Technology is great, but it's apps and services that make the money. With the mobile industry firmly locked on to their 4G roadmaps, Wireless Asia looks at the top technology trends that will impact how cellcos approach the content side of the business (NOTE: Mileage may vary depending on the economic winds of change in your market)
Cloud computing goes mobile
The idea of cloud computing in the IT world has been around for ages, but now that smartphones - notably the iPhone and the Android-based G1 - are both driving mobile internet usage and creating easily accessible warehouses for users to get purpose-built apps for all kinds of things, the concept of computing in the cloud is gaining traction in the mobile sector.
For the uninitiated, 'cloud computing' (and related terms like virtualization and software-as-a-service) essentially lets the network, rather than a PC, laptop or handset, run a given app and do the heavy lifting in terms of the computer processing. Result: mobile users can use hundreds of apps without worrying about disk space, and can free up processing power, which can also extend battery life.
This is already happening at various levels, from basic things like BlackBerry Enterprise Server to mobile versions of virtual-reality sites like World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, vendors are looking at how to optimize the handset for the cloud. Companies like VMware and Wind River are promoting 'hypervisors' for ARM-powered devices that essentially divide the handset into two separate OSs running on their own chips - one for system-specific software, and the other for user apps.
Another idea - which assumes that mobile cloud computing will be client-based - could be to turn the SIM card into a client. Ajit Jaokar, founder and CEO of publishing company Futuretext, said at a recent SIM summit in Hong Kong that the OMA's Smart Card Web server for SIMs could serve as a cloud client, as it has all the features you'd need for one: complete Web server, a gigabyte of memory, browser-based apps development environment, offline web apps support, access to device APIs and a trusted ecosystem. Even better, it brings cellcos into the device/browser evolution loop and gives them a new value-add opportunity.
Your very own apps stores
Now that Apple's Apps Store has proven a hit with both iPhone users and - more importantly - apps developers, other players are scrambling to build their own. The forces behind Android have created the Android Market, and RIM now has a BlackBerry Store. Microsoft is rumored to be doing likewise with something called 'Skymarket' that could see the light of day in 2009.
Meanwhile, some operators are making their own moves. T-Mobile in the US and O2 in the UK have already announced plans to create and launch apps stores. In essence, it's all about establishing a firm, and branded, foothold in the mobile apps value chain. Both T-Mobile and O2 have said they want a platform to allow developers to create trial and monitor apps for handsets they carry, and give them a place to sell them. Interestingly, O2 is an iPhone retailer as well, while T-Mobile of course has the Android G1 handset - but both want more of their handsets to benefit from an apps-store concept.
Adobe wants the same thing, and will spend a lot of time next year pushing the mobile version of its Air platform that, purportedly, will give handsets a more common platform for apps that Adobe's Flash Lite hasn't quite achieved.
It won't be easy, of course - the handset sector has a tendency to fragment its software, and most operators still cling to decks and walled gardens. But it's hard to argue with success, and the initial success of the Apple Apps Store will inspire plenty of imitators over the next couple of years.
One could argue that the movement toward open-source handset operating systems became official when Symbian jumped on the bandwagon. Either way, the hype surrounding Google's Android OS that culminated in the first 'Googlephone', the HTC G1 for T-Mobile USA - as well as the understated but crucial efforts of the LiMo Foundation to bring Linux to handsets - has set the stage for a major push towards open-source handsets in 2009.
Handset vendors and operators alike are already choosing sides (albeit not exclusively). The last couple of months have seen a flurry of announcements, including the Symbian Foundation bringing companies like AT&T and AOL onside, while Android's Open Handset Alliance signed up 14 new members, including Vodafone, Sony Ericsson, Huawei Technologies and Softbank Mobile.
Naturally, most players aren't backing one horse, with many handset makers planning to support Symbian, Android and Windows in their smartphones. However, some analysts are speculating what Androidmania will means for the LiMo Foundation.
Ovum principal analyst Adam Leach notes that LiMo lacks the developer-friendliness that's made Android such a hit - even its SDK has been delayed until next year. And while Vodafone - one of its key supporters - has not downgraded its commitment to LiMo, its support for Android camp could set the stage for mobile Linux consolidation - which would likely suit developers just fine.
Meanwhile, the hacker community is already hard at work finding ways to spread the mobile Linux joy to the iPhone. One hacker, Planetbeing, claimed last month that he had successfully ported the Linux 2.6 kernel to an iPhone platform. Just one hitch: it won't support a touchscreen interface. But it's a step.
Mobile video and (free) TV
The potential for watching videos on mobile devices is greater than ever as more video-capable devices hit the shelves and new services are launched. But it does depend on what you mean by 'video' - and whether or not you expect to make any money from it.
