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Fixing Fragmentation

"This new era creates an unprecedented challenge..."

The consumer entertainment industry is entering a new phase. Publishers and service providers are looking to utilise improved bandwidth and handset functionality to deliver a richer, personalised user experience with more advanced and complex content and services distributed across all mobile and consumer entertainment devices.

Undoubtedly, the increasing sophistication and capability of mobile devices combined with consumer requirements for greater content quality and accessibility opens up a massive opportunity for content providers previously unable to target the mobile market.

However, for those used to delivering content to dedicated gaming platforms, for example, the extraordinary variance of mobile phone technology presents a major challenge. In this guest editorial Francis Chang, chief executive of the Tao Group, argues that the speed, ease and cost with which these services and content can be ported and deliver will become ever more important.

As mobile phone penetration reaches 100 per cent, there is growing market awareness that customer loyalty will be driven by the availability of innovative content and services. With the arrival of 3G networks, improved handset memory, power and, critically, 3D graphics capabilities, there are now huge opportunities to deliver a new user experience - from interactive games previously constrained to dedicated gaming platforms to location based services.

Furthermore, content and services are no longer device specific. As convergence continues apace, consumers are waking up to the opportunity of accessing the same content on a number of platforms - from digital TV to mobile and PC.

But maximising this new market opportunity presents very real challenges. Service providers, network operators and carriers, content developers, publishers and mobile device manufacturers cannot simply rush headlong towards delivering the latest technological advances to an avid consumer base. There is a very real need to address the issue of fragmentation caused by the differing levels of quality, applicability and compatibility of the diverse mobile telephony technologies.

Without understanding the implications of multiple underlying technologies, from operating systems onwards, these organisations will struggle to deliver content that provides a consistent, high quality user experience irrespective of underlying mobile platform.

Post-'Java Only' Era

For an industry that has relied on the inherent portability of Java-based content and services, this new era creates an unprecedented challenge. Consumers want rapid access to new content, especially time sensitive content related to events such as location-based services, event information updates, games and music.

They want immediate access to what they need and what they enjoy, whenever they want it and wherever they are. They want content and services to behave identically irrespective of platform. However, the most complex of these services, especially those rich in multimedia, are being delivered in languages other than Java.

There is a very real need for support allowing such 'non-Java' services to be deployable to these different devices without requiring them to support multiple versions of the service. The consequence of a failure to address these issues will undoubtedly lead to performance disparity, too much engineering and cost and too long a delay in deploying these services to the consumer.

In this Post-'Java Only' age where we need to support an increasing number of languages and environments, the issue of fragmentation is magnified for any organisation looking to maximise these new market opportunities.

If service providers, network operators and device manufacturers are to achieve the required user experience, they need to take a hard look at the quality of both applications and enabling technologies. Critically, while Java remains an important part of the enabling infrastructure, it is not the platform itself.

In recognition of the challenges posed by fragmentation, many content providers are opting to target only the Smartphone market, which has a far smaller pool of underlying technologies. However, while it is possible to justify the costs associated with porting products to Smartphone platforms, these organisations are still unable to reach the mass market dominated by Feature phones.

And while Smartphones may comprise a significant segment, the core youth gaming demographic and the developing markets are more Feature phone focused. Can any content publisher or service provider really afford to ignore this huge potential revenue stream?

Standardisation Drive

The speed of market change is clear - as the low cost of Java games as opposed to the premium that can be charged for the graphics rich games developed in C/C++ reveals. Indeed, many developers refuse to use Java, resenting the restrictions imposed both by the technology and the community publishing approach that slows the development process and restricts differentiation.

As Java's role diminishes, awareness is certainly growing of the need for native code alternative. Indeed, the increasing market share of Qualcomm's BREW underlines that native code service deployment is now mainstream. The ability to use native services across an entire BREW network has improved the speed and reduced the cost associated with delivering services to the consumer.

Taking a broader perspective, in 2006, Khronos announced the development of native gaming Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), an initiative supported by the majority of handset manufacturers, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and publishers.

Furthermore, the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) is currently working with leading wireless and mobile gaming companies to further define and support an open gaming specification for premium quality native games for mobile phones. With a series of performance classes that define input methods and screen resolution formats, the OMA initiative will create an open set of gaming APIs for release during 2007.

Outside the BREW network, how will native content be distributed across networks to disparate devices? Organisations need a software engine that delivers the required portability model. Critically, this will enable native code developed for any platform to be made available across the board, from Feature phone to PC to digital TV.

A solution must also support the entire market ecosystem, from developers and publishers to network providers. Without a native service that can be deployed portably, organisations will be effectively cut off from a massive revenue stream as well as opportunities to boost customer loyalty.

Converging Marketplace

This fragmentation will only become more of a problem as the platform convergence continues. Asian companies are leading the way with strategies to deliver personalised clients that can be distributed to multiple devices. As this model gains momentum, so there is a significant multiplying in terms of the microprocessor architectures requiring support - it isn't like a mobile-only market dominated by a single architecture.

Multiple operating systems, a huge range of chip sets and a growing number of 3D graphics accelerators will actually create far more target platforms, exacerbating the fragmentation issue.

The consequential result of disappointed users suffering from a lacklustre entertainment experience could be catastrophic for those who cannot deliver in a highly competitive environment. Especially when compared to the improving standards that consumers are used to - those of the dedicated entertainment devices like the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP, and computer platforms.

Emerging Opportunity

The opportunities for new revenue streams, new content delivery and converged services are developing fast. Over the next 18 months 3D graphics capabilities in the majority of new Smartphones and Feature phone handsets will impact service type and quality.

Consumer response will most expectedly be strongly positive. Industry will likely respond to that demand and maximise this new opportunity by aligning products and services with the current and future needs of its customers. This is a service driven era; the industry must constantly focus on reducing the long-term cost of product and service provision whilst enhancing time-to-market, usability and continually strive to achieve the highest levels of quality and consistency of customer experience.

Companies that address the cost of content delivery, the associated portability and inconsistencies in performance will create a huge advantage for themselves, achieving far greater consumer satisfaction and loyalty, and will benefit from huge growth.

Francis Chang is chief executive of the Tao Group.

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