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PlayPhone's David Bell

"There must be degrees of standardisation in the user experience"

Based in San Jose, PlayPhone is one of the largest distributors of mobile games, ringtones and other content in the world. The company claims to have pioneered the concept of direct-to-consumer mobile content distribution, and launched one of the first off-deck downloads of mobile games in North America.

In this guest editorial PlayPhone's vice president of business development, David Bell, discusses how direct-to-consumer delivery is beneficial to the mobile gaming industry - and why there are still problems to be solved.

The mobile entertainment industry has more potential built-in customers than any other medium, and a flood of incredible content is being introduced to both stimulate and satisfy consumer demand. In just the past few years full-track music, streaming cable television, video ringtones, multiplayer games and many more new and exciting content offerings have been introduced.

Even with all of this new functionality and such a large array of choices, only a small percentage of consumers are using their mobile phones for much more than voice calls and the occasional ringtone download. This is caused in large part by the complexity of the content download process.

To achieve a solid understanding of why this is happening, one only needs to look at how the Internet developed into a successful commercial environment. In the early days of the Internet, consumers still mostly logged on to send email, chat in IRC channels and surf the web for news and information. There were a few Web portals pioneering the new concept of "ecommerce," but the addressable market was still very small and few became financially successful.

It took these industry pioneers years to build a commercial marketplace around the online medium, and along the way the biggest challenge they faced was reducing the complexity of the ecommerce experience.

To solve this problem, user accounts were created to store preferences, technology was developed to present consumers with more relevant products and services, and 'one click' purchasing was introduced. These solutions that were created to tackle the challenges associated with ecommerce are perhaps even more relevant to mcommerce, and ultimately to the growth of the mobile entertainment industry.

This is because, in the end, all mobile content is an impulse purchase for consumers - it is the mobile equivalent to that pack of chewing gum sitting at the checkout stand of your local grocery store. If that package of gum isn't the right brand, in the right place and made available at the exact time you are conditioned to think about purchasing it, you aren't going to buy it.

Improving the mobile download experience requires intelligently presenting consumers with content that they are interested in. This involves enabling mobile content discovery across different mediums to reach consumers wherever they might be compelled to buy mobile content.

The music department at retail stores, the DVD section of a major e-commerce portal and even an individual's MySpace page are all places where people organically may hear a new song, see a cool video or wish they could get "that image" as their cell phone wallpaper. These are the places that are most important for the future of mobile content, and nearly all of these are an "off deck" direct-to-consumer opportunity.

The direct-to-consumer business model is relatively new to the mobile space, and it has opened up major opportunities for improvement in the way consumers discover mobile content and the way it is delivered to the handset.

From a merchandising perspective, direct-to-consumer allows brand owners and destinations to create their own online mobile content portals. Most consumers prefer the richness of an online experience over the hierarchy of the WAP browser to discover new products and services, and direct-to-consumer connects consumers with the brands and content that they crave in the familiar graphical environment of the Internet.

With the right combination of exclusive content and engaged customers, mobile content portals have largely become a subscription-based revenue opportunity. This model not only represents an incredible revenue stream for businesses, but it also allows companies to fully leverage the innovations of the Internet to improve the purchase experience for consumers.

User accounts can be created, download histories can be analysed, relevant content can be presented upon return visits and handset profiles can be saved - allowing users to skip the step of providing this information each time they wish to download. These features and innovations allow the process of purchasing mobile content to finally be reduced to a one-click experience.

In addition presenting mobile content online, direct-to-consumer has also brought mobile content into print media, television and retail. Music labels can upsell ringtones from within a CD, videogame publishers can sell mobile games from their console game boxes and traditional media advertising can be leveraged to opt consumers in to mobile content services.

Even with all of this innovation in the way mobile content can be presented and delivered to consumers, another problem remains - the varying user experience across thousands of different mobile devices.

Before content exploded onto the wireless scene ten years ago, network operators were focused on improving the voice experience and significantly differentiating their products and services. Each carrier wanted their service to be unique and more compelling than the competition, and handset manufacturers were happy to oblige.

By the end of the last decade, thousands of radically different handsets were in the marketplace each with their own user interface and varying hardware configurations. In many cases, the same model handset would have a different version of firmware for each carrier that distributed the device. This has created a huge impediment to the growth of the mobile entertainment industry.

For the mobile platform to become a truly mass-market phenomenon, there must be certain degrees of standardisation in the user experience. Consumers do not have the patience to re-learn how to download ringtones, games and other forms of content each time they upgrade to a new device.

The direct-to-consumer model has solved many of the problems associated with the discovery and merchandising of mobile content, but the network operators must lead the way in helping to standardise the handset user interface.

Many carriers have started to address these issues by requiring all handset manufactures to conform to a specific carrier-centric user experience, but ultimately these are first steps in a new world where consumers are more in control than ever before - and only openness, collaboration and further innovation in the user experience can allow mobile content to realise its full potential.

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