Developers should tailor apps to customer, not device

By Monica Paolini

Wireless broadband expands the reach of the Internet through time and space. We can check our email, see in real time what our friends have posted on Facebook, or get a traffic update tailored to our itinerary anywhere, anytime.

Pervasiveness and immediacy are the greatest values of the mobile Internet. In the fixed Internet, all subscribers have access to the same content and can post to the same sites, whether they live in London or in a rural village in Vietnam. In a wireless broadband environment, real-time access to information is specific to subscriber location and makes it possible to coordinate meetings with friends, get driving direction, or playing an online game. At the same time, however, subscribers also demand mobile access to all the other applications they are accustomed to on the fixed Internet--without compromise.

Emerging usage models

In the cellular world, texting and messaging are still by far the most common applications. They account for over half of revenues in most developed countries (60 percent of data revenues at Vodafone). Use of other, more bandwidth-intensive apps is growing but it is still limited because plans are expensive and access is either metered or capped (even for the so-called unlimited plans).

Limitations in capacity have also dramatically restricted the ability of cellular operators to offer free access to mainstream Internet applications, as unlimited access can quickly lead to network congestion--which has already started to happen in some markets, despite low adoption rates.

To reduce the risk of congestion, applications over cellular networks need to be optimized for specific networks and devices. As a result, reliable subscriber access is limited to those applications that have been adapted specifically to their handset.

Wireless broadband is rapidly changing the rules. Increased network capacity means that subscribers have access to the same applications, with performance and contractual agreements comparable to those of wireline broadband--and that they will use them extensively. When they get home, subscribers increasingly keep using their mobile devices (and the wireless broadband network), because they often find them more convenient. Mobility may be just as valuable when they are at the home or in the office, as when they are out and about.

Contracts with both cellular and wireline operators tend to be tied to one device (a phone, a data card, a desktop modem). But wireless broadband users expect an increasing number of consumer electronic devices, including digital players, game consoles, cameras, and devices with new form factors, such as the Amazon Kindle book reader to have wireless connectivity. Modules with wireless capabilities are becoming more common and affordable, and they will drive adoption of wireless connectivity, especially through WiFi and WiMAX, among devices beyond laptops and smartphones.

Service providers will increasingly support multiple devices within the same contract. In the U.S., subscribers to Sprint Nextel's Xohm and Clearwire's Clear recently launched WiMAX services have the option to use multiple devices within a single service plan. Subscribers may also use the same device under contracts with different service providers. This is the case, for instance, when a subscriber with a mobile phone with WiFi connects to the home network.

All this creates many-to-many relationships, which replace the vertically integrated value chain that dominates in the fixed Internet and in the cellular data usage models.

Subscribers enjoy more flexibility, easier access to the Internet, and an overall higher value associated with the broadband connection. To meet subscribers' expectations, vendors and application developers need to establish strong partnerships within an expanding ecosystem that is no longer dominated by cellular operators, but they will finally be able address a truly mass market.

New requirements

Wireless broadband brings much more freedom and power to application developers. While many of the constraints of the cellular world will disappear, application developers will be pressured to offer consistent performance, and look and feel, across devices and platforms, which in turn require them to:

  • Move to a subscriber-centric approach. Applications have to be developed not for devices, but for subscribers. They want to be recognized as the same individual across devices (e.g., in terms of preferences, content synchronization, or functionality) and not have set up each device independently.
  • Manage accessibility to multiple networks and service providers. Support for multiple air interfaces and use of the same device with multiple service providers requires applications to be aware of the different environments in which they will be able to operate.
  • Add location--and time--awareness to existing and new applications.
  • Manage traffic levels and network access carefully. WiMAX's high data rates represent good progress, but congestion is a threat to any wireless network. Application developers need to work in concert with service providers' traffic management tools such as QoS or other traffic prioritization tools to optimize the use of network resources and further enhance the user experience.

Many application developers have already started to take the first steps in this direction. But wireless broadband will accelerate the change and make these requirements more urgent and pervasive.

Supporting the less hierarchical and more open wireless broadband usage model and working within an extended ecosystem can be a challenge for application developers, but it is also a major opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competition and to expand their user base.

As the first commercially available technology that can support the traffic requirements of the mass market in a cost-effective way, WiMAX is building the first extended ecosystem that supports a more flexible value chain and gives application developers the ability to enjoy more freedom and extend their reach across interfaces and devices.

Monica Paolini is the founder and president of Senza Fili Consulting and can be contacted at [email protected] Senza Fili Consulting provides expert advisory services on wireless data technologies and services.

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