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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Why Mobile Operators have a crucial role to play in the second wave of “smart” apps

[Just how smart can mobile apps get? Guest author James Parton explains why most apps today are pretty much dumb, just scratching the surface of what could be possible and describes how mobile operators can help power the next-generation of smarter, context aware applications]


The noise level around Apps and App Stores has reached saturation point. Every day a new launch, a new report, or a new statistic hits the newswires.

We have passed the point where there are now more people accessing the internet via a mobile device than via a PC, overall revenue from mobile apps (including ads, payments, and in-app transactions) is expected to grow to $17.5 billion in 2012 from $4.1 billion today, the iTunes store has delivered more than 3 billion downloads, 22 apps are downloaded per second from Nokia’s Ovi store, there are more than 30,000 Apps available in the Android store… you get the idea…

There can be no doubt that the explosion of interest around the App ecosystem brought home just how important mobile will be as a future content delivery channel, typified by the increasing number of Apps being produced by leading brands. No digital marketer worth their salt would now neglect having an app story in their digital marketing plan, even if in all honesty some are not quite sure why!

However, make no mistake that we are still firmly in the realms of a version 1.0 ecosystem. The App retail delivery platforms are still very basic; in fact they have not yet significantly evolved in terms of features and capabilities from the content delivery platforms that were offering mobile games, wallpapers and ringtones at the beginning of the decade.

The Apps themselves are clearly “dumb”. What do I mean by “dumb?” The vast majority of today’s App’s sit on the customer’s handset and have no understanding, or appreciation of its context or the person using it. Yes, increasing numbers of Apps are using location to introduce geographic context, but that is hardly pushing the boundaries of the art of the possible.

To take the App ecosystem to version 2.0, Apps have to become “smart”. I believe this is where Mobile Operators finally have a key role to play in the progression of the App ecosystem.

Of course this role is not a divine right. The Mobile Operators need to go through considerable change in order to be able to contribute effectively. That change is both technological: opening up “smart enablers” to allow developers to easily consume these capabilities, and secondly: culturally – to embrace the independent developer community and relax their traditional command and control philosophy for mutual gain.

So what does a “smart app” look like? Well consider today’s customer experience. You run an app and it is a one size fits all experience i.e. the app behaves exactly the same way for every one of its users, regardless of who they are, and how they are using it. Imagine a “smart” app that could customise the user experience based on intelligent, real time, information delivered from the Mobile Operator.

Examples of Mobile Operator unique enhancements to the customer experience could include:

  1. On the fly customisation of the App UI based on a detailed understanding of the device currently being used. Remember that increasing numbers of customers are SIM swapping. How do you know that a customer using your service on a Monday via an iPhone is now using your service on a Tuesday using the same SIM in a 3G dongle connected to a Netbook?

  2. On the fly customisation of content richness based on knowledge of the users  current connection speed (e.g. 2.5g, 3G, WiFi). For example trying to force rich video content to a customer on a slower 2.5G data connection will probably deliver such a poor customer experience they will never use your app again. If you know in real time their connection speed, you can deliver the most appropriate experience.

  3. Personalisation of content and configuration of your App UI based on user demographics (gender, age, location, social economic profile, etc)

  4. Targeting & profiling of the audience based on segmentation information e.g. travel profile (stationary, commuter, jet-setter), spend segment (>€100 per month, €50-100 per month, €30-50, etc).

  5. Micro billing to the customer’s mobile bill or debits from their pre pay balance at VISA like transactions rates.

  6. In-App interactivity via messaging or calling

  7. Up -selling the customer from a basic service to a premium guaranteed service (for example low ping rate for multiplayer gaming apps).

  8. Then for the owner of the App, post usage analytics providing data like who, where, how long their users are consuming their services, and other customers of the Mobile Operator that match their current users profile, who could be targeted by a marketing campaign.

Examples of the enablers that Mobile Operators could deploy include; quality of service, billing, handset information, customer analytics, network traffic analytics, messaging, call management, location, age verification, tariff information. The list can go on and on, and in fact in our own planning sessions we have identified over 50 potential enablers.

This is a more intelligent way of developing not only the App, but also the business opportunity. Via the Network Operators turning their network infrastructure and assets into a plug and play platform, Mobile Operators become vital in the creation process of the second wave of ‘intelligent’ apps that can deliver far richer experiences for users which will drive adoption, longevity, and profitability.

Evangelisation and education on the benefits of creating “smart” Apps is crucial – this won’t just happen by itself. We are at the start of the process, and many companies are only now trying to get to grips with their App 1.0 strategy.

To ensure Mobile Operators both identify and capitalise on the opportunity to become relevant in the App ecosystem, it is vital they adopt an open and transparent approach. Therefore there cannot be enough effort to bring together the various players in the App ecosystem to share thinking, create strategy and influence product roadmaps, and marketing plans.

A great example of this is the Mobile Entertainment Forums Smart Enabler Initiative. I’d strongly recommend you check it out and get involved.

Critically the experiences and enablers I have described here are not commercial reality today. Talking and listening to developers will be essential to ensure that the Mobile Operators invest in the right technology enablers and introduce compelling business models to encourage their adoption.

Of course enablers are just one piece of a complex App ecosystem. There are many other challenges that hinder unlocking the full commercial value of the market place, not least the fragmentation and choices available to developers at the handset Operating System level. However, our approach is the same: dialogue and insight.

That is exactly why O2 Litmus has partnered with VisionMobile to undertake the largest developer research to date. We’re encouraging all mobile developers to participate, and we look forward to sharing the results with you all.

Have your say at visionmobile.com/developers.

I’d welcome your thoughts on both this piece and some key questions it poses:

  1. Have you used a Mobile Operator enabler? What was the experience like?

  2. What enablers do you need to make your App “smart”?

  3. How can we effectively spread this message?

James Parton Head of O2 Litmus You should follow me on Twitter at @jamesparton

[James is a Chartered Marketer specialised in Mobile. With an award winning track record of product delivery including twenty five major launches, featuring twenty first to market achievements, including MMS, mobile video, mobile music downloads, the UK DVB-H Broadcast TV trial in 2005, and the ticketing and interactive services supporting The O2 Arena in London. Recognised by Revolution Magazine as one of the “Future 50”, James is a regular industry speaker, panellist, judge, blogger, and has lectured in Marketing and New Product Development at The University of Oxford Faculty of Continuing Education and Reading University.]

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