There's little doubt now that users will watch video on portable devices, and will watch both quick snackable content and full-length TV drama episodes, as well as live content like sports events. But there's a lot of leeway there as to just where the video is coming from and how it's being accessed.
Two years ago, 'mobile video' meant mobile broadcast TV via DVB-H, MediaFLO, T-DMB or other technologies. Coming into 2009, however, it's also side-loaded video on iPhones and PSPs, and 3G-based video, including VOD downloads, streaming broadcast channels like CNN and Cartoon Network or watching Web video from YouTube, MySpace and even Hulu.
It's also worth mentioning that mobile broadcast TV has only really hit critical mass in a handful of markets, and in Asian markets like Japan, South Korea and China, it's driven mainly by free-to-air TV rather than paid subscriptions. That doesn't mean mobile broadcast TV is dead - but it's competing against other sources of mobile video. Operators in 2009 will be looking more closely at video options to see what makes sense for their market.
New adventures in LBS
Location-based services will certainly continue to gain momentum as more devices become GPS-enabled. But it won't necessarily be just about GPS.
Take NFC, which is still getting a heavy push from the GSMA, which has called on handset makers to have NFC built into phones by the middle of next year. The GSMA wants handsets NFC-enabled for mobile payments, of course, but operators who still aren't clear about their role in a contactless payment ecosystem seem more interested in location-based apps like smart posters, where billboards with RFID chips can be scanned for location-relevant downloads and deals.
2D barcodes already perform a similar function, and marketers are getting increasingly creative. Science-fiction author Alexander Besher plans to distribute mobile versions of his new novel via
t-shirts with QR codes. Another company, W-41, has designed t-shirts with logos that, once scanned with a cameraphone, automatically add the wearer as a friend to your online social network.
Indeed, social networks are expected to become increasingly location-aware in 2009 and beyond, through efforts of companies like GyPSii, and even location-enabled instant messaging applications such as Palringo Local and Nokia Chat. ABI Research reckons location-based mobile social networking sites will top the 82 million subscriber mark by 2013 as users become increasingly more active, using mobile as an active access method to their social networking sites rather than a way to check messages.
Mobile search tips
It's fairly well understood that as mobile apps and content grow and handsets become more internet-ready, you need to be able to find content as easily as you can when on a PC. Search engine giants Google and Yahoo will naturally continue their push to bring their expertise to the mobile space, but there's also a raft of start-ups hoping to improve the experience and come up with alternatives to the standard keyword search box.
One effort worth keeping an eye on is metaTXT, a standard developed by Visibility Mobile and Medio Systems, and backed by eight other companies that aims to make mobile sites easier for search engines to find and make the top of the results list. The metaTXT working group is hoping to get backing from W3C, dotMobi and the Mobile Marketing Association.
Start-up company Proximic is focused on making mobile search an easier experience by focusing on how people use handsets (as opposed to PCs). Its Proximic Agents app for iPhones sports a language-independent 'Point to Search' function lets users select an entire block of text on the screen and use it as a search string. The idea is to make mobile search easier by de-emphasizing the keypad.
Another potential trend to watch for is using camera phones as a search tool. NTT DoCoMo introduced such a feature in its N902iS handset using technology from D2 Communications and Bandai Networks in 2007, and in May this year, AT&T Wireless and 23half started trialing a service that uses MMS as a search tool.
Amazon.com plans to take it a bit further with its iPhone app that includes a feature called Amazon Remembers. Take a picture of any product you see anywhere, and Amazon Remembers will upload it to the site, after which freelance workers in Amazon's Mechanical Turk program will match the product in the photo with products for sale on Amazon.com - the idea being that Amazon can offer you a better deal on the same or similar item, and thus convince you to buy it online rather than in meatspace.
Amazon says the feature is 'experimental', and it's not hard to see why - the company fully admits that results can take anywhere from five minutes to 24 hours, and is probably more likely to work with window shoppers than people with more immediate needs.
What makes Amazon Remembers interesting is that it's backed by 'crowdsourcing' - which means humans evaluate the images instead of algorithms. It may not be as cost-effective - although, Mechanical Turk reportedly pays peanuts - but it's potentially more accurate.
Five more trends to watch in 2009
NFC-based payment services may still be locked in the trial stage, but mobile money transfer services look likely to be the big payments story of 2009.
Still a work in progress, but the Mobile Marketing Association's recent revision of mobile ad metrics could help give advertisers see what they're getting for their money.
The growing popularity of smartphones means more users need to start thinking about security the same way they (hopefully) do about PCs - good news for mobile device management vendors, then.
From hospitals harnessing wireless tech to improve communications and track patients to health apps that count calories and monitor vitals, health and wellness is an opportunity waiting to happen for cellcos
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