Taking Charge of Change
By Peggy Anne Salz, Wed May 19 17:00:00 GMT 2004

Some smart operators are raking in data revenues. But they had to hijack the user interface to do it.

Some of you will remember the cinematic masterpiece "Network" and the classic scene where Howard Beale, the mad prophet, yells the battle cry: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

This reflects perfectly the level of frustration I pick up when I interview operators. They’re under pressure by shareholders to boost data revenues, and they're saddled with a portfolio of mobile devices so complex that few subscribers can use them to their full potential.

No wonder a growing number of operators are looking into software solutions that will allow them to override the user interface from top vendors and take the end-user experience into their own hands.

Power Play

“It’s not a question of creating new data services; it's a question of building better data services – and this means making the services intuitive and easy to access,” notes Christoph Janeba, a product manager at O2 Germany.

It sounds almost too simple -- but this observation marks the birth of a revolutionary new business model.

Beginning this month O2 Germany will follow in the footsteps of O2 in the UK and launch the second phase of O2 Active, a world-first service that allows users to view services and information on the handset without having to go online. Once users find what they’re looking for, they can connect to the content with one click.

Janeba believes operators must provide a mobile data experience more similar to that of a PC. Following this logic, all content has to be one click away. (A tall order considering Sony Ericsson’s P900 requires more than 12 parameters to be set correctly for e-mail to work.) Since devices aren’t designed this way when they come out of the box, O2 has decided to "reach into the phone and improve the user experience,” Janeba says.

To do this O2 has deployed SurfKitchen's mobile access management technology. The software allows operators to override the interface installed by the handset vendor and introduce a more intuitive, customized -- and operator-branded -- user interface. Operators can preinstall the client software in the phones, send it over the air to devices already in users’ hands, or let users beam it via Bluetooth to their handsets at special access points in retail outlets.

For O2 this enables, among other lucrative services, a one-click MMS-to-postcard service sure to boost data use and revenues.

SONOFON, Denmark’s number-two operator, reported a jump in both since it deployed SurfKitchen to power its e-go mobile portal. In the second half of 2003, SONOFON customers sent a total of 337,000 MMS messages – 261,000 more than the first six months, a rise of 225%.

Mobile data best-seller services include one-click MMS and games, notes Stefan Mandix Aagaard, SONOFON Product Group Manager. He envisions that operators will soon personalize handset menus for specific customer segments such as game-lovers and music fans. “The menu should be a mirror of the user,” Aagaard explains. Like a PC, mobiles should “feature favorite content and links– all only one click away.”

Climbing the Learning Curve

But what happens when the user still can’t get the hang of mobile data services? Or when software bugs and glitches are to blame? (Japan’s DoCoMo recently spent over two months to working out how to send a live fix to some 160,000 NEC handsets.)

Typically, a user contacts the call center, which relies on intelligent guesswork to seek a solution. But a single call often leads to a string of expensive follow-up calls and -- sometimes -- a handset replacement.

To this end Intuwave, a mobile software company whose motto is “making smartphones make sense”, has developed software that effectively scrapes the handset screen and relays this image to the call center representatives. Operators can access the phone’s visual memory to see the problem and -- more importantly -- check afterwards that it’s been fixed.

Intuwave’s support tools can also be fine-tuned to function as a tutorial and guide users through new services and applications, and so encourage data adoption.

“Operators can see that customer support costs are set to go through the roof, and they don’t have the data revenues to back this up,” observes Richard Seward, an Intuwave manager.

Imagine an operator with 500,000 smartphone users. If each user makes two 24-minute calls per year to the support center, and each call costs the operator €2.95 per minute in call center staff costs, then the total customer support bill is a whopping €70.8 million.

Bearing in mind analysts predict there will be some 150 million smartphone users in 2007, customer support could rise to as much as €21.2 billion. “And the scenario is even more frightening if we think about all the personalized, customized handsets operators will have to deal with,” Seward says.

Are we smart enough for smartphones? We have to be. Operators are pinning their hopes on these feature phones to generate data revenues. But ultimately, the success of this plan rests on making the procedure to access data services as pain-free and bug-free as possible. This means the industry should focus less on nifty, new services and make it easier to access what we already have.