consumer experience, mobile applications, social media

Open Sesame – how public data stimulates innovation

open sesame ..and into the light

Open data is widely spoken of as A Good Thing in the technology world, important in the meteoric rise of the Android mobile Operating System and vital in broadly sharing wealth.

Android’s open source nature has helped produce a burgeoning ecosystem of applications and services, although it’s still playing catchup to Apple’s App Store. An indie-hit application, Simon Maddox’s 0870 was based on freely available data, and Simon himself was happy to show where the data could be accessed.

Now others from across technical and non-technical sectors are looking to emulate the success and reap the benefits of Open data: benefits which can directly impact those who free the data, allowing them to concentrate on their own expertise, as well as those who access it.

At the Mobile Data Association’s recent Mobile and the 2012 Games seminar, Transport for London’s Vernon Everitt explained the wide-reaching benefits of its open data policy, freeing travel information for independent developers to create their own applications, improving the experience of travelling around the capital.

By opening up APIs with real-time data feeds, such as live departure board times or location data for Barclays Cycle Hire docking stations, mobile application developers can access dynamic data for creative new services to be packaged around.

This week TfL unveiled an updated Web Developers’ Area, replete with free travel information for mobile application developers.  Free-to-use information now gives developers the ability to update existing apps, and create new ones allowing passengers to check their routes whilst on the go.

The latest addition is a live Tube travel news feed known as Trackernet, which shows the location of trains across the London Underground network at any time.

Other information in the area includes:

• Live traffic disruptions
• Realtime road message signs
• Barclays Cycle Hire docking station locations
• Timetable of planned weekend Tube improvement works
• Station locations (for Tube, Docklands Light Railway and London Overground)
• River Thames pier locations
• Find-a-ride (licensed private hire operators)
• Oyster Ticket Stop locations.

Live travel information has been made available thanks to collaboration between TfL and Microsoft, creating a robust Azure Cloud platform to host data in a way that will meet the expected demand from thousands of developers.

Transport for London Developers’ Area

It should be acknowledged that harnessing ‘open’ data isn’t failsafe. There can certainly be risks associated with a service that depends on the consistent uptime of an uncontrollable API, but the benefits outweigh it. After all, we all forgive the occasional glitch in mobile signal and we’re used to patchiness in technology, however irritating it can be.

With Open Data initiatives like TfL’s flourishing, the hope is that other public sectors and council services such as libraries will follow suit.

Online services for public libraries are developing. While their presentation might appear dated, as well as being able to reserve and renew items, Cardiff Library also tells you who your favourite authors are. There’s huge social potential to be gained in freeing such data, with the user’s permission.

As technology services and applications evolve, an internal cultural shift needs to happen within public sector. While precaution with private data should remain paramount, (TfL’s Oyster card data is still kept under the proverbial lock and key), less fear should be exercised with non-sensitive public service data.

Finding ways of packaging publicly accessible information into usable APIs will ensure we all benefit through improved, immediate 21st Century services.

consumer experience, mobile applications, technologies

Look out the Windows (is coming)

Look out the WindowsMicrosoft Windows 7 was launched on Monday with a well-coordinated fanfare. Early signs are impressive but it’s banking as much on the mysterious allure of it being ‘Something Else’ for consumers, as it is on any fine detail around the new Operating System. It’s this same Something Else factor which HTC’s Android devices have effectively traded on until now, helped along by the Quietly Brilliant tag.

When customers in stores turn their noses up at iPhones merely for being samey, or being bored, the alternative option placed under those upturned noses has often been an HTC, through which the customer can be assured to spend a comparable amount, yet have a sense of difference.

Now there’s a new kid in town.

Some say it’s too late to catch Apple, RIM, Symbian (still way out in front) and Android, but they can’t fault Microsoft’s effort.

This week’s launch of the Windows Phone 7 OS has seen 60 global operators climb aboard, together with four OEMs announcing devices and a rumoured marketing budget of £250m.

Few customers buy mobiles because of an operating system, so much onus is on the devices themselves, and the operator tariffs. From there, user experience, reputation and word-of-mouth buzz will decide if it flourishes.

This is a natural step which Microsoft was obliged to take, although it always faced a major catch-up scenario given the lost ground. Media’s future will be inextricably linked to data, the internet, TV, games and music: and moreover, the ability to access all of this whilst on the go.

