Content is fundamental to the future success of Europe’s mobile operators, we all know that, but how do you identify, purchase and deliver that winning content? Catherine Haslam reports on the various technical and business issues that are being addressed to enable consumers to get their hands on compelling content they are willing to pay for.
The networks are now in place to deliver data effectively. GPRS is widespread in Europe and key applications have been implemented as well. Java downloads, MMS and even WAP are all technologies capable of providing the technical mechanisms to access content, are well on the way but without content they are nothing.
Content , however, is one of those all-encompassing terms that is easy to say but far more difficult to acquire in any meaningful way. The Internet model — providing a single method for consumers to access a vast quantity of content, a browser, which they must then navigate their own way through, has grown steadily to provide more valuable tools such as search engines. The initial thoughts behind WAP were probably that mobile access to this vast store of content would drive itself, but the reality was that the mobile environment was, and still remains different.
Reduced bandwidth, small displays and limited processing power and battery life meant that the Internet structure could not simply be ported to the mobile world. This created no end of technical challenges and, in finding solutions for them, most would now agree that the industry lost sight of the importance of encouraging content owners to want to enter the mobile market. This manifested itself in the fact that applications developers and content owners needed to deliver content in a new language — WML — and in many different formats for the wide variety of handsets. This was always unlikely and the fact that mobile operators were unwilling or unable to develop revenue sharing agreements, put paid to developments at that time. Content providers were put off for some time but the fact that GPRS networks are now reasonably stable and MMS is rolling out, means that operators have been working hard on rectifying this situation.
In the UK, O2 has a long-running association with TV station Channel 4 and its production of Big Brother. This positive experience which began with text message alerts and has developed into a situation where, “On each occasion that a new technology becomes available, we have been able to showcase them with Channel 4.” The latest manifestation of this is cross-network MMS services providing consumers with text and images, talking heads and even video clips for those with the Nokia 3650.
Neither is O2 alone in its efforts to build relationships with content holders. According to Julian Zmood, head of entertainment for Orange World, there is now an “On going dialogue between Orange and major content holders with the aim to find a good fit for both sides.”
The level of such discussions has become obvious with the announcement of a content deal with one of the biggest content brands, Disney, for the delivery of multimedia content across a number of Orange businesses. However, he also recognised that this is just one element of the process.
“This is a very different environment with a wide range of handsets, colour options, and sound variations — mono and polyphonic sound in a range of formats. 18-24 months ago, people hadn’t thought through this but now they have. It’s a step change,” Zmood explains.
The key issues that have to be addressed are how you can take existing content, whatever it may be, and translate it into a format that is capable of being carried by a mobile network and received in the correct format by a mobile device. It sounds simple but it certainly isn’t.
Imagine sending the same multimedia message to the Ericsson T68i and Nokia 7650. They have different size and resolution screens; different versions of polyphonic sound and support MMS in different ways. The MMS standard and interoperability testing takes care of some of the transcoding for different handsets but alone it is not enough.
Firstly, the content has to be in the right format and, while Zmood suggests that, “Investment is needed on both sides to get this going,” Core Media’s UK Manager Val Karruck suggests, “Content people are not generally into technology and therefore we have to keep it simple.”
Keeping it simple for content holders means being able to take content in a variety of formats, perhaps even in the original format and translating it into the right formats for the mobile network and then for the individual handset. Obviously, it would be prudent to deploy a platform which is capable of doing this for all MMS content rather than for each specific content provider or form of content. According to Karruck, “In many ways it’s a ‘no brainer’. It has to be done,” but there are a number of options.
The Core Media solution is based on OMA standards which cope with the delivery of content to multiple handsets and, according to the company is the first such solution to hit the market. However, it does more than this as Core Media believes this platform should be about much more than formatting and transcoding and that it should be the central part of the whole content delivery system. The content server can take content in any format and convert it into an MMS-usable form. The platform does more than this as it adds all the information necessary to ensure that content can be built into effective MMS services, billed for and the content holder paid. The system manages the thorny issues of Digital Rights Management (DRM).
The right to manage
The system establishes who owns the rights and when content is free for the marketing department to develop services using a series of drag and drop tools. In accordance with the OMA standards, a rights object is attached to the content which gives the consumer the right to download the content and decrypt it. It also restricts forwarding unless that is allowed by the digital rights licence. Furthermore, the system builds a library of rights objects which speeds up the development of services as they can be included in any new service, rather than having to create them from scratch each time.
Far from the digital rights free-for-all that has characterised much of the distribution of digital content on the web, the mobile business and content holders are determined not to make the same mistakes. As Zmood says, “Digital rights management is a fundamental issue and one which Orange takes very seriously. The simple way to be sure is to check the copyright but many have made assumptions. In dealings with partners we check any claims and promote only what we are legally able to do so.” However, he did admit that confusion about rights “Had slowed offerings down.”
Perhaps even more fundamental to the mobile operators business is to sell the value of mobile as a medium to content providers. This is something that Brainstorm has been heavily involved in. It has created a whole range of scenarios describing different possibilities for making sound businesses from mobilising content.
Brainstorm offers two products — M-Enable and M-Designer which combine to offer a web-based MMS service delivery system. M-Enable is all about facilitating the easy flow of content to the mobile world. It sits between the content provider and the MMSC and supports 12 different APIs, something ceo Craig Massey explains, “Allows any content provider to come to Brainstorm as a content aggregator.”
The system uses genuine MMS coding to enable cross network services and creates style sheet templates for both content and the multitude of handsets on the market. As a result, new services can be created from menus quickly and effectively. Massey believes this is a vastly superior solution to those based on WAP Push which he describes as, “Atrocious. It degenerates MMS, it doesn’t support JPEG or GIF formats, or audio and therefore cuts down MMS functionality. It’s a seriously poor man’s MMS.”
Another player in the content delivery marketplace is Mobile Cohesion. It, like Core Media and Brainstorn, believes that there is a necessity to make the route to market easy for content owners. All it requires is “very simple xHTML to get content up and running,” according to the company’s cto Louis Corrigan.
The system reduces the input required from content providers by introducing another layer into the network which abstracts the network elements needed for MMS — MMSCs and SMSCs — from the content with a middle platform which handles the interfaces to these and other systems such as the billing system, and therefore takes the API programming element out of the content provider’s hands. This creates a “simple fetch mechanism for high value content,” according to Corrigan
. The company’s ceo Dennis Murphy, further explains that this abstraction means that content can be delivered across a range of applications and bearers which builds an applications safety net. While Corrigan admits that “Some operators have bits and pieces of this in bespoke systems, there is a need for a more co-ordinated approach.”
Whatever the route taken, Zmood speak for all operators when he suggests that, “Platforms make sense for operators and for content providers as then they know what they need to deliver.” However, he also explains that’ “It’s about building a market and having a visions about where we will be. With the new handsets, tariffs and service promotion, there has been a dramatic step change from 24 months ago and the same will happen in the next 12 months.”