Spoiled By Choice?
By Peggy Anne Salz, Thu Sep 30 16:30:00 GMT 2004

Who should control the user experience? The pitches made at a recent OS and mobile application platform conference in London may surprise you.

Requirements coming from mobile operators for branded services and devices, and the drive to produce segmented and personalized phones are pulling the industry in too many directions at once.

Consider the cost burden on a device manufacturer marketing just four model phones to three operators. That’s 12 separate and costly development projects – totalling hundreds of man hours in engineering-- and operator specs will change every six months.

Clearly, costs threaten to get out of hand – and there is a growing fear that fragmentation could bankrupt the mobile industry.

While there was a clear consensus at the Mobile Application Platforms and OS conference in London last week (which TF also co-sponsored) that some fine-tuning in the interface layer is necessary if mobile data is ever to make it from the margins to the mainstream, the jury is out on the best approach.

From the operator perspective the Open Mobile Terminal Platforms Initiative (OMTP) will deliver results. A variety of interfaces can detract from the user experience. Therefore, the OMTP will standardize those elements which are common to all handsets and operators (such as DRM) to reduce handset manufacturers’ costs, according to Rolf Schuster, a driving force in the initiative.

The intent is not to replace the Open Mobile Alliance, but speed things up by providing a “structure for decision on matters that concern us (operators).” Schuster also revealed four projects in the works including specifying a complete core Java API.

With more requirements coming from operators, the industry can only keep its balance by using a core operating system and allowing individual vendors (and operators) to customize the interface layer. This was the message delivered by Marit Doving, Symbian Executive VP.

The industry is in a “tornado” and shouldn’t lose its focus on the importance of having an open OS and a stock of off-the-shelf applications to reduce time-to-market, Doving said. Indeed, operators including T-Mobile are already generating ARPU based on this open approach.

But Symbian isn’t the only company preaching openness. Linux OS provider MontaVista is also gaining traction after improving the OS to boost real-time responsiveness and reliability (“20 seconds of downtime over a 20-year period”). Motorola and FOMA models are already based on Linux and “many more are in the pipeline,” according to James Ready, MontaVista CEO.

And watch for Savaje. CEO Bob Gilkes revealed the Java OS for mobile phones will be in handsets in “the next twelve months” split between “a half dozen operators and at least three handsets manufacturers.” Savaje, he said, will win support after its millions of application developers get to work and thus prove C++ apps are on the way out. He also hinted there are provisions for “deep context-sensitive personalization” of the user experience. “And not the ones operators want the users to have.”

Such companies promise a way out of the smartphone dilemma -- but how can operators and handset makers customize the millions of feature-phones currently on the market? That’s where middleware vendors including SurfKitchen and Trigenix are making gains. And they showed the audience it’s not rocket science – just making simple applications such as MMS to postcard simpler.

But, the industry forgets that personalization, customization and creating consistent user experience is about more than screens and applications. It’s increasingly about enabling users to do more with their phones’ messaging and communication capabilities.

Against this backdrop, browser providers could make a surprising and convincing bid to control the user experience. Indeed, several companies in this space revealed their ambitions to become the hub in the user experience.

As more forms of communication evolve (think of push-to-talk) there will be a greater need for increased integration between the content the user accesses and phone features such as the address book. Users will want to communicate and multitask -- and not be bothered whether they are in the browser or not.

Granted, browsers providers such as Openwave and Opera are likely to play a larger role in delivering users a consistent and personalized mobile data experience – but they shouldn’t attempt to wrest control the user experience. Ultimately, the only member of the ecosystem suited to personalize the user experience is the user.