Most wireless apps miss the mark

Even the best mobile applications today don't take full advantage of the wireless network.

By Iain Gillott

Many companies and individuals have described a future for mobile content as it relates to the desktop-based Internet. Coupled with the development of mobile devices (i.e. bigger brighter screens, faster processors, increased memory and infinite battery life) the Web-centric protagonists simply extend the best applications and content to the mobile device.

An example can be seen in the recent concepts that have emerged for games based on Apple's iPhone. The games make use of the iPhone's Mac OS and its processor to simply extend Mac games to the mobile device - the user interface and movement sensor are incorporated into the game's controls.

Other example is music. Music is commonly available on mobile phones and a range of OEMs allow for both side-loading and downloading of music to the device.  Some operators offer streaming music and, obviously, video.

This is easy to do but really misses the value of mobility.  The Web-centists are just taking Internet content and applications and shrinking them to fit a smaller mobile device.    In essence, the content is just moving from one platform to another, without taking advantage of the mobile aspects of the wireless network.

Wireless networks today offer more than simple connectivity.  Aside from the location services (based around GPS or cell site triangulation), the network also detects presence for both device and application (for example, a network server knows when you start an IM application on your handset).  Through a contact or buddy list, the network knows when your friends are ‘on' network.

Payment and purchase history also are easy to find, as well as communication behavior. For example, the network knows when a subscriber usually makes calls or sends text messages.  I make the majority of my calls when I'm in Austin between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.  But when traveling, I tend to call later into the evening and earlier in the morning.  My kids never call or text (OK, they rarely call but always seem to need to text) during school hours.

The network also knows all about the device I am using including the screen size,  the type of keyboard, the processor, memory, speed of the data connection, and battery life.  For those people who will argue that open network access will remove this level of knowledge from the network, remember that each device will be certified for the network and will carry an IMEI or its equivalent.

Since the network, and therefore the application and content provider, know a greater level of detail about the subscriber and their device, this information can be layered into the content itself.  For example:


  • A college kid may be introduced through social networking to other students in the same vicinity with a similar taste in music or games. Imagine all of the Britney Spears fans at a university student union ‘meeting.' OK, bad example - Brit's remaining fans could probably meet in a phone booth.
  • Advertising inserted into mobile games can change to match the user's location. For example, if the subscriber is playing a game on their mobile in the airport, the ads embedded in the game would be for the food court, book shop or maybe a competing airline.
  • Multi-player gaming could also make far better use of location, presence and social networking to enable more interaction between players. For example, the equivalent of Paint Ball could be played on mobile devices in a building - the phones are the guns and the building's layout would show on the screen together with the location of the other players. Obviously, this would require accurate location determination through a building and a way to introduce everyone but it could be a fun way to pass the inevitable airport delays. Imagine playing Virtual Paint Ball at Terminal D in Dallas Fort Worth Airport with a group of complete strangers you met through LinkedIn.
  • User-generated content can easily be uploaded from a mobile device to the Web. But what if you could shoot a video and then publish to group of like-minded users through the operator? Compensation based on viewers could be in the form of micropayments or credits to your mobile account. Web cams are limited to a single location - mobile cams would allow people to publish their entire mobile lives.

Maybe some of these ideas are a little far out but you get the idea. Creatively mixing the best attributes of mobile with the computing power of a mobile device will, in the next few years, result in a whole new generation of mobile content. 

Iain Gillott is the founder of  iGR Research,  a market strategy consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile communications industry.