Mobile’s new best friends – playing nicely?

MDA AnalystsWhile the title of the annual market analyst forum suggested a certain current harmony between the cloud, social media and analytics, a series of analyst viewpoints indicated that the developing multi-device landscape might be a little more complicated.

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Smart Room shows cutting edge of Thistle Hotel

IMG_5145A technology-packed room recently opened at The Parc Hotel, Cardiff’s member of the Thistle chain. With strong interests in travel and tech, I was invited along to take a look.

“A grand Victorian building with a distinctive French-influenced façade, The Parc Hotel is a Cardiff landmark. Following a massive refurbishment, The Parc Hotel is universally recognised as one of the premier hotels in Cardiff City Centre.”


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Early marriage for smartphone and desktop apps

Ubuntu - barking up the wrong tree?

Ubuntu – barking up the wrong tree?

New technologies constantly collide and drift apart again, some sticking together for longer than others. We crave golden solutions which cram everything into one swiss army knife of goodness and often come close to finding it, before realising it can’t quite do everything.

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The text message: dead, dying, or thriving?


Those with mobile ears to the ground consistently receive mixed messages about the health of SMS.  General traffic numbers still look ok, mobile operators clearly still make some money from it – though that’s been dented, the number of applications and functions it can help facilitate is still impressive.  Yet still the naysayers remain.

Issues are muddied by context, of course – primarily the difference between person-to-person (or peer-to-peer or P2P) messaging, and aggregator-to-peer (or A2P) messaging.  The latter is commonly used for automated and system-integrated messaging, whereas the former is you texting your friends.

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Picking a platform for enterprise mobility

The right platform: key in getting you where you want to go.

This year’s mobile news has at times seemed dominated by smartphone Operating Systems: which has the most users, which is the most advanced, which is the most flexible and developer-friendly.  But outside of consumer bells and whistles, how many platforms are ready for the serious test of enterprise deployment?  We spoke to TBS Enterprise Mobility’s Managing Director, Steve Reynolds…

Q: We’re hearing more and more about smartphone operating systems and particularly the rise of the Google Android OS. How much impact is this having on enterprise solutions?

SR. What we’re seeing in the marketplace is a lot of focus on innovation in consumer smartphone operating systems. There’s a lot of noise out there which, as always, can make it tough to gauge what’s significant and what isn’t. What isn’t in dispute is that the smartphone market growth is phenomenal. It’s quite possible that we’ll see another 1000% growth on top of what we have now.

Q. What does this mean for device manufacturers?

SR. Manufacturers are at the point where they need to differentiate through genuine innovation. LG is launching its 3D phone, and there’s been considerable attention on the birth of smartphones with integrated Near Field Communications (NFC) functionality this year.

Manufacturers need to also be aware of form factors creeping up on the smartphone. At executive level in the enterprise space many devices like tablets are used covertly, or ‘unofficially.’ It’s only a matter of time before enterprise demands more from manufacturers’ technology stack, and consumer functions formally and securely percolate through to enterprise class devices.

Q: Why has Android become the consumer OS of choice?

SR. It’s the consumer OS of choice for many reasons. Android is an open source platform that’s been adopted across device manufacturers who are each seeking to differentiate and the open nature of the system gives greater opportunity to do this. High end, sophisticated devices are being produced alongside entry level, affordable smartphones like those from Samsung. This has defined the consumer difference.

Q. Is Android ready for use in the enterprise?

SR. There are considerable challenges for the Android OS before it is fit for enterprise purpose. With open source systems come legitimate concerns over lack of control. The current Android marketplace for distributing applications has a minimal form of quality testing, with reports suggesting that as many as 4 in 6 applications risk breaching data confidentiality regulations. Added to this are challenges around security, remote device management and whether Android devices are more vulnerable to being hacked. We don’t want to see another Sony PlayStation scenario with mobile data.

But there is promise. Developers can program enterprise applications to protect businesses from these threats. The next 12 months will see enterprise-focussed organisations like TBS develop applications which are sensitive to OS weaknesses.

