Alltel Solves Discovery Dilemma

By Lynnette Luna As the voice market begins to saturate and operators look to data services to fill in the gap, there is one question that haunts many an operator. And that is: How do they spur mobile content consumption beyond the tech-savvy 18-to-35-year old user and into the mass market? That was a question Alltel struggled with in early 2006 as it experienced the same phenomenon its competitors did: Mobile functionality was increasing steadily, but adoption rates among users remained somewhat low as new applications were going undiscovered and high-level capabilities were ignored. “We definitely knew there was a discovery issue, and we started looking around and decided it was an industry issue,” says Kristi Crum, staff manager of product marketing with Alltel. “We were asking our customers to make a technology decision before they could even find the content they were looking for.” Unifying the user experience Members of Alltel’s data team envisioned a unified wireless experience that was focused on the idea that customers should have control over an integrated voice and data experience. But how could this be accomplished? Alltel began looking for an off-the-shelf solution and polled its existing vendors, but it could not find any existing solution to fulfill its vision. In an unprecedented move, Alltel decided to build its own solution in-house rather than rely on standard working applications from its OEMs. Alltel brought in Frog Design to address the situation, giving the technology design firm the jobs of promoting application development and designing a user interface that grants subscribers easy access to the application and simple ways to customize how each service is presented on the phone’s screen. “There were so many ideas that were thrown out,” Crum says. “We had a room with paper all over the walls filled with goals. Those goals were to monetize what we launched, deploy quickly, delight our users and we also wanted to innovate in the marketplace.” These goals all pointed to one design—a widget-like presentation that mimics the experience on the desktop PC where information portals and desktop widgets provide simple navigation in the face of expansive content. Cooperation is key Alltel quickly brought in three of its handset vendors—Samsung, LG and Motorola—along with Qualcomm for BREW expertise, Frog’s parent company Aricent to help with software development and content provider Motricity. The tight cooperation among these companies resulted in Alltel introducing Celltop just 12 months after its conception on the Samsung u520 in mid-January. At its most basic level, Celltop offers a series of vertically stacked screens that provide shortcuts to the subscriber’s preferred content or application. The service can access basic device functions, including calendar and messaging services, or more complex web-based services such as localized weather forecasts and sports scores. That means customers can access on- and off-portal content without the need to scroll through menus or enter search terms. Perhaps Celltop’s most unique selling point is the ability for users to modify the appearance, presentation and organization of their information within the cells shown on the screen. The user even controls the background color of the cells. The application also stores the user’s preferences and updates the cells accordingly. ARPU impact Celltop has had an immediate impact on Alltel’s data ARPU. Data per customer in the first quarter was $4.70, an increase of 64 percent year-over-year. Alltel reported that data revenue is now 10 percent of retail revenue per unit. “We’re definitely seeing a significant increase in our data minutes and downloads overall,” Crum says. “We’re getting new users to start finding content but without degrading our current business. There has been no decrease in BREW or WAP downloads so Celltop is doing everything we wanted it to.” Celltop is a BREW application that uses the UiOne user-interface software, which was important to Alltel because it wanted to enable its established BREW developer community to easily make cells for the new service. All Alltel had to do was publish its own recipe book of sorts for making cells as well as provide development codes, a style guide and developer web site. “For one of our most sophisticated cells, the developer downloaded all the tools from the web site and created a prototype in four days without any of our help at all,” Crum says. Today, Celltop is available on four handset models, two from Samsung, one from LG Electronics and the Razr V3M from Motorola. Crum says the goal is to include Celltop on 10 models by the end of the year and all models next year. The product has already achieved critical acclaim in the form of a best-in-show award in the second annual Emerging Technology awards, held at the CTIA Wireless 2007 trade show in Orlando in March. Alltel isn’t done innovating. It plans to launch new functionality that includes silent upgrade checks and better tools to make application development even more simplistic, Crum says. Alltel is also considering a customized version of Celltop for the enterprise market.