provides me with all my contacts called ‘John’, a list of my music tracks with John in the artist name and a link to the John Lewis department store.

There are two major advantages to Qix. Firstly, it uses an interface methodology most users are already familiar with – predictive text. Unfortunately it is quite a clumsy concept to explain – you really need to try it for yourself to get an idea of how easy it is to work – but it takes no time to learn once you’ve tried it. Second, it is a gateway to everything on your handset – there’s no need to remember different key combinations or menu systems for navigating contacts and music or applications and bookmarks – you can get to everything using the same Qix methodology.

The reduction in access times is remarkable. It works on the same lines as the repetitive click theory: it’s quicker to make ten clicks which don’t require any thought than five clicks where you have to pause to think about what you’re doing in between each one. As a result, you find yourself doing much more with your phone because it’s so much easier to get to services which were previously buried beneath several layers of menus and icons.

Zi is looking at numerous possibilities for the future of Qix. It has signed a deal to provide the application on T-Mobile handsets in the UK and is pursuing other operator agreements.

The company is also working hard on enhancing the functionality. Like almost every other mobile developer, it is exploring the possibility of mobile advertising by incorporating themed banners into the Qix interface. Type ‘Games’ and you’ll be presented with a folder containing a variety of games links and a relevant graphical advertisement. Currently these advertisements are ‘hard coded’ into the software, but Zi is working on providing a version which enables them to updated over-the-air.

It is also looking at ways of making the results interface easier to navigate. One solution, Zi’s CEO told me, is to provide ‘tabs’ along the top of the screen, allowing users to flip between different types of content. For someone such as myself, with several hundred contacts, music files and bookmarks stored on my handset, this would be a useful way of ensuring I reach the content I’m looking for.

I think Qix has tremendous potential. There are a few technical difficulties which need to be ironed out – the software crashes occasionally on my Nokia N80 (although the earlier version I was using about 2 years ago was rock solid) and it causes some unusual screen refreshes (when a text message arrives, the screen seems to blink three times when Qix is running). However, these bug fix issues aside, the actual operation of the software is very smooth.

Zi needs to be careful about how it introduces advertising features. I suspect the demonstration I was shown by Djokovic was very much a ‘proof of concept’ to attract operator interest at 3GSM, but we did discuss the danger that inappropriate advertising could actually undermine Qix’s central concept of helping users to complete their tasks more quickly. Simply displaying banner advertisements on themed screens is not a very intelligent use of Qix’s recognition engine.

If Zi is serious about mobile advertising – and that seriousness will most likely be a function of how keen its operator customers are to push the concept – it would do well to seek a strong partner among the emerging generation of intelligent advertising platform providers. Integrating technology from one of these companies would be a relatively simply business and the potential is enormous if they get the user experience right.

I can imagine Qix pared with Google’s contextual advertising engine or an operator’s deep knowledge of customer behaviour to provide a highly personalised platform extending right down to the user’s device. Qix would enable very relevant advertisements to be delivered even when the user is disconnected from the server. This potential, as well as Zi’s extensive relationships with handset manufacturers, make the company a very attractive acquisition target for a media company with ambitions in the mobile space (e.g. Yahoo or Google). AOL did something similar when it bought Tegic, developer of the T9 input system, several years ago.

Picsel – enriching media consumption

Picsel was another company showing ways its content platform could support advertising. The company’s unique asset is its viewer technology. Picsel has developed a universal content viewer for mobile devices, capable of rendering PDFs, images, videos, office documents and web pages in incredible detail. It also supports smooth scrolling and zooming with a clarity that has to be seen to be believed.

I remember seeing the platform about 3 years ago, when it was demonstrated to me by one of the VCs backing the company. I was impressed back then and Picsel has continued to improve the product since, adding support for new content types and expanding the range of platforms it can run on to include most of the major open OS.

It has recorded a number of initial successes, licensing the viewer to several handset manufacturers and claims to have shipped over 73m copies of its software to-date.

At 3GSM, Picsel’s Vice President Shankar Bhaduri told me the company was now working to target media firms looking to deliver a rich content experience on mobile devices. It’s added smart features to the platform, such as the ability to link into purchasing engines from within the viewer. This means the Picsel application can now serve as the front-end for services like price comparison sites or music video retailers. In one example, Bhaduri demonstrated an applet which allowed users to scroll between videos – as each clip was highlighted, the minature screenshot came alive and started playing the video in minature. When a clip was selected, it connected to the server to download the content and displayed a pre-cached video advertisement while the download completed.

Picsel’s strategy is to provide media companies with a pre-packaged version of its platform, customised with their content, which can be downloaded to a handset as a complete package. I was reminded strongly of the CES demonstration of Apple’s iPhone when using Picsel’s product. Companies seeking to compete with Apple’s rich mobile media experience would do well to evaluate Picsel’s viewer. You can buy individual copies for Windows Mobile, Palm OS and Symbian from the Picsel site.

Immersion – bringing touch screens to life

Another trend at the conference was the increasing proflieration of touch screens. LG was demonstrating its touch screen Prada handset and Samsung was showing off two devices, the F700 and F520. Coupled with Apple’s decision to almost entirely eliminate hardware buttons from the iPhone, there are signs that the flexibility of touch screen interfaces, currently confined to business devices, will migrate into consumer products.

I’ve been an advocate of increased usage of touch screens for some time, primarily because they allow interfaces to be completely customised and provide an elegant solution to the challenge of combining a good communications device with a useable multimedia experience. This was one of the solutions we arrived at during PMN’s 2004 handset design project with industrial design consultancy Alloy and the subject of several previous research notes.

However, there are some drawbacks to touch screens, not least the glassy, dead feeling when you actually put your finger or a stylus on the surface. This is being addressed by Immersion Corporation, a specialist in haptics, that has developed a platform known as VibeTonz to provide tactile feedback in response to touch screen input.

I met with Tim Vetter, Director of Product Management, and Terence Warmbier, Head of European Business Development, and they demonstrated VibeTonz on a mass-market Samsung handset and a high-end Windows Mobile device. VibeTonz dramatically changes the user experience. The nagging uncertainity which accompanies the usage of touch screens – where users are often left guessing whether the screen has actually picked up their input – is eliminated by providing vibrating feedback.

It’s difficult to describe until you’ve tried it, but it works by using a small rotary motor or electro-magnetic actuator (the electro-magnetic version uses less power and has less latency) to transmit vibrations to the finger tips. These vibrations are highly configurable and can be different for every action on the screen. In the demonstration I saw, a 12 key dial screen was set-up to give a different feel for each button.

Immersion’s IP, which is widely patented, is in how they transmit the vibration commands to the actuator. They license the platform as a development kit to companies like Samsung and LG. These licenses, which bear royalty on each unit shipped, enable the manufacturers to use the technology across their product portfolios. One of the Ultra series devices Samsung announced at 3GSM uses VibeTonz, as does the SCH-W559.

VibeTonz works at the application level, so each service on the device can use VibeTonz in different ways. A note taking application could have completely different vibration characteristics to a game, for instance. Immersion has also been working to reduce the size, power requirements and integration costs of the necessary hardware. According to Vetter and Warmbier, the size of the chip has dropped from 8mm x 8mm initially to just 2mm x 2mm in the latest version.

They made an interesting point about the adoption of VibeTonz. They believe a tipping point will be reached once it is installed on a few handsets in a manufacturers range, where users start expecting to see it on their devices. I can see their point – after using VibeTonz for any anount of time, other mobile handsets feel very dead when you go back to them. I believe it could form an important new dimension of the mobile user experience, particularly on touch screen devices, but potentially across the full range of handsets.


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