Q: With the breadth of choice, what should I consider in selecting an OS for an enterprise solution?

SR. We should be careful to distinguish between enterprise solutions and field mobility here.

For many in the corporate space, enterprise solutions can mean email and messaging systems alone. These requirements can be adequately accommodated in iPhone and Android systems – provided there is an appropriate level of security installed on devices. Perimeter passwords offer protection, while technical policies can control the types of applications which can be downloaded.

However, field mobility organisations demand the flexibility to grow and adapt their solutions according to tight specifications and specific business needs. Rather than purchasing applications from a marketplace, many organisations select developers who can provide bespoke applications which future-proof investment through innovation roadmaps.

Remote device management and perimeter security has been a key requirement for enterprise based solutions over the last decade. For those managing large fleets of vehicles or construction teams in remote environments, this is critical. Windows Mobile 6.X has largely stood alone in supporting these requirements up until now.

Q. Are businesses limited by the availability of operating systems and devices, or is there enough choice?

SR. If anything there is too much choice at the moment. Everything from Android’s rise, to Palm’s Mobile OS, to Nokia’s disposal of Symbian hints at an overarching consolidation which could ultimately converge to just 3 or 4 systems.

Multiple OSs with multiple Software Development Kits makes for a frustrating and confusing development experience, but the advent of HTML 5 heralds a real cross-platform development leap forward. Notwithstanding current limitations in its low level control of devices and an absence of rich control, in time it will lead to more fluent programming.

Q. What is the TBS development strategy for accommodating the OS market evolution?

SR. It’s imperative for TBS that we support as many smartphone operating systems as possible to give our customers the chance to innovate. To this end we have an intensive programme underway to provide solutions on all of the major smartphone systems, in addition to tablet devices. With device boundaries set to blur in the future, our goal is to ensure TBS customers can use multiple form factors and are given the ultimate flexibility to adapt solutions in line with their businesses.

Open Sesame – how public data stimulates innovation

open sesame ..and into the light

Open data is widely spoken of as A Good Thing in the technology world, important in the meteoric rise of the Android mobile Operating System and vital in broadly sharing wealth.

Android’s open source nature has helped produce a burgeoning ecosystem of applications and services, although it’s still playing catchup to Apple’s App Store. An indie-hit application, Simon Maddox’s 0870 was based on freely available data, and Simon himself was happy to show where the data could be accessed.

Now others from across technical and non-technical sectors are looking to emulate the success and reap the benefits of Open data: benefits which can directly impact those who free the data, allowing them to concentrate on their own expertise, as well as those who access it.

At the Mobile Data Association’s recent Mobile and the 2012 Games seminar, Transport for London’s Vernon Everitt explained the wide-reaching benefits of its open data policy, freeing travel information for independent developers to create their own applications, improving the experience of travelling around the capital.

By opening up APIs with real-time data feeds, such as live departure board times or location data for Barclays Cycle Hire docking stations, mobile application developers can access dynamic data for creative new services to be packaged around.

This week TfL unveiled an updated Web Developers’ Area, replete with free travel information for mobile application developers.  Free-to-use information now gives developers the ability to update existing apps, and create new ones allowing passengers to check their routes whilst on the go.

The latest addition is a live Tube travel news feed known as Trackernet, which shows the location of trains across the London Underground network at any time.

Other information in the area includes:

• Live traffic disruptions
• Realtime road message signs
• Barclays Cycle Hire docking station locations
• Timetable of planned weekend Tube improvement works
• Station locations (for Tube, Docklands Light Railway and London Overground)
• River Thames pier locations
• Find-a-ride (licensed private hire operators)
• Oyster Ticket Stop locations.

Live travel information has been made available thanks to collaboration between TfL and Microsoft, creating a robust Azure Cloud platform to host data in a way that will meet the expected demand from thousands of developers.

