Big Media Makes Mobile Java Move
By Justin Pearse, Wed Sep 29 08:15:00 GMT 2004

Some of the UK’s biggest media companies are getting ready to stake their claim to the mobile handset with branded downloadable mobile Java portals.

The once-bloody battle for control of consumers’ mobile media consumption is heating up once more in the UK thanks to the power of mobile Java (J2ME). A few years back, when Vodafone Live! was known as Vizzavi and O2 Active as Genie, a range of different players were fighting to become the access point for consumers’ mobile data life. ISPs like MSN and Lycos and independent mobile portals like Iobox and Mviva all thought they could beat the operators at their own game. Fast forward a few years, with the transformation of the operators’ poor early efforts into today’s shiny Live! style portals, and the war seemed won.

In the last month or so, however, new contestants have begun lining up to stake their claim to the handset real estate. Media companies, ranging from giants such as News International, publisher of The Sun, and broadcasters like Endemol, to smaller players like computer magazine PC Plus, are all hoping Java will give them a new opportunity to form direct mobile relationships with consumers.

The list of media companies with plans to launch Java portals grows longer by the day, even if they’re not yet ready to go public. Talking to a veritable who’s who of the UK media industry over the last month reveals an excitement around new mobile technology that hasn’t been seen for a long time.

The advantages for media companies are obvious. “Mobile Java gives us the opportunity to build an interface to put all a broadcaster’s content in one area, from which consumers can navigate to from one place,” said outgoing head of interactive at Celador, Bruce Vandenberg. “TV is strong enough to tie people into brands like Big Brother.”

The ability to dynamically update content is what’s equally attractive to media owners like The Sun, which would be able to send the latest headlines direct to a user’s phone, for instance.

Of course, there are only a certain number of companies that have the customer loyalty to be able to do this. But, in general, consumers have a finite number of sources from which they receive entertainment and information and, unsurprisingly, it’s just these media companies that are the most advanced in their plans to roll out Java portals. News will be trickling out over the coming months but this list comprises some of the UK’s most powerful brands.

In addition to a direct relationship with consumers, rather than relying on the operator portals for distribution, Java simply provides a far better user experience than WAP.

“With Java, your proposition looks great, which is what publishers want, so it’s pushing us to launch off operator portals,” said Emap Performance mobile business development manager Rob Willis. “It’s part of the progression of mobile to establish itself as a new media platform.”

On a WAP page you can’t even change the background colour, with Java a company can translate all its branding to the application.

“It’s like the progression from Netscape 2 to dynamic HTML in terms of user experience,” said Paul Thomson, managing director of UK developer Straylight.

And, with direct billing via reverse SMS available in the MIDP 2.0 spec, the media company is presented with a relatively straightforward way to bill for its content. If you can persuade them to register credit card details, so much the better.

A raft of service companies are gearing up to facilitate this new land grab, with firms such as Opera Telecom and TCS launching white-label Java portals. Indeed, some companies, such as Straylight, are refocusing their entire business around Java development.

Of course the journey into this new mobile media nirvana isn’t going to be plain sailing. The “write once, run anywhere” myth that’s hindered previous J2ME development is still a problem, and Steve Procter, founder of mobile services company iTagg, which has developed simple Java applications for companies like Conde Nast, believes such issues mean the Java portal revolution is still some way off.

“It’s an absolute nightmare, like in the early days of multiple Internet browsers, you need to test on ten phones just to have a core everyone is happy with,” he said. “The cost issue with testing is such for brands that people’s enthusiasm is knocked back a bit when they get a quote.”

Again, a reason why it’ll probably be only the biggest brands that will end up launching successfully in the short term.

But what about the operators’ role in all this? Of course operators could, with IP blocking, prevent the Java portals actually being downloaded to protect their own content portals. Off-the-record conversations with operators back up the widespread belief that operators wouldn’t risk the backlash such a move would create, and the carriers stand to benefit from the increased GPRS traffic the portals could create.

An issue no one is prepared to discuss is the pressure operators could bring to bear on media companies that already have beneficial relationships with their portal teams.

The next few months are going to be very interesting to watch. Media companies, sick of having to dance to the operators’ tune, are incredibly bullish about the chance to establish their own branded presence on consumers’ prime communications device. Although the larger brands will be unlikely to launch until early to mid 2005, some will launch before the end of the year, with the rest will be following their every move.