As any WAP user can attest, the world of mobile content is a pretty dismal one. With very few exceptions, mobile content is an abysmal reworking of a usual Web player's site with little consideration given to the limitations of mobile devices, and even less to the advantages such devices offer.
Reading full-length newspaper articles and trying to find sports scores are pretty painful, never mind something so simple in the wired world as checking e-mail, and differing gateways and differences in devices ensure completely inconsistent user experiences. But unbelievable as it may seem, this is the first necessary step if mobile content is to evolve into a useful - and revenue-generating - product.
New media have typically had their content at first defined by their predecessors - TV was at first an adaptation of radio, the Web an amalgamation of TV, newspapers, and magazines - and then as content producers become more familiar with the medium and technology continues to carry it forward, editorial innovation and creativity takes hold to utilize its full potential.
And the mobile Internet will be no different. Just as many people's first impression of the Web was that of a magazine on a computer screen, their first impression of the mobile Internet is the Web without wires. But just as content producers and editors have begun to take advantage of the possibilities the Web offers, so too they will with mobile devices.
Parsing their way to the top
This evolution begins when producers realize there's another medium for their content - mobile devices in this case. And of course their first thought is how to distribute their content via that medium with maximum speed and minimum effort. Take a look at any news-based WAP site to see how this works (wap.ananova.com, for instance) and its corresponding Web site (http://www.ananova.com).
Notice how remarkably similar they look (apart from pictures and graphics); the same text menus and choices lead to the same stories, with little regard to the fact that reading these stories over a WAP phone means a several-second delay every couple of paragraphs. But at least they're trying.
And that's the fleeting first step, useless as it may seem. It really doesn't take too long for content companies to take the second step - the realization that hey, this isn't just the Web on a smaller screen. Although users may be interested in the same types of information they get from their wired Web connections, content producers realize they can't be sent in the same form.
But tools that exist to help companies make this first furtive step are emerging, and serve if nothing else to familiarize the producers and other enterprises with the idea of mobile content. They let companies utilize existing information within their organizations and reformat it for mobile distribution. These tools also offer other advantages - speed to market and low development costs.
Vodafone UK, for instance, has launched its Content Delivery Platform that allows content producers to take existing content and distribute it via SMS. "All types of organizations, from media groups to high street retailers, have existing information that their customers want and are willing to pay for," says Vodafone UK Chief Operating Officer Gavin Darby. "The Content Delivery Platform (CDP) means that organizations have a means to deliver their information content to their customers in real-time, no matter where they are."
The CDP, for example, allows a company to set up services that send messages on a regular basis, such as a stock quote at the market close each day, or on an event basis, such as sports scores, or when a music group announces new tour dates. This allows these companies to take their existing information and distribute it in a way that makes sense for the mobile device.
Another company, Volantis, goes a little further. Its Mariner product allows content producers to access a database of a number of different devices - incorporating Web browsers, mobile phones, PDAs, and interactive TV - and determine how their content will change depending on what's being used to access it. When a particular device accesses content, it is recognized and then the content and layout are determined, allowing producers to maintain a consistent and predictable user experience.
Beyond simply reformatting Web pages for display on a mobile device, other companies are developing products to connect mobile devices to other types of systems to allow for a richer user experience. HiddenMind's platform allows developers to link mobile devices to existing backend applications through standard Net adapters like HTML, SQL, or XML. And like the Mariner product, the HiddenMind platform adapts generic applications to device-specific ones.
AlterEgo Networks is another company developing along the same lines. Its Mobile Web Server product is placed at the front-end of a company's existing Web infrastructure, where it has a proprietary adaptation engine that takes output from standard enterprise infrastructure components and translates it into device-specific content using predefined XSL stylesheets.
Solutions like these allow a company to leverage its existing Web infrastructure - be it a content management system, storefront, or wide-ranging database - and put it into the mobile world much more quickly and cheaply than developing a separate mobile platform from the ground up. But they also serve an important function to introduce enterprise to the mobile Internet, just as the first Web applications introduced them to the Web.
Yes, this is different
The hope is then that this will lead to more introspection on the part of the content producers - asking questions like "how can we make this better?" and more importantly, "how do people really use these things?" Then the realization (and third step of the evolution) sets in - that people use and react to mobile devices differently than they do wired devices.
Simply taking existing content and making it accessible from a mobile phone or PDA only lives up to half the promise mobility holds. The key comes when that content is enhanced through the technologies available in mobile devices and systems that aren't available on traditional computer networks.
The holy grail is, of course, location-based services. In this regard, a PC is a "dumb" device. The network (and content providers by extension) don't have a very clear understanding of where the computer is beyond resolving IP addresses, whereas a mobile device can be tracked via GPS or simply the base station with which it's communicating. And this awareness can go a long way to make up for the physical characteristics (ie a large, color display, high bandwidth, stereo sound, and all the other trappings of today's PCs) lacking in mobile devices.
One company that's realized all this is the Stockholm-based mobile game maker It's Alive. The company has released a game called BotFighters (currently available on Telia's Swedish network) where players hunt down and "kill" opponents in an SMS-based location-aware game. Special items that help players in the game are "stashed" in certain locations, so when a player walks to a certain corner, they might find a new weapon.
After users register and create their robot on the Web, the game is played out via SMS, which means no flashy graphics or sound. But that's not necessary. The game uses the inherent qualities of a mobile phone - that it is ubiquitous and free to move - to create an engrossing user experience. "Certainly a cell phone can't really be compared to a modern game console," says former It's Alive CEO Tom Söderlund. "The key is to use the phone-specific features such as mobile positioning."
So a business opportunity certainly exists - each move made in BotFighters uses an SMS, which costs the player around EUR 0.20, charged through Telia's existing billing system - and It's Alive stands to make some fairly serious cash, either through licensing fees or more lucratively, through a share of the SMS revenues.
And for more typical and static content, an opportunity exists as well. Let's look at the wired Net for a moment: it's estimated that over 500 million people globally use the Internet (Nua.com). Information on the Web is growing at a phenomenal 166 percent compound annual rate, and there are over 4 billion Web pages (Cap Gemini Ernst & Young). Of the top 500 Web sites, the first 25 account for 31 percent of the total volume of traffic. And the top 10 of those sites earn around 75 percent of the total online advertising revenue (Cap Gemini Ernst & Young).
Now, consider the fact that by the end of the year, there will be over 1 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide.
Evolve or die
So the opportunity and incentive exists. There are very few players in the mobile content industry that are pushing the bounds of the evolution outlined above, but it must be remembered that the mobile Internet is still in its infancy. But look to the first movers on the Web - Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon, AOL - and their places among today's top sites. So mobile content companies must simply evolve or die, because the Net always plays out to the survival of the fittest.
Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.