Transport for London Developers’ Area

It should be acknowledged that harnessing ‘open’ data isn’t failsafe. There can certainly be risks associated with a service that depends on the consistent uptime of an uncontrollable API, but the benefits outweigh it. After all, we all forgive the occasional glitch in mobile signal and we’re used to patchiness in technology, however irritating it can be.

With Open Data initiatives like TfL’s flourishing, the hope is that other public sectors and council services such as libraries will follow suit.

Online services for public libraries are developing. While their presentation might appear dated, as well as being able to reserve and renew items, Cardiff Library also tells you who your favourite authors are. There’s huge social potential to be gained in freeing such data, with the user’s permission.

As technology services and applications evolve, an internal cultural shift needs to happen within public sector. While precaution with private data should remain paramount, (TfL’s Oyster card data is still kept under the proverbial lock and key), less fear should be exercised with non-sensitive public service data.

Finding ways of packaging publicly accessible information into usable APIs will ensure we all benefit through improved, immediate 21st Century services.

Look out the Windows (is coming)

Look out the WindowsMicrosoft Windows 7 was launched on Monday with a well-coordinated fanfare. Early signs are impressive but it’s banking as much on the mysterious allure of it being ‘Something Else’ for consumers, as it is on any fine detail around the new Operating System. It’s this same Something Else factor which HTC’s Android devices have effectively traded on until now, helped along by the Quietly Brilliant tag.

When customers in stores turn their noses up at iPhones merely for being samey, or being bored, the alternative option placed under those upturned noses has often been an HTC, through which the customer can be assured to spend a comparable amount, yet have a sense of difference.

Now there’s a new kid in town.

Some say it’s too late to catch Apple, RIM, Symbian (still way out in front) and Android, but they can’t fault Microsoft’s effort.

This week’s launch of the Windows Phone 7 OS has seen 60 global operators climb aboard, together with four OEMs announcing devices and a rumoured marketing budget of £250m.

Few customers buy mobiles because of an operating system, so much onus is on the devices themselves, and the operator tariffs. From there, user experience, reputation and word-of-mouth buzz will decide if it flourishes.

This is a natural step which Microsoft was obliged to take, although it always faced a major catch-up scenario given the lost ground. Media’s future will be inextricably linked to data, the internet, TV, games and music: and moreover, the ability to access all of this whilst on the go.

It’s important for Microsoft to make this work, and the early signs are encouraging. The press reception of devices, the OS and its applications available all appear to be positive. Indeed in an Apple-jaded world, there’s virtue to be claimed in the plain newness of repackaging regular Facebook, email, text message and mobile application experiences. This, combined with an interface boasting arrestingly slick looks, is certainly pushing buttons. (Or tapping icons).

But still much will depend on the noise generated by the same newly socialised, you/me-centric social media web age which appears hardwired into the new Windows Phone 7 and its apps. This will decide whether the Something Else becomes a serious alternative, or even a serious rival.

Retailers ready for transactional mobile

A gulf between them?

Show me the money (or at least the billing mechanism)

Research published by trade bodies the IAB, AIME and IMRG and reported by NMA says that two-fifths of UK retailers are planning to launch a transactional mobile site or app within the next year.  It also says that retailers admit to needing more training.

How meaningful is that?  Is it rather like saying I’m planning to get good at golf?  (I too might need more training).

The question is surely how?  What’s my method of getting good?  Because it’s such a young, relatively unscaled medium, nobody is quite sure.  Faith is being piled into smartphone platforms and mobile applications but due to the lack of a blueprint, different routes are boldly being taken.

The bodies’ survey of 141 UK retail brands found that over half expected a mobile revenue upturn in the next year, but only 20% (or four) of the 20 most popular UK retailer websites are mobile optimised. Mobile web is one channel, and a sensible way of spreading eggs amongst different baskets.

