Delaying the Revolution

IT’s the HANDSETS
All the market forecasts suggest a big, bright future for the much-hyped mobile content revolution. But why are we still waiting for the boom to begin?

Oscar Clark thinks it might be down to the baseline quality of the user experience, not what’s on offer …

There is mounting evidence that consumers are not getting what they want from their mobile phones. Research from WDSGlobal has found that two thirds of phones returned as faulty are actually in perfect working order. And 38% of these users returned the devices after struggling to use a specific application.

Customers don’t care if problems are because of the handset, network or application; from their perspective it just doesn’t work and they will blame the only party they have recourse with – the operator to whom they pay their monthly bill.

The really depressing part is that these problems are affecting all of us in the mobile content ecosystem, from handset manufactures to operators and content creators.

In mobile games, analysts predict that mobile gaming could easily overtake console gaming in the next decade. Yet we are still selling content from the era of the Sega Megadrive and Nintendo SNES. We need to start delivering content which meets consumers’ current expectations for gaming content – and that means the same quality as Sony PSP or Nintendo DS.

Market
There is a real market for mobile content. In April, Gnarls Barclay’s Crazy became the UK’s first track to hit number one through digital downloads alone; and 3 was responsible for 20% of those sales.

At the same time the Official Charts Company (OCC) figures showed that 3’s audio sales accounted for 7.5% of all downloads – not just on mobile, but in the whole UK market! And this is on devices with significantly less capacity than any iPod.

Music is not the only success, In 2005 3 also reported 6.4m game downloads and plays, and its user-generated content site SeeMeTV has had over 12m downloads since launch in October 2005.

Typically people who consume this content fall into three broad categories. The first is looking to ‘show and tell’ on their new devices, often having recently upgraded or changed operator. They typically want to impress their family and friends with their latest ‘tech-savvy’ mobile device, but they rarely buy content on a regular basis.

The second group is the ‘habitual’ consumer. This is partly made up of the elusive early adopters, but also includes a surprisingly high percentage of otherwise mass-market consumers, drawn to content capable handsets because of cheap voice/text deals or content inclusive packages.

The third and largely untapped audience is the ‘mainstream’ customer who tends to be wary of data charges and subscription commitment.

Understanding these audiences is the first step to unlocking the huge potential of this industry, but to make the forecasted revenues a reality we need the building blocks; capable handsets, flexible billing models and end-to-end content experiences.

Transition

"It is becoming clear that the industry needs to pool its resources to make the content revolution happen …"

We are in a transition period in the mobile content business, and handsets have to change to cope.

This is already beginning to happen as handsets start to include graphics processing unit (GPU) technologies to enhance the customer experience. The GPU’s impact can be far reaching – for example, it can dramatically improve cameraphone performance, so they take better pictures with more accuracy and less battery drain. This in turn improves the quality of customer-generated content, and even video telephony.

GPUs also transform the experience of mobile TV and downloaded content clips, increasing the image clarity whilst at the same time reducing the power consumption to deliver hours of usage rather than the typical 30-45 minutes on most non-GPU enabled devices. These benefits are already being delivered by NVIDIA in more than 40 different handsets.

Of course GPUs are so popular with consumers because they deliver an amazing 3D experience and as this level of graphical quality reaches the handheld market it will have a huge impact. This is not only because of the potential for delivering console-quality games on mobiles, but also because of the impact that 3D capable user interfaces will have on making devices easier to use and enabling operators to deliver new non-intrusive advertising models.

It is becoming clear that the industry needs to pool its resources to make the content revolution happen. Manufacturers specify their handsets with a view to satisfying operators and consumers, but in the end they are rewarded only with the initial sale of the device. Operators still subsidise and content revenues are a vital element to making this affordable, as well as reducing churn. Content creators and publishers are reliant on operators and handset manufacturers to create platforms in order to have a content business at all.

We have to understand all of these conflicting needs in order to see the market grow. However, unless we get to a stage where there is a baseline quality of content experience across all handsets the potential cannot be achieved.

After all, should we not be competing on quality, performance and design style, rather than just basic functionality?

Oscar Clark is head of Mobile Operator Strategy for EMEA at the graphics chip maker NVIDIA