3GSM World Congress: Day Three
By Carlo Longino, Wed Feb 16 16:45:00 GMT 2005

Usability isn't just about phone interfaces, it's about making access to mobility easier -- a message to which plenty of companies in Cannes are getting hip.

Used to be that usability only really meant how easy it was to send a text or look up a contact on a handset. Perhaps the widespread complaints about how hard it was to set up and send an MMS woke the industry up to the fact that making mobile data usable means a whole lot more -- making all types of services and systems easy for customers to use. Accordingly, there are a lot of companies addressing some overall issues of mobile usability.

Macromedia has been showing off its Flash Lite product here at 3GSM, which is getting some momentum from handset manufacturer licensing agreements, and got the potential to be a very disruptive force in the mobile industry. Flash Lite lets developers create attractive, easy-to-use interfaces to mobile data services that break the mold of boring, slow, text-based mobile portals. It offers developers -- and don't forget about the large existing pool of Web-based Flash developers -- tap into an endless realm of sexy, cool applications that bring the familiar Flash experience to the phone, where it delivers many of the same capabilities that have made it work so well on the Web, like scalable graphics. But what also makes Flash Lite so compelling is that it allows for the leverage of existing Web infrastructure, making the leap to mobile for content providers and others already using Flash quite simple.

Another element of Macromedia's mobile offering is FlashCast, which enables the creation of channels that can receive pushed information. The company demoed a few, including a slick-looking weather application as well the T-Mobile News Express app. Since FlashCast uses push, the content gets preloaded onto the device, eliminating one of the most frustrating aspects of mobile content, even for 3G users, the wait that happens along every step of the process -- waiting for the network to connect, waiting for the portal to load, waiting for the page to load, and so on. Combine the speed of preloaded content waiting on the device along with an attractive, well-designed Flash interface, and Macromedia should have a winner on its hands.

What's even more interesting with mobile Flash is the possibilities it offers in the way of phone UI. While the mention of Flash is most likely to bring up memories of over-ambitious Web pages with annoying intro animations or some simple games, Flash Lite can be more than a content application running on top of an operating system, it can reach down into the OS and become the user interface for the phone. Samsung has already launched a phone with a Flash-based UI in Korea, and it's not hard to see the possibilities something like that offers MVNOs, or anybody, looking to brand or skin a handset's software and interface.

Sun's also got some interesting things going to make the mobile data experience a bit easier. It was showing off "Project Lemonpeel", a J2ME client for mobile content sales that also preloads its catalog, making access to the ringtones, wallpaper and other content in it quicker to load and easier to use. The client stores a list of entries on the device which can be updated and synced to a server, but doesn't go out onto the network until a user wants to hear a preview of a ringtone or see screenshots of a game and make a purchase.

But Sun's work in "identity" could also result in some major strides in usability, not just in the mobile sense, but almost in terms of life usability. Its work through the Liberty Alliance sees the mobile phone as a key aspect in the future of identity as it will allow network operators to leverage their position of trust with their subscribers and make the handset a vital part of all the times in daily life when people need to prove who they are. The company raised the example that the handset can supplant a user name and password in online identification -- for instance, if a person's login information for their bank account is compromised, adding in a mobile element of identity can add an additional layer of security. Instead of a person being able to access the account and make transactions with just that information, a bank or merchant site could have a mechanism requiring an OK from a handset before any transactions occured or account was opened. If a user received a notification on their device asking for approval of an action they didn't initiate, they could deny it and realize their information had been compromised.

The idea of usability is also manifesting itself in other developments in the industry, such as the Nokia-Microsoft announcements from the first day of 3GSM. While certainly Nokia and Microsoft are bitter rivals in the mobile space, there's also a realization that their end users have a need for platform-agnostic services and capabilities. If a small business has 10 employees that all use different handsets with different operating systems, but runs an Exchange server in the office, those employees need -- and want -- to be able to access it regardless of what kind of mobile device they have. In the same way, consumers that have digital music in a certain format want to be able to listen to it on their mobile device and on their computer, not having to concern themselves with issues of interoperability.

Usability is a pervasive issue that means so much more than just handset interfaces, and while some mobile industry players haven't caught on to the idea that everything needs to be made simple, easy and useful -- walled gardens, anyone? -- things are changing.