Stacking Shelves

However, many more retailers are concentrating their short-term attention on filling app store shelves with mobile applications.  Ocado (Waitrose) went with iPhone and Android platforms which were launched around a year ago, loyalty scheme Nectar has recently opened up on the same platforms, while Tesco has decided to focus on Nokia, its Ovi app store and S60 devices, because those are the devices which the majority of their audience owns.

Whether that Nokia user-base is as mobile-engaged, motivated or fundamentally interested in using a Tesco application, will be interesting to watch.

Marks & Spencer are largely out on their own in focussing on the mobile browser, and the ‘seamless journeys’ it says it gives, optimising the mobile experience across all platforms.  And it’s doing this well, claiming over 1.2m unique visitors a month and more than 300,000 orders from the site since its launch.

With Amazon expecting to generate $1.5 billion in mobile transactions alone in 2010, it’s no surprise that the leading retailers are looking in the direction of mobile to generate new revenues.  But it’s also clear that, to a greater or lesser extent, all are taking informed guesses.  This is a new space, after all.  It’s to be expected.

What most are interested in from the top of such large retailers down, is how much new revenue can be earned; how much users spend and are willing to spend, or how browsing might inform physical purchasing decisions.  Amazon is clearly different from a high street franchise or a supermarket in that there is no physical purchase: you browse, you often know what you’re browsing, you might take a quick comparison check elsewhere, but because you trust the vendor, you buy.

Select your payment method

Key to the numbers, the cash and the revenue, is the mobile billing mechanism: a subject seemingly overlooked by this latest research.

Google’s decision to adopt PayPal into the Android application marketplace suggests its patience with mobile network operators and carrier billing has been exhausted.  Considerable effort continues to be invested in the UK’s mobile network operator internet standard, Payforit.  Despite a malnourished website, its latest iteration has witnessed concerted attempts at promoting mobile billing for online micropayments (predominantly through Impulse Pay).  But still, its limitations are still generally perceived as being too many, its experience too inconsistent.

The success of iTunes and Apple’s app store has been based on credit card billing linked to an account, a practically invisible payment process and no spend-limit.  Other platforms are aspiring to this as well, suggested by the reported talks between Google and PayPal.

And the app ecosystem stands to benefit.

Reports by Bloomberg covered by The Telegraph cite three people familiar with the situation, and suggest that “By adding PayPal, Google would give app developers another way to get paid, potentially making them more likely to create software for Android.”

This can be no bad thing, especially given that Google’s existing Checkout service has fewer registered customers than PayPal.  Meanwhile, carrier billing has an upward spend limit, revenue shares between mobile operators and developers remain a moot point and there can be technical discrepancies between carriers on how billing is managed – leading to inconsistent consumer experience.

Carrier billing – Processing…

As Payforit in the UK has shown, smoothly integrating carrier billing in one country through one medium (the mobile browser), without much of a budget, is hard work.  Integrating across global regions and multiple mobile media?  Given the fragmentation.. well, that might be a little tricky too.

For retailers to earn from mobile, unless mobile networks significantly change their game, standardising PayPal and credit card billing will likely continue to herald the way forwards.  Whether right or wrong, banks are still largely more trusted to conduct transactions than mobile network operators, for a reason.

Pay Now

With the big retail players pinning their colours to various platform masts, according to advice on volume, audience and reach – all of which should all be thoroughly considered – there can be a disconnection with the payment process.

It’s the selection of billing mechanism and the focus on an intuitive, transparent user experience which will separate the profitable fresh goods from the loss-making reduced to clear items.

The WAC app attack

Will WAC find its balance on a single platform?

The new announcement of ‘WAC’ (Wholesale Applications Community) triggers mixed emotions.

While its over-all mission remains admirable – to accelerate the delivery of an open standard applications platform – does the official formation of a company through a merger with the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), together with the assembly of a Board and Business Model amount to much that wasn’t known already?

