FEATURE: Growing Mobile Data Service: Easy As A-B-C

Growing Mobile Data Service: Easy As A-B-C
Digit Wireless's David levy argues that cell phones need better data entry mechanisms if handset makers and carriers hope to grow mobile data use.

Translating mobile data services into real dollars will require a return to the A-B-Cs of handset design.

The alphabet comes in handy for data service users. Email, password entry, text messaging, instant messaging, chat, online information gathering, online shopping, remote access to enterprise data, phonebook entries -- all these applications require more than star, pound, and the digits 0 through 9.

Nobody actually believes the 12-button keypad is the best tool for messaging or data use. If you do, I can loan you a 12-button keypad for use with your desktop computer. Let's see how long you last. The fact is the 12-button keypad is a horrible interface for anything except what is was designed for -- dialing a phone number.

On the other hand, cramming a QWERTY keyboard onto a device designed for the human pocket has its own problems. This solution is proven to be a barrier for all but a tiny slice of road warriors willing to wrestle with sophisticated phones that are bigger, heavier, more awkward -- and usually more expensive -- than phones that are truly phones. While these high-end, data-centric users continue to prove their readiness to trade cost and simplicity for comprehensive functionality, millions of wireless subscribers remain outside this camp.

In short, broad penetration of mobile data services cannot solely depend on the fraction of subscribers who are data-centric in the first place. Voice-centric users won't buy data-centric phones and voice-centric phones are extremely poor sales tools for stimulating growth of new data users. Moreover, selling a data-centric phone to customers who already use data services doesn't accomplish much: the only revenue increase is from a relatively small slice of users with some level of incremental usage.

Result of this problem? Trickle growth

The serious revenue increases will flow from a different source: traditional voice customers who become data users. The trick lies with making it easy for voice-centric mobile subscribers -- the masses who see their handsets first and last as a phone -- to discover the additional joys and value of data services.

This needs to be pulled off without forcing mainstream mobile subscribers to abandon the slim, low cost form factor of their beloved clam shell or flip phones.

Reaching the Mainstream

When mainstream customers go to the phone store, they want the form and function of this device to mimic their functional needs, which is mostly about voice. They want to buy a phone. They KNOW what phones look like. They know how they work. For example, "clam shell" phones currently account for nearly 80 percent of the worldwide mobile phone market. More than 80% of mobile subscribers see their handset as a mobile phone, not a miniaturized desktop computer.

Further, downward pressure on handset price is mounting in 2005, as service providers seek to re-ignite stalled subscriber growth through down-market penetration with $30 to $40 cell phones.

Neither of these trends dooms mainstream mobile data service penetration to the "lost cause" status. Rather they suggest that mobile operators, content purveyors, and handset suppliers must shift their focus from converting the voice-centric mainstream into PDA lovers and turn their efforts toward making the voice-centric form factor friendly to letters as well as numbers, without significantly fattening the device or its price tag.

Data Entry

Mobile email, messaging, Web browsing and even call list navigation require a palpable shift from dialing numbers to entering language. The 12-button keypad was never intended for this task. Its acceptance is based on familiarity, rather than usability. Indeed, one can only imagine how such a key board would be received if it were introduced today as a new data entry solution!

While a narrow set of teenage text messagers exhibit the dexterity and skill to partially circumnavigate triple-tapping by memorizing hip shorthand, a much larger target market is all too familiar with entering "the first five letters of the party's last name" and struggle to decipher mobile shorthand.

At the same time, the market size of people willing to carry a QWERTY-based device is quite small. So where does that leave handset designers? If the mainstream finds the QWERTY keypad too PC-like and the 12-button dial pad prohibitively un-ergonomic, an effective solution must lie somewhere between the extremes.

A Phone, First and Last

Grandma never stood a chance of becoming a PC user when the interface was DOS command lines, but she became a viable customer when the interface simplified to a single mouse click.

Likewise, an advance beyond triple-tapping could similarly break the mobile data services acceptance logjam. More mainstream cell phone users will put their toes in the alphanumeric waters only when 'R' equals 'R,' not three taps on the '7' key. Indeed technology is available - and in use now by carriers including TELUS Mobility in Canada - to deliver mainstream, small form factor, voice-centric handsets that provide the simple functionality that everyone wants... a single press for each character... letters and numbers.

Concerns that such solutions will cannibalize the relatively small QWERTY handset market are misplaced. Many of the data-centric few will be happier with a QWERTY device (and probably be happy to pay a premium for it) while the voice-centric majority will continue to buy phones that are designed for their needs: small, low-cost phones that are easy to use and available in a wide variety of styles and form factors.

At the end of the day, it is important to accept that it's harder to convince voice-centric customers to buy a data-centric device than it is to sell them a voice device that is designed to work well with data.

Massive Data Growth

You can grow a forest by focusing on the biggest trees, or you can plant lots of little seeds. The path to stimulate massive data growth is not to focus on data users. That is preaching to the converted.

Rather, provide voice customers a reason to enter the data world without asking them to abandon the designs they now buy in large numbers. Focus on the form factors they prefer and functionality they know they need. The ideal redesign of the phone provides one touch access to letters and numbers. It also allows users to continue to buy mainstream voice-centric phones in the form factors they know and love. As easy as A-B-C.

If some day more mainstream mobile subscribers purchase handsets for their multi-purpose voice and data utility, that will be icing on the cake. The cake, however, should be cooked first with ingredients including two stubborn facts: data services require alphanumeric entry, and mainstream mobile subscribers continue to buy mobile phones.

David Levy, Founder and Chief Technical Officer, Digit Wireless.