It’s important for Microsoft to make this work, and the early signs are encouraging. The press reception of devices, the OS and its applications available all appear to be positive. Indeed in an Apple-jaded world, there’s virtue to be claimed in the plain newness of repackaging regular Facebook, email, text message and mobile application experiences. This, combined with an interface boasting arrestingly slick looks, is certainly pushing buttons. (Or tapping icons).

But still much will depend on the noise generated by the same newly socialised, you/me-centric social media web age which appears hardwired into the new Windows Phone 7 and its apps. This will decide whether the Something Else becomes a serious alternative, or even a serious rival.

consumer experience, mobile applications, technologies

Retailers ready for transactional mobile

A gulf between them?

Show me the money (or at least the billing mechanism)

Research published by trade bodies the IAB, AIME and IMRG and reported by NMA says that two-fifths of UK retailers are planning to launch a transactional mobile site or app within the next year.  It also says that retailers admit to needing more training.

How meaningful is that?  Is it rather like saying I’m planning to get good at golf?  (I too might need more training).

The question is surely how?  What’s my method of getting good?  Because it’s such a young, relatively unscaled medium, nobody is quite sure.  Faith is being piled into smartphone platforms and mobile applications but due to the lack of a blueprint, different routes are boldly being taken.

The bodies’ survey of 141 UK retail brands found that over half expected a mobile revenue upturn in the next year, but only 20% (or four) of the 20 most popular UK retailer websites are mobile optimised. Mobile web is one channel, and a sensible way of spreading eggs amongst different baskets.

Stacking Shelves

However, many more retailers are concentrating their short-term attention on filling app store shelves with mobile applications.  Ocado (Waitrose) went with iPhone and Android platforms which were launched around a year ago, loyalty scheme Nectar has recently opened up on the same platforms, while Tesco has decided to focus on Nokia, its Ovi app store and S60 devices, because those are the devices which the majority of their audience owns.

Whether that Nokia user-base is as mobile-engaged, motivated or fundamentally interested in using a Tesco application, will be interesting to watch.

Marks & Spencer are largely out on their own in focussing on the mobile browser, and the ‘seamless journeys’ it says it gives, optimising the mobile experience across all platforms.  And it’s doing this well, claiming over 1.2m unique visitors a month and more than 300,000 orders from the site since its launch.

With Amazon expecting to generate $1.5 billion in mobile transactions alone in 2010, it’s no surprise that the leading retailers are looking in the direction of mobile to generate new revenues.  But it’s also clear that, to a greater or lesser extent, all are taking informed guesses.  This is a new space, after all.  It’s to be expected.

What most are interested in from the top of such large retailers down, is how much new revenue can be earned; how much users spend and are willing to spend, or how browsing might inform physical purchasing decisions.  Amazon is clearly different from a high street franchise or a supermarket in that there is no physical purchase: you browse, you often know what you’re browsing, you might take a quick comparison check elsewhere, but because you trust the vendor, you buy.

Select your payment method

Key to the numbers, the cash and the revenue, is the mobile billing mechanism: a subject seemingly overlooked by this latest research.

Google’s decision to adopt PayPal into the Android application marketplace suggests its patience with mobile network operators and carrier billing has been exhausted.  Considerable effort continues to be invested in the UK’s mobile network operator internet standard, Payforit.  Despite a malnourished website, its latest iteration has witnessed concerted attempts at promoting mobile billing for online micropayments (predominantly through Impulse Pay).  But still, its limitations are still generally perceived as being too many, its experience too inconsistent.

The success of iTunes and Apple’s app store has been based on credit card billing linked to an account, a practically invisible payment process and no spend-limit.  Other platforms are aspiring to this as well, suggested by the reported talks between Google and PayPal.

And the app ecosystem stands to benefit.

Reports by Bloomberg covered by The Telegraph cite three people familiar with the situation, and suggest that “By adding PayPal, Google would give app developers another way to get paid, potentially making them more likely to create software for Android.”

This can be no bad thing, especially given that Google’s existing Checkout service has fewer registered customers than PayPal.  Meanwhile, carrier billing has an upward spend limit, revenue shares between mobile operators and developers remain a moot point and there can be technical discrepancies between carriers on how billing is managed – leading to inconsistent consumer experience.