First off, what of its previous incarnation? The Wholesale Applications Community was originally brought together in February, pre-acronym, under the umbrella of the global mobile network trade body, the GSMA. There appears to be no mention of the body in formal press around WAC’s launch, although the publicity seems to be led by GSMA affiliated folk.  Its extraction into its own company may simply be the easiest way to assemble the group, possibly for tax purposes given it will be a not-for-profit body which charges a levy on every application sale, to cover its costs.  But the evolution isn’t the clearest.

This new WAC dawn could equally suggest the realisation of unnecessarily disparate work across the BONDI, JIL and One API initiatives – as suspected before. Although in February it was promised that the Wholesale Applications Community would incorporate all of these, they now appear set to be housed under a single roof.

Yet for all the new unity, use of the word ‘accelerate’ could provoke an arched eyebrow.

While organising geographically and commercially disparate stakeholders presents obvious challenges, rollout is not likely to arrive at the speed of light. In fact, the delivery of useable, standardised material for developers might arrive close on a year after the group was first announced at Mobile World Congress, February 2010. Over this time Apple and Android’s grip on the applications market will continue to tighten.

What will be the state of the market when WAC has had time to percolate with applications (let’s presume that it will), eighteen months to two years down the line from now? How much further ahead will Apple and Android be then? Could the humble mobile browser even be making a comeback, with an improved experience to rival the dominance of apps?

The WAC Attraction

Analysts in the GSMA’s writeup of the news point out that consolidation of the route to market and the aggregation of mobile storefronts will be the biggest draw for developers. That’s assuming intuitive process and a one-size fits all approach is feasible and works in practice, as well as looking impressive on paper. This is undoubtedly an attractive proposition.

Attractive too is the potential breadth of audience; that WAC applications can reach wider than smartphones and into lower end devices. On a webinar, interim WAC CEO Tim Raby said: “We want to support as large a population of devices as we can in the portfolios of operators and we have the support of many device vendors.”

Addressing lower end devices in developed markets, where Java applications tried and largely failed, is an interesting tactic. However, it’s difficult to envisage considerable traction in trying to sell mobile applications to low users who have demonstrated little interest in mobile applications and are likely a tougher sell.

Emerging markets, on the other hand, have been amongst the most innovative in their use of basic mobile voice and data solutions. Adding an application element could create further practical opportunities if geographical capacity allows.

For all this, will it really be attractive enough to divert developers’ and, as importantly, brands’ fixation from the mainstream established Apple and Android channels?  These are after all, channels which they know work, rather than channels they could be taking a gamble on.

Payforit and mPayments to cash in?

Returning to an optimistic outlook, another boon could be found in mobile payments and specifically Payforit, the UK standard mobile internet payment platform, which bills mobile subscribers’ phone contracts and deducts from prepay tariffs. With a unified and trusted mobile storefront populated by desirable applications that consumers are willing to make micropayments for, the effect could be positive.

But again, by the time this all comes to pass, it could be a case of playing catch up. Google’s in-application carrier billing is currently receiving another push in the US, with promises of an iTunes-like ease of payment experience in Android applications, and billing conducted via the subscriber’s mobile contract.

Sticky details

Outstanding issues include the business model for developers distributing free applications and their revenue share. Developers will set their application price and receive a share of the transaction defined on an operator-by-operator basis (but thought to hold to the regular 30/70 developer / mobile network ratio). This is designed to ensure revenue shares remain competitive. As a not-for-profit organisation, WAC will receive a small transaction fee for each application to cover its operating costs.

Will free or ad-funded applications be excluded from the WAC market? Or how will they fit? And how about in-app advertising and freemium models? When will WAC look to incorporate key mobile network enablers such as location, behavioural tracking and user identification? Is it even possible to unify global operators on such technically intricate issues?

These issues will be addressed in future releases, possibly in a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ approach.

November: fireworks or damp squib?

WAC is not wanting for serious challenges, but it will certainly take its time. With JIL fully integrated into the operation by September, the next step is the release of its initial specification and Software Development Kit components to developers in November.

Once this WAC material has been produced and disseminated across the relevant developer communities, public bluster can be shelved in favour of informed assessments and detailed roadmaps.