Monday, December 01, 2008

Phone Apps the New Battleground by Simon Canning

Apple will have sold more than 1 million iPhones in Australia by the end of next year, sparking a battle by media companies and application developers to lure users with content and on-sell the eyeballs to advertisers. But while the iPhone's entry may have attracted the headlines, behind the scenes media players are fighting to make their content and applications work on an increasing array of devices while ensuring a consistent experience.

The mobile market is looming as the epicentre of the battle to keep consumers connected with media, but the question is: is media keeping up? The iPhone, Apple's heavily hyped multimedia player that also makes phone calls, has already been credited with triggering the next step in mobile media, despite the fact that it represents only a small percentage of phones in the total marketplace.

Within days of the phone's launch in Australia its new converts were not raving about the capabilities of the device as such, but trilling about the "apps" -- the third-party applications that connected them to iPhone-optimised websites, news feeds, video links and pretty much anything else you could think of.

Travis Johnson, national digital director of media agency Universal McCann and a keen observer of the mobile media space, says that for many of the concepts out there, the technology -- and crucially the bandwidth -- has not yet arrived, despite the claims of device manufacturers and the telcos.

"We are running into a lot of issues," Johnson told Media.

Chief among those is the reticence of marketers to spend the vast majority of a marketing budget on creating an application, rather than just buying a banner ad.

Johnson cites Bloomberg and The New York Times as two media companies that have successfully embraced mobiles as a distribution tool, having created applications that seamlessly deliver content designed for specific devices.

"I have to say that the best use of news being delivered to my phone has been Bloomberg and The New York Times because they are so well optimised," he says.

The range of media companies that have begun to optimise their sites for different mobile devices is growing. The Australian recently created an iPhone-friendly business application, while Fairfax Media has also optimised parts of its websites to be iPhone and mobile friendly.

Ninemsn is another that has designed its website to recognise a range of different phones and to scale the experience to the size and shape of the screen.

Johnson says the "shitty" screen size on many phones limits the potential of many applications, but well designed apps are an immediate hit.

"The NSW Roads and Traffic Authority's webcam app and Shazam (an app that recognises music from just a few bars and then takes you to iTunes to purchase the song) are two that really work," Johnson says. "But it is hard to find the right application. There are hundreds of applications uploaded for iPhones, BlackBerrys and other devices every day and only one in every 10,000 applications is successful.

"It is also getting harder and harder for consumers to find applications."

The proliferation of smart phones in recent months -- led by the iPhone but also including the Blackberry Bold, LG Secret, Nokia N95, HTL and a host of others -- has forced application producers into a difficult position.

While iPhone numbers are predicted to hurdle 1 million next year, currently there are fewer than 200,000.

So the uptake of mobile media is left to existing 3G devices, which boast a wide variety of screen sizes and are also affected by the abilities of the network supporting the phone.

That is limiting the ability and willingness of marketers to invest in such applications or support media mobile sites with advertising.

"To communicate to a mass audience in mobile it needs to be a clever idea that adds value to consumers," Johnson says.

Dean Capobianco, head of mobile at Ninemsn, says the development of mobile media and applications that support it is still in its embryonic days.

"We are working to close the loop in people's media experience so they can move from the TV to the computer to the mobile seamlessly," he says.

Ninemsn optimises its sites for a range of different mobile devices, but has chosen the browser route to deliver the experience rather than creating stand-alone applications that live permanently on a phone. The company is working to balance the use of text and pictures on sites that range from National Nine News to Wide World of Sports and an about to be launched location-based restaurant finder.

On an iPhone the on-screen buttons of Ninemsn's site have been designed to replicate the phone's own home screen buttons to try to create a seamless experience.

Capobianco cites MSN's Messenger tool as one that looks and works exactly the same whether it is being used on a computer or a mobile phone.

Tim Krause, the global chief marketing officer for telecommunications equipment vendor Alcatel-Lucent, says companies have to effectively run ahead of their customers.

The company runs Bell Labs in the US, the famed think tank that churns out experimental devices that often find their way into the mainstream.

One such device being developed is a projector-equipped mobile phone that could transform the way people use phones as personal entertainment devices. But Krause says that for many of the telcos, which are effectively the carriers of the new services, control of their networks has been ceded to consumers and the media company content and application creators.

"Consumers are the ones that are thinking up the really cool stuff anyway," Krause told Media on a visit to Australia. "The problem for providers is they are not going to control what the service looks like any more."

As a network equipment supplier, Alcatel's goal is to drive bandwidth, and the advent of smart phones and intensive media applications is in its interests.

The company recently launched Tikitags. These are tags that can be read by a reader device attached to a computer which can take the owner to an information-rich web page -- a move that could quickly be adopted for the mobile market.

Next is real-time image recognition, which would allow mobile phones to snap an image that would be immediately recognised and link to a rich media site through the mobile -- for example, taking a photo of an ad for the Spiderman movie -- and would allow the phone to link directly to the movie's website.

It seems that for apps media on mobile, the brave new world has barely begun.

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