Personalization Evolves, What's Next?

By Susan Murray

There was a time when mobile personalization meant simply polyphonic ringtones and static wallpapers, but as the market evolves, developers and carriers are pushing beyond the basics into ringback tones, video and user-specific recommendations.

The ringtone market continues to mature, while the graphics market has eroded as more people look to personalize their device, says Seamus McAteer, senior analyst with M:Metrics. There is a growing interest in ringback tones, given the fact that they can be replicated through less expensive user-created content. Record companies like ringbacks because they can deal directly with the operator, while the operator likes them because they offer a recurring revenue source that is not available with ringtones, according to McAteer. BREW users also are highly engaged in ringback tones, with BREW users being 41% more likely than the average users to use ringback tones, according to M:Metrics usage statistics for the three months ended February.

BREW has an engaging user experience, says Brian Casazza, CEO of Zed USA, which was created when Zed Worldwide acquired 9Squared, The platform, at its onset, brought groups together and provided them with a way to make money. "BREW has driven a lot of revenue for our company," he says, noting that its RealTone JukeBox has generated 76 million paid downloads. Monetizing content is key, he says. "The [BREW] platform can be a meaningful source of revenue if an application can connect with users," he says.

Zed's latest offering is VoiceMail Max, which enables users to customize their outgoing voicemail message. The company also is looking to bundle with ringbacks, which is being facilitated by application value building (AVB) - the ability to bundle multiple priced products across verticals.

Another way to connect with users is by recommending content that has meaning and value to a specific user. Zed is looking to do more with marrying mobile content with merchandizing and social community technologies

"Personalization is being defined as user-generated content," says McAteer, who notes that while the market is substantial, there is room for innovation and growth. Casazza, who plans to delve into what is possible with the platform in his BREW session, "The Evolution of Personalized Content," agrees. "BREW is a standardized platform, which helps, but more things are possible."

Ireland's Xiam, which was purchased by Qualcomm in March, is looking to take personalization to the next level through its software that matches behaviors and interest with mobile phone users. The software application, according to Colm Healey, Xiam's vice president and general manager, "solves the problem of discovery on the mobile phone. It narrows down choices for people like 'you.'" Healey expects the application, which already has been commercially deployed by Orange in the U.K. and Vodafone in Ireland, will be included with the next release of BREW, which will open it up to a wider audience given it will work with any multimedia handset.

McAteer sees the ability to recommend or deliver personalize content to a device as a good idea, especially if it integrates merchandising with content. The merchandizing of content on a handset does not do it justice right now. Qualcomm's uiOne is interesting when it comes to personalization, he says, noting the development of new capabilities, including a user being able personalize an entire display and have the content served up to him offline. Xiam's Healey says the ability to recommend the right content is just as important as not offering up the wrong content. With mobile advertising, for instance, there is a risk of people feeling bombarded with information. "Our technology ensures that the user has a high probability to respond to [a particular piece of content]," says Healey.

Developers must avoid trying to retrofit the Internet to the mobile device, according to Healey. "On the Internet you can ignore offers. [On mobiles] you have to make sure you are filtering out the irrelevant and time-wasting stuff."

What drives carriers to personalization?

Money is a big driver for operators to further embrace mobile personalization. "It is a new source of revenue for the operator - if you can move beyond just ringtones and graphics to personalizing the display, it brings you closer to the customer," McAteer says. Zed's Casazza agrees. "If done correctly, it can attract and retain customers, and drive revenue," he says.

But warns Casazza, BREW is not a cheap platform to build for because developers need to port to many handsets. "Do your homework, don't go 'willy-nilly' into building something without talking to the operator first."