Mobile devices a luxury no more

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The growth of mobile broadband is transforming the kind of content that can be offered to consumers on a handset. But there is still work to do to convince the mass market.

Social networking, music downloads and mapping applications were services that, just two years ago, either were not possible on a mobile or were hugely expensive. – both to the content providers and users. “We can now do it very cost effectively,” says Rich Holdsworth, the chief technology officer of optimisation specialists, Wapple.

The media industry is keen to seize this opportunity for enhanced mobile content, and this is resulting in what Olaf Swantee, the head of Orange’s global mobile operations, describes as an “explosion” of content designed specifically for the mobile internet.

Gaming companies, for example, are developing rich-media games that allow users to link with each other on the move bringing functionality on a par with devices linked to a PC or television. “Handsets can now offer a connected experience, much more like a gaming console,” says Barry Cottle, chief executive of EA Mobile, a division of the gaming company Electronic Arts.

This new supply of content is starting to find consumers. Since Apple launched its iPhone App Store – a site with dedicated iPhone applications covering categories from entertainment to finance and social networking – in May 2008, it has had 500m downloads and has generated $120m in revenues, according to publisher Informa.

Jin Lee, managing director for the communications and high technology group at consultancy Accenture, points out that Apple went from offering 500 applications to 10,000 in less than six months. “That’s all happening during the downturn,” he says. “This indicates consumers are relying more on their mobile phones as a needed device rather than a luxury, even now.”

It is not just the “iPhone” effect, says Mr Swantee at Orange: content consumption using dongles [gadgets that control wireless access] attached to laptops, as well as other handsets, has also been on the rise. He points out that in Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, usage on its mobile broadband network is as high as in the rest of Orange’s footprint in Europe. “We are seeing the same average revenue per user there as we are in our other markets,” he says. “Mobile broadband is taking off in every country, whether it is a highly developed or underdeveloped market.”

Yet even with faster networks and better devices, the industry is scrambling to keep up with the changes underway on the fixed internet, which is also becoming a richer experience.

Only a couple of years ago, the size of an average web page was 100 kilobytes; today it’s 350KB. “That trend will not change. Things are only getting more sophisticated,” says Randy Cavaiani, vice president, marketing and business development for Novarra, which, like Wapple, optimises the internet for mobiles. “Functions such as RSS feeds and viral tools work well on the laptop, but the challenge is delivering all that over the limited functionality of a handset.”

Indeed, most phones still lack some of the most common applications used for streaming video and audio on the internet, such as Flash from Adobe, which appears on most websites, but cannot be read by the majority of devices on the market. Danny Winokur, senior director of business development in the platform business unit at Adobe says the company’s mobile version of the application, Flash Lite, is starting to see widespread adoption on handsets but he added that full Flash has had “limited success”. He says the company is developing a full Flash version that will work on handsets “by the end of this year”.

The mobile world also remains highly complex: a popular destination on the mobile web can attract up to 50,000 unique combinations of phones and browsers, which means formatting content 50,000 different ways to make it user-friendly, says Mr Cavaiani at Novarra.

“The challenge continues to be fragmentation,” says Mr Cottle at EA. “Everyone believed that we would consolidate on a single platform but today we have even more handsets, platforms, and capabilities.”

For now, says Mitch Lazar, managing director in Europe for Connected Life, Yahoo’s mobile and broadband service, the focus will have to be on mobile-specific content, or “using your mobile to get show times and cinema locations rather than the movie itself”.

He says: “The priority now is for publishers to think about mobile first experiences. It’s not about taking the PC and shoving it into the phone. It’s about how best to develop the real estate and the experience to engage the audience.”

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