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    Content scrum down


    Bernadette Lyons, managing director for North Europe, Mobileway, discusses how the mounting popularity of multi-media messaging and gaming presents content providers with the formidable challenge of providing content formats to suit the vast range of mobile devices on the market.

    Today, walking into a mobile phone retailer and choosing a new handset is roughly akin to buying a new car.  Consumers are faced with a bewildering range of makes and models all with differing functionalities, added extras and a great choice of colours — as long as you like silver! Talk of polyphonic, GPRS, triband, MMS, bluetooth, Wap-enablement, Java gaming and ‘X-press on’ colour fascias has proved to not only baffle mobile users into buying the latest handset on the market, but also to keep content owners awake at night wondering how to tackle the growing problem of designing content to suit this rapidly expanding device portfolio. 

    The mobile content business has experienced enormous growth over the past few years due mainly to the unexpected popularity of SMS-based services and the younger generation’s insatiable appetite for ringtones and logos. While many believe that SMS is reaching its peak, the emergence of picture messages, Java gaming and polyphonic ringtones over the past year has ensured that the potential for companies creating digital content remains attractive. According to figures published by W2F, the mobile content market will generate around 1.9 billion Euros for third party content providers in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific this year, a figure expected to increase to more than 6.5 billion Euros by 2006. With this increased potential however, increased complexity invariably follows.

    SMS has both suffered and benefited from its simplicity. While many large name brands failed to be seduced by the potential of 160 characters of text, the standard format does mean that one size truly does fit all.  This is far from the case with MMS and Java gaming. As there is presently no uniform standard between handsets, the image has to be ‘re-purposed’ for almost every individual handset. With more than 200 handsets on the market, each accepting different file formats, image sizes and resolutions, content owners are faced with an enormous task to get just one MMS to both look and sound great on every handset. 

    The ideal solution would be for content providers, service providers, operators and device manufacturers to work together to promote open standards to support interoperability. However, despite the endeavours of industry bodies such as the Open Mobile Alliance, this is certainly a long way off and may indeed prove to be a pipedream given the fiercely competitive nature of the mobile industry.

    So in the absence of industry cooperation, how can content owners overcome the growing issue of handset compatibility? Ringtone and logo providers have traditionally ironed out any incompatibility problems by either limiting availability to certain handset types or by requesting that users text in a specific code following the usual 5-digit number to specifically request a format suitable for their mobile handset — for example, Nokia users text 87140 NOK TIMBERLAKE to get the latest Justin Timberlake ring tone. However, classifying handsets according to their manufacturers is no longer a sufficient means of differentiating between format types as manufacturers have begun producing devices based on a number of different operating systems and standards.

    Also, with a market devoted to providing an intuitive and automated user experience, complicating the procedure by asking users to follow multi-step instructions simply increases the margin for error, and annoys end users.  All of these points help to build the case for automated device management at the delivery level, which is where content aggregators or end-to-end service providers rise to the challenge. 

    In a bid to simplify the path to mobile content, service providers endeavour to build solutions that will arm content owners with the tools to easily manage and distribute their portfolio of sounds and images. 
    For example, Rivals Digital Media, a leader in cross platform digital publishing, issues a range of football, rugby, golf and cricket content through its own brands as well as on behalf of clients such as sport magazine Rugby World. Having successfully run a number of SMS services ranging from sporting alerts to horoscopes over the past few years, Rivals was quick to recognise the potential of MMS to satisfy and entertain its leagues of sporting fans even further.  With a catalogue of more than 200 images, the challenge to deploy content to its fans was enormous. 

    The company used a mobile solutions partner to help overcome this challenge and deploy multi-media services to reach the widest possible user base. A content management platform provided Rivals Digital Media with a means of uploading, managing and storing its content portfolio, and a means of handling device management to ensure that the selected image works with the user’s device to maximise user experience.

    Images themselves are stored in different sizes and resolutions to cover the various screens available on today’s devices. Users simply text in their request for a piece of content according to the short code and keyword published in an advert to trigger both the payment and the delivery of the image. On receiving the SMS, the outsourced management platform automatically sends out a hidden message to get in return information regarding the browser or device type, simplifying device identification.

    This entire process is invisible to the end user and so the service appears to be deployed seamlessly. Using this process ensures that the end user receives the best quality image available without any need to follow complicated instructions based on individual devices.

    Images and animations are just two of the types of content download reliant upon gaining information about the user’s device type. The growing popularity of multi-level, multi-player gaming has brought about a surge in the development of J2ME based devices running various versions of the Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP) which provides the core functionality for applications running on these devices. In order for J2ME to succeed, content managers need to ensure the correct version of MIDP is detected and the Java game sent to the user is the best version for the detected handset.

    Also, the recent publicity push around the launch of video phones working off 3rd generation (3G) wireless technology has heightened the interest in finding video solutions for 2.5 generation phones operating on GSM and GPRS networks today. Depending on the handset and the mobile network, a compliant device can receive the video clip via WAP Push in some cases, or even directly streamed using a play list feature based upon a user’s particular interest.

    Some video messaging solutions require a player to be downloaded to the handset before the clip can be viewed; others deliver the player along with the clip in the same message. In both cases, content mangers must ensure the solution is most suitable for the mobile device. As the video download market takes off, the ability for content managers to successfully handle the sheer variety of handsets will play a key role in its continued development.
    It is clear that the mobile content market continues to grow at a rapid pace and device management remains vital to its success in terms of fuelling consumer demand for increasingly rich content.  As the market becomes increasingly complex and inevitably more expensive, companies will find it more and more difficult to compete, and barriers to entry will grow, particularly as competition from established non-mobile players steps up. 

    As mobile content becomes richer and more compelling, consumers become more prepared to pay a premium and in return expect a premium level of service.  To meet growing consumer demands, companies need to seek out comprehensive solutions to address issues such as device management to ensure the right type of content is seamlessly delivered to end users. 

    As with buying a car, the more money you spend, the higher the level of service you expect and the more extras you want thrown in — who knows, the next generation of mobile devices may come fitted with heated keypad as standard. Until such times, however, content providers have to tackle the delivery issue of the day.

    For many, a trusted solutions partner is the preferred option. Some may attempt to manage the process in-house, but scale and flexibility often dictate that the costs are too high. Regardless of the preferred route to the customer, it is critical that the customer experience is always put first. Mobile content is at a critical point on the adoption curve, and the quality of content delivery will dictate the winners and losers of the mobile game.