Arthur Goldstuck

Media mobility

2008-02-22 12:21

Arthur Goldstuck

The signposts to the future of the internet were writ large at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

Naturally, with the focus on all things cellular, there would have been an emphasis on the mobile device as an internet access medium, but this was something far bigger than mere emphasis.

For one thing, a new generation of phones is emerging that takes the internet seriously both as a tool and as a gateway for access to information. Most phones on the market at the moment offer a poor excuse for a browser, usually breaking a site up into columns, requiring the user to scroll down numerous menu elements before reaching anything that looks like content. This also removes context and sequence of content, which makes it impossible to use the internet effectively.

Many of the new phones offer a more authentic browser experience, and have come up with a neat way of getting around the size limitation of the screen. You see the website in a normal PC-based browser-type view, except reduced to the size of the screen. You can then zoom in to any part of the browser window, enlarging the text or images you want to view.

The much-hyped Apple iPhone and iTouch set the scene for this functionality. While it is an obvious solution to the usability challenges of handset browsers, it had never been part of manufacturers' strategic or development roadmaps. After the iPhone, it became inevitable. And in Barcelona, it became clear that every other handset manufacturer had quickly learned to embrace that strategy.

The message is not one the handset manufacturers particularly want to send out, but it rings out loud: they are forced to respond to the evolution of the customer experience and expectations, even when those expectations are driven by upstart competitors who have no business being in the phone business in the first place.

The irony was that Apple did not even have a presence at Mobile World, yet the conspicuousness of their absence - they were the name on all lips, even if tacitly - magnified their positioning as technology trend-setters. This in turn held another clue to what drives handset development: fear of what the competition may do that could change the consumer landscape.

Content is king

Once past the hype and fear, however, a far more substantial driver of consumer expectation came to Barcelona with sirens blaring. It could be summed up in one word: Content - with a capital C. From news providers to games developers, from record companies to instant messaging services, from blogging software writers to social networking application vendors, everyone wanted to leverage the biggest consumer market ever created. With more than 2 billion people using cellphones, who wouldn't want a slice of the pie?

This content feeding frenzy also plays neatly into the hands of the mobile operators, who are seeing their revenues from voice stagnating, and are facing increasing challenges in meeting the growth demands of their shareholders. By adding another layer of services on top of phone contracts and voice usage, they can begin to grow the pie once more.

The central thrust is how to get more out of the cellphone and out of the cellphone user. The first will allow the user to have an ever-improved - or ever more intensive - experience on the phone; the latter will ensure that the networks and manufacturers can make more money out of those users.

One thing that is certain is that, for the pervasive mobile user base to be fully leveraged, the much-hyped term, "convergence", must become reality. It doesn't mean that all things should be done on one device or that all devices must do the same things, but rather that technologies not be at war with each other.

Rob Glaser, CEO of digital entertainment services company RealNetworks, best known for its RealPlayer Internet video software, put it best during a keynote address in Barcelona.

"Most new devices are no- or low-compromise devices, usually a combination of a mobile phone and a very good second device, like a music Walkman, or a 5 Megapixel camera, and so on," he explained. "One thing that is clear is that there can be no compromise between the phone and that second device, but none of the phones will be do-everything phones with no compromise, because there are tradeoffs to get all those functions in. If it is easy to use the camera, then it won't be great at music, and vice versa. A good keyboard means a smaller screen, and vice versa.

Media mobility

So the key question, says Glazer, is this: "Will consumers pick a phone with the fewest compromises or the one with the most functionality?"

His prediction is that mobile phone functionality "will not stop at 100% but will go to 200%".

"In other words, you won't get it all on one device but you will on two devices. I can't live without my Blackberry, but it is not even close to no-compromise as a music or camera phone. The percentage of consumers with more than one of those devices will go up, and that makes for interesting application scenarios."

An interview with Steve Farmer, Motorola's manager of IPTV Strategy and Business Development for Europe, Middle East and Africa, also pointed to a dramatic growth in interconnectivity between different devices, with the cellphone at the centre.

"We call it media mobility. Being able to get access to your media wherever you are, whatever device you are using. There is already a standard being developed to make this a reality. It's called DLNA - the Digital Living Network Alliance. Hundreds of vendors are working on products for it. It allows you to move any media - pictures, music, movies - between devices in your home without complexity.

"For example, you would use your mobile phone as a controlling device, select a movie on network-attached storage and use your mobile phone to tell it to play it on that TV there. Likewise, you could take photos with a mobile, select the option to store it on a PC, and it's all seamless. The top five telcos in Europe are testing it right now."

The prospects outlined by Glazer and Field combine into a vision that holds new content opportunities, and that will speed up efforts to deliver internet experiences to the cellphone. On a continent like Africa, where cellphone penetration dwarfs internet usage, this heralds the dawn of a new era in connectivity. But it is still a murky dawn, and no one has quite figured out the business models that will turn it into clear daylight.

Can the cellphone deliver the internet to Africa? Or, at least, can it offer the internet to all of Africa? Going by the evidence in Barcelona, an entire industry is betting its future on a positive answer to that kind of question.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is an award-winning author and journalist, and is managing director of World Wide Worx, which leads research into internet and mobile communications in South Africa. Visit his urban legends blog at http://thoselegends.blogspot.comand and follow his coverage from Barcelona at www.gadget.co.za

    Send your comments to Arthur.

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