The new world of mobile apps

Technology advancements and creative thinking have opened up a new era in the world of mobile applications

Think about mobile applications just a year or so ago, and your thoughts likely would have focused on necessary but mundane tasks such as email, messaging and security. Think about mobile apps now, however, and it's a brave new world, seemingly limited only by a software developer's imagination and tolerance for risk.

All over the world, mobile operators are looking to find the 'killer app' that will pique the interest of mobile users and generate a whole lot of recurring revenue. Service providers are struggling to find the right business model to capitalize on the mobile apps explosion that is being fueled by cooler devices, added convenience and greater bandwidth. The opportunity is certainly huge: Recently released research from Compass Intelligence shows US businesses alone will spend roughly $9 billion annually on mobile applications by 2011 up from $3.8 billion this year. The consumer market is even more lucrative in Asia and around the world.

'Because of the converged world of communications, applications and mobile applications are creating huge buzz and interest in the market,' says Stephanie Atkinson, managing partner at Compass Intelligence. 'Service providers must get into the mobile applications game by either developing new relationships with software vendors or developing in-house solutions that work across mobile devices.'

Some of the most interesting mobile apps are surely designed for niche market players (thwarting terrorism, tracking lightning strikes or locating the best fishing hole), but others have a much broader call (social networking, accessing music collections or forwarding email.) Whether the approach is micro or macro, the result is intriguing all the same, and the payoff for users (in enhancing efficiency) and for service providers (by developing new revenue streams) promises to be profound.

Wireless Asia picks 10 of the most interesting, and often the weirdest, apps with the potential to generate new revenue streams and give consumers more convenience and fun.

1. Magazines to go

Tired of lugging a satchel full of heavy magazines on that next business trip or vacation‾ Mobizines, a mobile magazine aggregator, may have the answer. It provides bite-size, brand-name magazines, webzines, TV channels and record labels for your mobile device and has gained nearly 250,000 subscribers in the UK, Germany, South Africa and more recently, North America. In Asia the it då·„uted a preview of the service at the Music Matters event in Hong Kong at the end of May, and Charged magazine will launch the service at CommunicAsia in Singapore in June.

Furthermore, the service is free; advertising pays for the content. (Users have to pay applicable data charges to their carriers, however.) The company uses up-to-the-minute technologies such as Flash Lite and Java interfaces to pull together word, picture and sound files and display them as a multimedia page on your mobile phone. The service works on more than 100 different mobile devices. So if reading GQ, Men's Fitness, Maxim or BBC news updates on the run is your idea of unwinding, Mobizines may be for you.

2. Voice-to-screen messaging

Okay, so you're inundated with annoying voicemail messages, and it's time to head out of the office for that pressing social engagement.

 

SpinVox has you right in its crosshairs. The company is test marketing with more than 40 service providers around the world a service that allows wireless customers who sign up to have their incoming voice messages converted into text and sent directly to their mobile phone. The voice-to-screen messaging service eliminates the need to check voice mail in the traditional fashion. The service has officially begun to roll out through select wireless carriers in Europe and the US; look for it to expand into Australia and New Zealand later this year and into Asia next year.

Other similar services recently launched by Google, Yahoo and TeleFlip add a slightly different component: they deliver your email messages directly to non-smart mobile devices, instantly turning your dumb mobile phone into a smart device so that you, too, can obsessively and instantly keep abreast of every incoming message.

SpinVox can actually work in tandem with the other email programs, allowing the totally obsessed to have any and all voicemails and emails land in that one (fully converged) mobile device. You may never miss a message again. And that may not necessarily be a good thing.

3. New life for SMS

Do you get worked up about your SMS messages‾ Is text not a hot enough medium for you‾ Well, Vodafone Egypt seems to have found a winner with its recently marketed BubbleTalk 'Voice SMS' service. Launched under the brand name 'MiniCall', Vodafone executives say subscribers use it to 'convey more emotional messages in a way that text-based messaging cannot achieve.'

The carrier says the service has improved ARPU for users by 1.5% in just a few months and has generated a new revenue stream without cannibalizing existing SMS service offerings. Part of the attraction is that users can send voice SMS messages to subscribers on other networks in Egypt. The service works on any handset capable of receiving voice and SMS and doesn't require additional software downloads.

'This is only a start, as the product evidently has more potential of being a key messaging product in the market,' says Richard Daly, chief commercial officer of Vodafone Egypt.

4. Keep your hands to yourself

A mobile phone that reads fingerprints‾ As online shopping and banking grows, security becomes more important. Now, Chinese handset maker Qiao Xing Mobile, which produces phones through its CEC Telecom subsidiary, has developed an 'information security mobile phone' with its own fingerprint recognition system.

CECT chairman Wu Zhi Yang believes there is 'tremendous market potential for handsets with technology features that are designed to safeguard data on both the device and over the network' as consumers get more involved in online financial applications.

5. Walking the walk

You know it had to happen: A collision-avoidance device for terrestrial dwellers. A new mobile handset for the pedestrian-challenged, called the 'Safety Mobile Phone', has been unveiled by Japan's Oki Electric Industry. The device uses an embedded wireless module for short-range, inter-vehicle communication and combines GPS and GSM functionality.

