|Latin America III 2001
|Talk, Listen, Watch Cellular
|Federico Pisani Massamormile
|Chief Executive Officer
The convergence of multimedia applications and the mobile phone is on its way. New applications to replace today’s clumsy WAP interfaces are in the works. The first such application, the Short Message Service, still appeals mostly to the young. The serious applications await the ‘always on’ 2.5 and third-generation transmission systems which will greatly increase the flexibility and usefulness of ‘serious’ applications such as mobile banking, entertainment services and a host of location-based services.
Many companies in the media and communications industries would like to think that they have the optimal device to provide true multimedia convergence. But do we really expect to see someone walking down the street talking to friends through a 30-inch television strapped to his body? Do we expect newspapers to include wireless communications devices? Do we expect anyone to talk with their credit cards? Clearly not. However, we do expect to see people watching videocasts, reading the news and making payments with their mobile phones. If we are going to talk about convergence, we are going to talk about the cellular phone. A Brief History Long before the appearance of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), wireless users were receiving simple information (weather, horoscope, etc.) and accessing e-mail using the Short Message Service (SMS): information and e-mails downloaded from Internet sites. From this point of view, SMS, a technology that was introduced in the early 1990s when the Internet was still unknown to the general public, can be seen as the starting point of convergence between the Internet and the mobile world. The widespread use of SMS was (and is) largely due to the ability of young people to master the difficulty of the user interface and their desire to exchange plain text messages with their friends. The specific popularity of SMS has contributed to the general interest in mobile data solutions and has shown the advantages of an ‘always on’ type of service, setting the stage for more evolved services. The subsequent introduction of the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) Application Toolkit standard allowed service providers to change or download applications over the air. The user could be offered a menu-based choice of services, right in his/her phone. As well, new services, and advanced security features (such as those required for banking applications), could be implemented. However, at first, only Global Standard for Mobile Communications (GSM) subscribers could benefit from it, and suffered all the inherent limitations of the SMS bearer: limited bandwidth available, short message length, etc. The effort to overcome wireless media constraints and open Internet content to wireless users, regardless of the network technology, led to the creation of the WAP standard. WAP optimises the upper layer protocols for wireless transmission, incorporates the mini-browser concept and is based on the Wireless Markup Language (WML). WAP can support a variety of bearers (including SMS) and thus is not limited by the network technology used. However, its popularity is still low, particularly in places like Latin America, due to the long set-up times and high latency of circuit-switched data (CSD). WAP’s true potential will be exploited when 2.5G and 3G packet-switched services, such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), are introduced on a large scale. In the meantime, while WAP was being developed, SMS evolved. Proprietary protocols appeared at first (such as Nokia’s ‘Smart Messaging’). Then standards were formed, such as Enhanced Message Services (EMS). EMS allows simultaneous downloading of ring tones, icons and text, exploiting the current SMS network infrastructure. The first EMS-enabled phones are now coming to the GSM market. The Accent on Consumer Fun So the technology already exists. Mobile phones today can provide streaming video, play music, deliver news and other content, facilitate financial transactions and provide entertainment, among many other things. However, fancy gadgets are one thing, a popular consumer service is another. The secret is to focus on what users want now, make them aware of what they can do and develop services that keep them interested and coming back for more. The ingredients are fun, youth and communities. Services must be entertaining, interactive and easy to use. They must evolve and continually provoke the users’ interests and never leave them unsatisfied or bored. And while these services are available to all, it’s a fact that today’s youth (age 16-30) will drive the convergence revolution, in the same way that they drove the popularity of the early SMS. They grew up with technology, they have seen their world through screens and windows and they are the early adopters that set new trends. In the future, guys and girls will flirt and date through video calls on their cellular phones. Instead of drinking, games requiring coins or funny hand gestures, college students will challenge each other with interactive group games on their mobile phones. No longer will they have to spend hours recording mix tapes of their favourite songs because their entire music collection will be available, real time, over their mobile ‘Phoneman’. And should their credit run low, the ‘bank of dad’ is always open and willing to lend via their mobile phone. The more these services aggregate people into a wireless community, the more successful they will be. The linear growth of the number of users will produce an exponential growth of service usage and increase the importance of the ‘marginal’ customers who generally have lower spending power. Each new member of a profile matching application will highly increase the number of interactions between users and the likelihood of finding a soul mate. Each new player will generate a higher number of rounds in multi-user games, increasing the competition and the chances that you won’t be the winner. Many of these applications are already working in laboratories and some are ready to be deployed in the consumer market. You will see them rolled out and adapted on a massive scale in the next few years. We are on the verge of a major change in how we go about doing things and interacting with each other. The mobile phone, with its growing list of capabilities and applications, will change the way we live, exchange information, have fun and ‘talk’ with each other. The Next Evolution The Mobile Station Application Environment (MMxE) standard, currently being defined by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), will push further the convergence between the Internet and the wireless world. Its goal is to create a standard environment for wireless applications, similar to the way Microsoft has standardised the desktop environment. MMxE defines a Java environment on the phone and incorporates SIM card technology. In addition, it allows standard Internet protocols for transport, security and applications (in addition to incorporating WAP, Bluetooth and other technologies). In this environment, the wireless user will have a whole new range of possibilities, some of them currently available only to desktop users. An MMxE user will be able to download client applications (e.g. download an interactive game), download stand-alone services (e.g. download a song), execute services on remote servers (e.g. web browsing), and interact with another MMxE user in a variety of scenarios. MMxE will be a powerful enabling technology for the Multimedia Message Service (MMS) that will support messages combining text, images, sounds and video clips in a variety of formats. MMS will be the first mobile service to utilise open Internet standards for messaging, such as Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Who will reap the most from these changes and this new market? While it’s hard to be sure because there are so many players, it’s clear that the mobile operators are in the pole position. They have a large number of customers. They know them. They have a direct relationship with them and they have the distribution channel. And, by the way, they can charge for their services. And we believe that a good approach for mobile operators to lead this charge is to have a separate company or division dedicated to developing advanced products and services, like timnet.com (Telecom Italia Mobile), Vizzavi (Vodafone), Zed (Sonera) and Genie (British Telecom). Conclusion Leveraging the operators’ strengths, the strategy is to approach this new challenge with a new set of skills and competencies, new ways of seeing things, new ways of work to go beyond the traditional telecommunication industry standards and set the guidelines for the new role of the cellular operators. Put together a network specialist, a journalist, a TV guy, a fashion expert and an Internet guru thinking cellular, and there you are: convergence.