Carrier billing – Processing…

As Payforit in the UK has shown, smoothly integrating carrier billing in one country through one medium (the mobile browser), without much of a budget, is hard work.  Integrating across global regions and multiple mobile media?  Given the fragmentation.. well, that might be a little tricky too.

For retailers to earn from mobile, unless mobile networks significantly change their game, standardising PayPal and credit card billing will likely continue to herald the way forwards.  Whether right or wrong, banks are still largely more trusted to conduct transactions than mobile network operators, for a reason.

Pay Now

With the big retail players pinning their colours to various platform masts, according to advice on volume, audience and reach – all of which should all be thoroughly considered – there can be a disconnection with the payment process.

It’s the selection of billing mechanism and the focus on an intuitive, transparent user experience which will separate the profitable fresh goods from the loss-making reduced to clear items.

mobile applications, technologies

The WAC app attack

Will WAC find its balance on a single platform?

The new announcement of ‘WAC’ (Wholesale Applications Community) triggers mixed emotions.

While its over-all mission remains admirable – to accelerate the delivery of an open standard applications platform – does the official formation of a company through a merger with the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), together with the assembly of a Board and Business Model amount to much that wasn’t known already?

First off, what of its previous incarnation? The Wholesale Applications Community was originally brought together in February, pre-acronym, under the umbrella of the global mobile network trade body, the GSMA. There appears to be no mention of the body in formal press around WAC’s launch, although the publicity seems to be led by GSMA affiliated folk.  Its extraction into its own company may simply be the easiest way to assemble the group, possibly for tax purposes given it will be a not-for-profit body which charges a levy on every application sale, to cover its costs.  But the evolution isn’t the clearest.

This new WAC dawn could equally suggest the realisation of unnecessarily disparate work across the BONDI, JIL and One API initiatives – as suspected before. Although in February it was promised that the Wholesale Applications Community would incorporate all of these, they now appear set to be housed under a single roof.

Yet for all the new unity, use of the word ‘accelerate’ could provoke an arched eyebrow.

While organising geographically and commercially disparate stakeholders presents obvious challenges, rollout is not likely to arrive at the speed of light. In fact, the delivery of useable, standardised material for developers might arrive close on a year after the group was first announced at Mobile World Congress, February 2010. Over this time Apple and Android’s grip on the applications market will continue to tighten.

What will be the state of the market when WAC has had time to percolate with applications (let’s presume that it will), eighteen months to two years down the line from now? How much further ahead will Apple and Android be then? Could the humble mobile browser even be making a comeback, with an improved experience to rival the dominance of apps?

The WAC Attraction

Analysts in the GSMA’s writeup of the news point out that consolidation of the route to market and the aggregation of mobile storefronts will be the biggest draw for developers. That’s assuming intuitive process and a one-size fits all approach is feasible and works in practice, as well as looking impressive on paper. This is undoubtedly an attractive proposition.

Attractive too is the potential breadth of audience; that WAC applications can reach wider than smartphones and into lower end devices. On a webinar, interim WAC CEO Tim Raby said: “We want to support as large a population of devices as we can in the portfolios of operators and we have the support of many device vendors.”

Addressing lower end devices in developed markets, where Java applications tried and largely failed, is an interesting tactic. However, it’s difficult to envisage considerable traction in trying to sell mobile applications to low users who have demonstrated little interest in mobile applications and are likely a tougher sell.

Emerging markets, on the other hand, have been amongst the most innovative in their use of basic mobile voice and data solutions. Adding an application element could create further practical opportunities if geographical capacity allows.

For all this, will it really be attractive enough to divert developers’ and, as importantly, brands’ fixation from the mainstream established Apple and Android channels?  These are after all, channels which they know work, rather than channels they could be taking a gamble on.

Payforit and mPayments to cash in?

Returning to an optimistic outlook, another boon could be found in mobile payments and specifically Payforit, the UK standard mobile internet payment platform, which bills mobile subscribers’ phone contracts and deducts from prepay tariffs. With a unified and trusted mobile storefront populated by desirable applications that consumers are willing to make micropayments for, the effect could be positive.

But again, by the time this all comes to pass, it could be a case of playing catch up. Google’s in-application carrier billing is currently receiving another push in the US, with promises of an iTunes-like ease of payment experience in Android applications, and billing conducted via the subscriber’s mobile contract.