It collects data on drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians in a given area up to several hundred meters and sends out regular location information. When it senses the possibility of an imminent collision or accident, it sounds a warning, hopefully giving you enough time to get out of the way.

 

6. Zapping the social network

If you've got the urge to be more creative than a simple text or voice message will allow, a new service, GotZapp, allows you to build multimedia images online from its gotzapp.com website and easily 'Zapp' them to mobile phones all over the world.

The social networking service provides for the creation of Java-based mobile web sites that include, stories, blogs, photo galleries, music and media clips with a free software download. They can then be shared on mobile devices. 'Wireless users in Asia and Europe can take full advantage of this technology immediately,' says Tim Loudermilk, the company's chief software architect. 'With GotZapp, social networking truly becomes mobile.'

7. Mobile music mania

Downloading MP3 files to your mobile phone is so totally last year. And Apple's new iPhone is oh, so expensive (and not yet available in Asia, anyway). What to do‾ Well, with Mercora's new Mv2 (for Version 2) service, you can transform your mobile phone into a social music player and radio service. Basically, you upload your digital music library to Mercora's servers, convince up to five of your friends to do the same, and then use the phone to access everyone's shared music collection. (This is officially called 'Socially Networked Listening' but 25 years ago it was called 'tape bootlegging.')  Whatever. It's truly legal now because Mercora pays the necessary artist royalties, and besides, you can actually program your music in some order and transform yourself into a bonafide webcaster, morphing into one of the tens of thousands of music channels that subscribers can access. (Company officials say Chinese DJs have proven the most popular on the radio service.)

The M service is compatible with Windows Mobile smartphones and Pocket PCs; Java support is coming. There is a price to all this coolness, however, an annual subscription fee that runs around $50. Can Mercora's M become the iPhone slayer‾ Company officials certainly hope so, and one thing they have going for them is that it's a lot less expensive.

8. Don't glow in the dark

Truly a product for the paranoid age we live in - two US technology companies can now turn your mobile phone into a 'personal environmental threat detector' by combining GPS with a nationwide sensor network. Many of the mobile sensors are already in place in the US, and they can sniff out radioactivity (assuming the nuclear explosion or nuclear plant meltdown escaped your notice) and other nasty biohazards and toxic chemicals. Gentag Inc. and eVProducts Inc. are busily working to perfect the low-cost, threat prevention mobile phones and expect to use them to mass-deploy the network. No word if either music, television can operate on them, but perhaps carriers will package them in a kit with lead suits.

9. Duck and cover

Nokia has come up with a novel idea: a mobile device that tells you to take shelter when lighting is about to strike. Since a lightning bolt is little more than an electric current that produces radio waves, company officials reckon that receivers in a phone can be used to tune in and pick up the signals. Software will then be used to interpret them, compute the actual distance to the lightning by plotting the distribution of the signals, and then warn you if a bolt is headed your way.

 

Nokia has filed a patent for the application in the US, but it's unclear whether the company's plan will answer the age-old question of whether lightning really can strike the same place twice.

10. Mobile credit

DCMX (DoCoMo + x) is a consumer credit service running on DoCoMo's iD platform for mobile credit cards. As the issuer, DoCoMo extends the credit and handles collections. DCMX also provides Visa or MasterCard (pending) credit cards that are widely accepted abroad as well as related services such as overseas travel insurance.

DCMX mini, the 'lite' version of the DCMX card series, enables users to make purchases by waving their RFID-chip phones in front of a dedicated iD reader/writer in a store, with no signature required. Payments are billed together with the user's monthly DoCoMo phone charges.

Customers are able to start using the service immediately after applying through i-mode.

DoCoMo aims to differentiate its offering by designing cool cards, bills and sound effects of RFID readers in collaboration with industrial designers and composers.

According to Wireless Watch Japan, the service is 'shaping up to be the main pillar in DoCoMo's consumer financial services strategy that will lock in mobilers and secure massive revenues long after 3G has become a low-margin sideline.' It claims DCMX isn't merely the Next Big Thing - 'it's everything; and it's going to make 3G itself redundant.'



Traditional apps find a home with business

While it is the unique and unorthodox wireless applications that will break through into commercial use, it's the more traditional ones that have found a home among business users. And more of those are on the way.

According to a report released by research firm In-Stat, the use of wireless data in commercial applications has grown dramatically in the past decade, from $600 million in 1996 to an estimated $7.2 billion last year. It's the government and health care markets that are the most eager to embrace the wireless revolution, according to In-Stat. The financial services, insurance and real estate sectors - which once were leaders in using wireless applications - have now lagged behind.

'The most popular applications involve enabling workers to do their jobs in more places, says Bill Highes, the In-State principal analyst who wrote the report.

The In-Stat report, which examines wireless data use in various vertical markets, also found that e-tailers and wholesalers have been more aggressive adopters of wireless apps, and are eager to use them in applications such as inventory tracking, but less excited about using them for customer-service solutions. Another finding is that companies are embracing wireless apps such as inventory tracking because of external competitive pressures. The report also notes that many businesses have ambitious plans to add more wireless apps in the future.

- Al Senia


 

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