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Mobile phone services: back where we started

Mobile phone services are bringing us back to the age of the green screen. Who would have thought five years ago that customers would be using a numeric keypad to send text-based commands to order content, check balances and even buy things?

But that’s exactly where we’ve ended up. Despite the promise of WAP, GPRS and Java SIMs, the only viable way of developing a decent mobile application is using text messages. It’s the only thing that works. Anything else is just too unknown for consumers, requires a special phone or add-on or won’t be compatible with all the different types of phone in the market.

I recently spoke to one company that is now implementing an application for its customers to access its services from a mobile phone. It wasn’t their preferred choice. They would have preferred to use something like the Java SIM toolkit or WAP. But these alternatives just never shipped or never worked well enough to be feasible as mass-market platforms.

So they are back to SMS. Customers will send text messages containing commands to the company’s servers and receive messages in response with the information they need. They aren’t alone. Organizations across the GSM world are taking the same approach. The most visible applications of m-commerce (parking payments, public transport tickets) are all implemented using text messaging.

The irony is that they could have launched these services two years ago. The technology hasn’t moved on at all in the meantime. But they were waiting for the technological climate to change, for something better that text messaging to come along.

But the only thing that changed was that they realised that the mobile phone manufacturers and the network operators weren’t going to deliver. So eventually they gave up waiting. Now they are implementing using technology from 1997, which is overpriced (providing services via SMS costs 10 or 20 cents per transaction).

The mobile phone industry is screwing things up bady. It is failing to innovate to improve its products to make it more useful. At the same time it is pricing itself Worse still, it is obstructing content providers from developing useful products.

There are useful lessons to be learned from this situation

1. Use the technology that is available now. Don’t wait around for the next great thing to come along. It will take longer than you expect.

2. Don’t depend on the market to deliver innovation, especially if the market is tied up by a small number of companies.

3. Standards are very important. The success of text messaging has never been duplicated by the mobile phone industry, largely because it has failed to come up with further standards.

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  1. Someone mentioned they use “WiFi” for “marketing purposes”. I would appreciate a post about this trend. Thanks.

  2. I have to agree with you Antoin. The UMTS networks were just opened in Finland, late, but opened nevertheless. I also wrote about this in my blog, how companies, operators more specifically, have failed to keep their promises.

    Therefore I see it is up to the individual companies to produce content and services. However, the operators must support this and drop their prices, for data transfer, for example. The sad thing about this is that most of these services created by smaller companies require a smart phone and not many people have one yet.

  3. Shareen, I have no idea how one would use WiFi for ‘marketing purposes’, at least not in a cost-effective way. Use of wi-fi outside the home or office is still very much a niche issue. You can use mobile phones and the like though.

    Antii, I think the problem is that the the mobile operators are unwilling to work with partners, for cultural and economic reasons. They just aren’t set up for dealing with partners. And they don’t really want to split the revenue in a fair proportion with content providers (by ‘fair’ I mean much less than 20c from a transaction like a balance-check).

  4. good point…
    a similar case is the (?increasing) need to design websites
    also for smaller mobile screens, and in simple ways, notwithstanding ‘ordinary’computers having left such simple resolutions etc behind a long time ago

    btw the info re yourself doesn’t work: