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Is There a 'Killer App' for Mobile Data?

Is There a 'Killer App' for Mobile Data?

Mobile data services have arrived in the GSM world. Around the globe, networks have been upgraded for GPRS capability, and can deliver IP data services reliably at rates comparable to dial-up Internet. But so far, subscribers aren't flocking to mobile data. Conventional wisdom in the industry is that a "killer application" hasn't yet been found. Will multimedia messaging services (MMS) be the killer app? Or perhaps real-time videoconferencing? Since every new service rollout is a major investment in equipment, integration, and marketing, mobile network operators (MNOs) are understandably nervous about their lack of visibility into the "killer app" that will fuel mobile service uptake.

People who search for the killer app for mobile data are asking the wrong question. Perhaps such people have asked similar questions at all the key technological moments in history. Just imagine: "Look, Orville, Wilbur, I know the thing flies, but what's the killer app?"

Mobility itself is the killer app in mobile data services, just as flight was the killer app for aviation. The easier we make it for people to communicate without being tethered to a wall or a terminal - or even a particular geography - the more likely they will be to communicate that way.

Hunters for the killer app think all mobile subscribers want to do roughly the same thing, and that success lies in figuring out what that thing is. The truth is that mobile subscribers want many different things, but what they demand is the ability to do those things on the move, regardless of where they are. MNOs will have to think of their subscribers in new ways if they are to respond to that demand.

MNOs will also need to consider how rapidly mobile penetration for basic voice services is moving to include more diverse segments of the population. Soon, a family of four that once included only one or two subscribers - typically the parents - will become three or four subscribers - each with his or her own mix of services, permissions, and levels of security. Each of these subscribers values mobility and messaging - and each is a target for additional mobile data services.

Enterprises that were once viewed as just a bunch of individual subscribers to their MNOs may soon purchase mobile data services to enable hundreds, or even thousands, of subscribers to access a single corporate application as part of a corporate account. And even the average, analog, coupon-clipping consumers may prove more complicated than they appear. They may pay modest incremental monthly fees for enhancements to their voice experience - simple things like directory and account maintenance that can drive incremental revenues and cost savings for MNOs.

Consider teens, the most aggressive consumers, as an example of mobile data penetration. Already, they're using short message service (SMS) to send messages on their mobile phones during algebra class. This is a generation at home with electronic media. They're used to getting their information immediately, and to handling it in more than one medium at a time. Also, they're already untethered psychologically. Stand outside a high school after the last bell rings and count the number of students emerging with their mobile phones to their ears.

Ask their parents how many times their children's plans for the day or the evening change between the time they leave for school and the time they return home. Today's teens think of themselves as mobile, and they insist that their communications be mobile. Soon, aided by more powerful devices - PDAs, laptops, and devices we don't even have names for yet - these kids will start pulling down big chunks of text and graphics. They'll download and share pictures and technical information about cars, fashion, and music. They won't tote disks around; they won't do faxes. They'll expect to turn on whatever device they have and communicate from wherever they are.

Unlike many of the emerging market segments, enterprise and professional users are no mystery to the MNO. These laptop- and PDA-toting road warriors want mobile office services - mail, messaging, PIM synchronization, access to ERP applications - with landline-equivalent security. Basic Internet access via GPRS may enable a sophisticated IT shop to deliver these services, but an operator-provided mobile data service is the answer for the broader market (and a better source of incremental revenue to the MNO). After all, small and medium-sized enterprises without sophisticated, in-house services need many of the same services - in fact, they may need them more than large enterprises. The one sure advantage they have over larger competitors is the ability to think, act, change, and move fast. Mobility is very much their killer app, since it leverages what they already do well.

To deliver the different types of mobile data services that these various subscribers want, MNOs will have to deploy a new mobile services core infrastructure that has greater subscriber and service intelligence than their current voice networks. Such mobile service delivery infrastructure is used to deliver personalized consumer services, secure enterprise services, and enable differentiated charging and billing capabilities. With investment in these new mobile services core infrastructures, mobile operators can build a foundation for higher revenues and a devoted customer base.

By referring to these mobile services cores as "new," I mean that the infrastructure possesses subscriber and service intelligence at the core. Many MNOs are jury-rigging old infrastructures to meet new needs. This may work for a while - but only as long as users are relatively few and their demands comparatively modest. But in the kind of environment described here, mobile networks designed for voice services won't be up to the job, and neither will fixed-line data networks. What mobile operators need is the ability to deploy highly personalized services, to charge and bill on an extremely flexible basis, and to link in subscribers from many different networks - such as 2.5G, 3G, WLAN, and more.

A mobile data network with such brains at the core is a network focused on its customers - on each of its customers - rather than on its links. The operators of such a network will be in a position to give their customers what they want, when they want it - and get paid for giving it to them - regardless of who or where those customers are.

Such a network will be able to recognize the services, features, and permissions available to each of the hundreds or thousands of subscribers in an enterprise. It will be able to change those services, features, and permissions almost instantly, and bill accurately for them. Such a network will be able to bill for a postpaid, usage-based account and a prepaid account at the same address. Finally, such a network will be able to tell the difference between data of different values. A long text message, a photograph, or a video clip may contain the same number of 1s and 0s, but they are not worth the same to customers, and an MNO should have the option to bill differently for them.

MNOs need not worry about the killer app. They have the killer app; it's mobility itself. The question MNOs should ask themselves is whether or not they have the mobile services core infrastructure necessary to enable mobile data customers to make the most of their mobility.

More Stories By Gordon Saussy

Gordon Saussy is cofounder, CEO, and president of Megisto Systems, Inc. Prior to founding Megisto, Saussy served as vice president of marketing for Ericsson's IP infrastructure division.

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