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.