Slow networks, expensive data charges, and a plethora of technical problems have prevented the mobile phone taking off as a computing platform. Is that about to change?
In just two short decades the mobile phone has become one of the most ubiquitous communications devices in Australia. With mobile penetration sitting above 90 percent, it easily surpasses personal computer ownership, estimated at just 67 percent of Australian households.
Yet despite the computing power of modern handsets, and their unique status as the device a person most often carries with them, mobile phones lag distantly behind the PC for activities such as surfing the Internet or downloading applications. Slow networks, expensive data charges, and a plethora of technical problems have prevented the mobile phone taking off as a computing platform.
All that may be on the verge of changing however, with a small group of Australian developers working to open up the mobile phone as the next big field for computer application development.
Already in Australia there are as many as 50 developers dedicated to creating mobile-related technology, and dozens more for whom mobile development is an important secondary activity. Many of these are devoted to creating back-end systems, such as SMS gateways, competition management systems and payment systems. Still more are dedicated to creation and distribution of mobile content such as ring-tones and wallpaper, and mobile-browseable Web sites.
But it is mobile application development that will best utilise the mobile phone as a true computing platform.
Early activity has focused on building games. Industry figures suggest that eight percent of consumers download application to their handsets, the vast majority of them today being games, and many of Australia's games developers have found creating small downloadable games to be a profitable activity when working in conjunction with publishers. Hence there are now hundreds of mobile games available for download, the majority created using the Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) programming environment.
The regional director for mobile games publishing at Electronic Arts (EA), Mike McCabe, says his company has witnessed dramatic growth in user interest in mobile games. EA has released 15 mobile titles, many of them extensions to its existing PC and console franchises.
Games have been the entry point to mobile development for many smaller Australian developers. Sydney-based developed TigerSpike got its start in mobile application development through games when it created the handset-based FantaMan game for Coca-Cola, based on the popular PacMan game concept.
"We've got a number of in-house applications that we have developed that run specifically on mobile handsets," says Oliver Palmer, TigerSpike's operations manager. "We did a karaoke application for [the talent contest] Street Idol for the Motorola V3 handset that Telstra was promoting, which held the music tracks that they had licensed. The application played the backing track with the words on the screen and a bouncing ball scrolling along so that you could sing along."
Increasingly it is useful applications that are capturing the attention of developers. While some of the functionality of a downloadable application can be achieved using a wireless application protocol (WAP) site, this involves greater use of network bandwidth, as pages are sent from the network to the handset. This is generally a slow process, even on existing 3G networks, and can become expensive for the user in terms of data charges. Once a mobile application is downloaded however, it need only draw down discreet information from the network when it is actually required.
The strategic marketing manager for mobility solutions at the telecommunications technology maker Ericsson Australia, Kusten Leins, says one popular example of a mobile application is mobile TV client software, where the downloaded software replaces the browser with a friendlier interface.
"Those kinds of wrapper applications, where you simplify what the end user can do, are the areas where you see applications heading," Leins says.
Another popular area has been guides for festivals and events, such as the miniNAV application created by Adelaide-based developer Kukan Studio, which was successfully used for the 2006 Adelaide Fringe Festival.
Kukan is now building Podmo, a mobile telecommunications network for mobile phones deployed free-of-charge over public Bluetooth networks. Kukan has built a Java application that is downloaded to the handset and provides services such as Web browsing, instant messaging, searching, mapping, content downloads and Voice Over IP, but served through Bluetooth servers in cafes, railway stations and other public places, rather than over the cellular network.
The web developer Hyro also dipped its toes into the downloadable mobile applications realm in 2006, developing a Pong-style game to promote the Seven Network's coverage of the Australian Open Tennis. The company is now working on a second top-secret media project.
Hyro's technical manager for wireless and broadband, Patrik Molander, says that as the handsets themselves become more powerful, there is a push to create more useful applications.
"Previously it has been mostly games, but now we are seeing other types of applications that are creating more value for the user."
Not surprisingly, mobile network operators have also been pushing the development of mobile applications. Hutchison Australia's business solution specialist, James Toepher, says his company has been operating a developer program for mobile applications since the earliest days of its 3G network, although that effort has been scaled back as handset manufacturers have improved the resources that they make available.
Today, manufacturers provide one of the richest sources of information for application developers. Motorola created the Motodev site (developer.motorola.com) for its Motorola Developer Network, which includes FAQs, handset documentation, and access to software developer kits and other development tools. Likewise Sony Ericsson has a dedicated developer site (developer.sonyericsson.com) and Nokia has Nokia Forum (forum.nokia.com).
Toepher says that when Hutchison sees a good fit between an application and its customers, it will take that application to market itself. One example is 3 MarketStream (www.3marketstream.com.au) which provides real-time access to financial markets data from 30 financial exchanges from around the world. He says the application is used both within bank trading rooms and by small operators to get up-to-the-minute information.
Users of 3 MarketStream download a Java application to their handset, which when activated creates a live connection to constantly update information. Toepher says this is typical of the sort of applications that 3 is interested in promoting, in line with its focus on small and medium businesses. The carrier has also worked with developers around the MYOB accounting software suite, to pull down information in this case to Windows Mobile-equipped phones.
Hutchison also directs customers to Handango, an online repository of thousands of games and applications for a wide range of devices. Customers can use the Handango site to easily browse and purchase mobile applications, with support options.
Barriers to adoption
But there are numerous barriers to be overcome before these applications catch on broadly with the general public.
Firstly, consumers have no idea where to look for mobile applications. Carriers are often loathe to direct them outside of their own mobile content portals, which are sometimes referred to as "walled gardens".
The founder and chief executive of mobile application developer bluepulse, Ben Keighran, likens the current situation to the early days of the Internet, where companies like AOL and CompuServe created proprietary closed versions of the Internet and charged consumers to access them. While these services played an important role in helping people learn about the Internet and what they could do with it, as people's appetites for information grew, they increasingly began looking outside of these closed environments to the rapidly developing World Wide Web. Keighran believes the same phenomenon will occur with the mobile Internet.
Users within the walled garden of a mobile carrier are usually not charged for browsing through content within the portal, but are slugged high rates for downloading data from outside sources.
Leins says the cost of finding a download site may be negligible, but the cost of actually downloading can be very high. He adds that Australian data prices are also higher than many other parts of the world.
"The current models that are in the market are inconsistent, and you only need one nasty bill-shock experience to taint your future use," Leins says.
Most developers believe that carriers will eventually move to plans that offer unlimited data carriage at a fixed rate. These "all-you-can-eat" plans are now beginning to appear in Europe and North America.
Keighran points out though that the charging policies of mobile network operators are not the only limiting factor for the adoption of mobile applications. Developers must also think very carefully about what they are building if the applications are to be accepted by consumers.
"A phone has a limited I/O; you don't have a mouse and keyboard; it's not a browsing experience; and you are not immersing yourself in the content. It is content that is relevant to you while you are in transit. It is content that is relevant to you while you are mobile."
The most costly limitation for a developer however is the lack of standardisation in operating platforms — not only between operating system and handset manufacturers, but often within the product lines of manufacturers themselves. Numerous handset operating systems existing, including Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm, Blackberry, and more recently Linux. Many of these support the Java development environment, but not all. Brew has also emerged as a popular platform in some markets, and several more still are in use in different parts of Asia. Adobe has also been working with handset makers to get its Flash Lite environment included with phones when they are shipped, giving developers an alternative to Java or Brew as a development environment.
As troubling as the different operating systems are, problems exist even within those devices that use the Java platform. The issue is that the multimedia implementation, such as the way that it processes audio or displays information on screen, can differ significantly on each phone.
EA Mobile's McCabe says that up to four months of a 12 month game development cycle is spent on porting and quality assurance for the many handsets that are available in the marketplace globally.
"The core development may be done by a small team with art support and story and game play, but the porting means looking at 300 or more devices, and there is going to be a considerable cost with that."
Kukan has based part of its business on specialising in quickly porting other developer's games and applications to multiple handsets. Metcalfe says the cost of developing a two dimensional game today is around US$80,000, but the porting cost can exceed the game's development.
"To port a game into the European region might cost US$50,000. And that's just the European market — that's not for North America or for Asia."
Improvements are being made however, through new Java specialisation requests coming from the Java development community. But Metcalfe says that while the first and second Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP) J2ME application programming interfaces were designed to standardise how software applications interface with mobile phones, manufacturers have tended to push these standards to the point of being unworkable.
"Standards don't always keep up, and they end up implementing their own classes to get more performance out of the phone," Metcalfe says. "Every time they make a custom class on their phone, they make the application developer's job that much harder, because we have to take into account all the different variants."
But the lack of standardisation has opened opportunities for some developers, as they create their own platforms that take this complexity away for other developers. The Podmo concept being developed by Kukan is designed as a standard operating environment to work across all handsets, in addition to its function as an alternative communications network. By taking on the versioning issues within the handset, Podmo gives developers the freedom to develop their applications in a write-once, run-anywhere fashion.
Similarly, bluepulse also offers a standardised platform for developers, coupled with access to a social networking platform. Keighran says bluepulse is an open community, and developers do not need to register to publish content to the platform. Keighran says there are now nearly 1000 mobile widgets available to consumers.
"What we were trying to do was make a really easy way for enthusiast developers to publish content to mobile, and for consumers to access things that they were usually used to accessing on their computer.
"It is such early days for mobile. In Australia sending SMS is common, but there are still many parts of the world where people are struggling to send an SMS text message, let alone interact with some content on their phone or install an application."