Sticky details

Outstanding issues include the business model for developers distributing free applications and their revenue share. Developers will set their application price and receive a share of the transaction defined on an operator-by-operator basis (but thought to hold to the regular 30/70 developer / mobile network ratio). This is designed to ensure revenue shares remain competitive. As a not-for-profit organisation, WAC will receive a small transaction fee for each application to cover its operating costs.

Will free or ad-funded applications be excluded from the WAC market? Or how will they fit? And how about in-app advertising and freemium models? When will WAC look to incorporate key mobile network enablers such as location, behavioural tracking and user identification? Is it even possible to unify global operators on such technically intricate issues?

These issues will be addressed in future releases, possibly in a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ approach.

November: fireworks or damp squib?

WAC is not wanting for serious challenges, but it will certainly take its time. With JIL fully integrated into the operation by September, the next step is the release of its initial specification and Software Development Kit components to developers in November.

Once this WAC material has been produced and disseminated across the relevant developer communities, public bluster can be shelved in favour of informed assessments and detailed roadmaps.

consumer experience, regulation, technologies

Unlimited mobile data: RIP

traffic congestionO2 announced the end of unlimited mobile data tariffs and left several breathless towards the end of last week. But it was foreseeable and understandable.

Smartphones and predominantly iPhones are the first devices which have properly sold mobile content to a mass audience. As a result, data traffic has scaled leading to congested pipes and considerable performance issues – although only a fraction of users are said to be responsible for this.  Whenever any resources are limited, however limited they are, tight controls are needed and new measures occasionally need to be introduced.  The upshot is often that prices rise.

As the UK network with original iPhone exclusivity, O2 has had the Apple device in its ranks and taken the strain of its data demands for longer than any other network.  So it come as little surprise that they’re the first to do away with unlimited data.

In explaining the  new tiered system, O2’s Chief Executive, Ronan Dunne, likened it to variable speed limits on motorways which are necessary to ease congestion.

Dunne said that 97 per cent of its five million smartphone customers use less than 500 megabits a month, but the remaining 3 per cent, or 150,000 users, take up 30 per cent of network capacity.

O2, and all mobile network operators, need to equally balance the customer experience of the heavy user, the occasional user and the moderate user, with the investment they’re able to plough into their networks and infrastructure.

The rise of riche, consumer-friendly mobile media, added to an audience fraction with an almost insatiable appetite for data, has led to the end of unlimited tariffs. Most O2 customers will pay between £25 and £35 a month when signing new contracts, but heavy users can expect their deals to double to £60 a month for their present mobile internet use.

This is also a move which indicates the success of mobile content on smartphones. That such steps are necessary, and are likely to be followed by other mobile network operators, reflects well on mobile content providers who are evidently providing a broad range of services consumers want.

For developers and consumers

In the wake of tiered pricing the data requirements of these services – mainly mobile applications found on smartphones – need to be scrutinised in greater depth by both the providers and the consumers.

– What sort of product and service uses most data?
– What elements do I need and what is dispensable?
– Is the video element vital to this app? Is it why our consumers like it or is it merely a nice-to-have add on which most don’t have the patience to use?
– Can my target audience afford to use that data on a regular basis?
– Should we introduce data ‘lite’ and rich versions?

For the networks

iPlayer and iPlayer-like applications used on mobile devices squeeze bandwidth to an extreme, using months of ordinary mobile data consumption in one video play, and hogging network space as they do so.

The mobile networks are not banning this behaviour, but making heavy consumers aware that they will have to pay for the privilege of such consumption, using what are commercially owned and ultimately finite resources.

After helping to nurture a consumer appetite for sophisticated data services, networks should also make efforts to educate less frequent users about data intensive services. A quickly comprehensible and discreet certification system could be employed, visible or flagged upon download, which helps to counter potential consumer paranoia and encourage use from a broader audience.

Networks don’t wish to breed paranoia and fear of using data on their networks. They make money from it. Nor is there anything to be gained by misleading consumers into using more data than necessary – if caps are exceeded, data will continue to be delivered but at a reduced speed.

A world of tiered pricing is a simple necessity due to significant data congestion, the high quality range of mobile content products, and the consumption habits of the hungriest ‘all you can eat’ers.

Tiered data pricing means a step back and a moment to appreciate that resources are often limited. We should breathe easy, decide how much we need, how much we want, how much we’re willing to pay, and eat accordingly. Is that so unreasonable?