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If you have been looking for an update of last month’s Mobile Monday Bangalore on this blog site and didn’t manage to find it, it’s because I was absent at the event. I had a family function to attend on the same day. So I was more than keen to attend yesterday’s event. Better still, it was at the Indiranagar Sangeet Sabha which is a spacious venue with good arrangements; and it is only ten minutes walk from my office.

The first piece of important information was that Forum Nokia is the first sponsor of Mobile Monday Bangalore on a long-term basis, starting from this month’s event. The more interesting aspect is that the first sponsorship money went towards providing Qualcomm a platform to present BREW to the MoMo community.

BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) is an application development framework that provides developers a rich set of API for quick and easy development of mobile applications. For end users, the user experience is enhanced. When these two are met, the man-in-the-middle (the operator) stands to benefit as well. In fact, BREW enables operators to reach subscribers with a richer set of applications. The end result is a win-win situation for everyone.

What is the problem today? Rakesh Godhwani of Qualcomm pointed out that the network is ready, devices are ready but content is lagging far behind. With networks getting upgraded to HSPA and CDMA2000 EV-DO, bandwidth appears to be available. With handsets able to operate to full capability in such networks, the only thing that’s missing are the applications. In my opinion, this is a rather simplified view if not biased, but it is partially correct and the argument holds water.

Take the example of BSNL’s recent launch of CDMA2000 EV-DO. Someone announced that this service has been launched in a couple of circles in Kerala, not as handsets but as data cards. I don’t know much about EV-DO but I would expect it to exist with the same hype as HSPA where guaranteed high bandwidth to individual users is rare if it happens at all. It’s a shared bandwidth under non-ideal channel conditions only occasionally close to the base station. So what if applications are not available? Is the market ready? Are subscribers willing to pay? Is the pricing attractive? What’s the predicted change in consumption patterns of mobile subscribers? Are these subscribers changing on a social level when it comes to tele-interaction?

But the importance of applications cannot be underestimated. If not more important, applications are just as important as a subscriber’s choice of an operator or a handset. For VAS, what we are seeing is a fragmentation of device, technology and networks. It is perhaps only applications that have the ability to give subscribers a seamless experience across these diverse environments. The onus is therefore on the developer to develop applications that can work in more than one environment. A case in point is the fragmentation of the PC market between Windows and Linux. The choice there is obvious for developers but in the world of mobiles there is no obvious choice. Developers would have to consider Symbian, Linux, Windows Mobile, J2ME, BREW, Maemo or Android without being dismissive of any of them.

As for BREW, the case is strong. As of November 2006, BREW was being used by 69 global operators, by 45 device manufacturers and in 31 countries. Every CDMA mobile deployed in India supports BREW. CDMA taking up almost 30% of the Indian market, the outreach for developers for their application is no small number. The additional advantage is that price negotiation and revenue sharing is done between Qualcomm and the developer without involvement of the operator who is free to charge his premium to the end user. Having said that, other business models are also possible. Lucrative, yes. It also means that Qualcomm has to make the decision of pick-and-chose. Only applications that are unique and have a promise for the market will get a chance. It is something like writing a fiction novel. Publishers look for market value in conjunction with individuality of writing.

How does one entice the subscriber? Give a free trial for two weeks. Once he gets used to it, chances are he will buy it once his trail starts to expire. Getting new and exciting applications is one thing and using it is another. A successful application must be easy to download and install. The user interface must be elegant and intuitive. It must be attractive and useful. All these are challenges on a device that is so much smaller than a laptop monitor. In India, we are still a long way from getting there. Only 10% of revenue is from VAS, much of which comes from SMS-based services. This is where companies like Mango Technologies make a difference with solutions targetted towards low-end handsets and the cautious spender.

BREW doesn’t come on its own just for developers. There is an entire platform built around it for service delivery, billing, subscription and so forth. One such framework is uiOne whose software framework is captured in Figure 1 [1]. This enables easier rollout and maintenance of services on the carrier network.

Figure 1: uiOne Software Framework
uiOne Software Framework

Following Rakesh’s informal and interactive presentation, there was a short demo of an LBS application running of BREW. It was shown on a Motorola phone from Tata. My user experience was good but nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps this is because I prefer to explore the environment on my own rather than let someone else tell me where the nearest restaurant is. In this demo, assisted-GPS was used which enables locating the subscriber indoors even without good satellite reception. This is because the access network sends satellite information to the mobile for location computation. In addition, Qualcomm employs many proprietory fallback mechanisms to locate a mobile. Once of these is called Advanced Follow Link Triangulation; there are six others. LBS is one of the promising applications but we are yet to see the “killer” LBS application. Point to note: developers are to tie up with map and GIS data providers on their own and Qualcomm is not involved in this at the moment. In fact, developing and deploying an LBS application is a challenge because it involves so many parties – operators, government (for privacy), map providers, developers, OEMs, chipset makers.

The philosophy of Qualcomm is of three parameters – innovation, partnership and execution. R&D spending is 20% profits. The end subscriber is kept in view but their main business is to license their technology to OEMs and operators. Thus, they say that Qualcomm has a high number of engineers (who innovate) and lawyers (who protect the licenses). Idea generation is an important activity in the company. Once a promising idea comes to the fore everyone brings it to fruition by taking it from being an idea towards making it a product.

The meeting ended with a short presentation by Forum Nokia. They talked about Symbian and its many components. They talked about Maemo, Widsets and FlashLite, about which I will write separately. This presentation, seen within the context of Qualcomm’s, highlighted that diversity in all aspects of the mobile world is here to stay. If we cannot agree, let us compete.

References:

  1. Personalizing Information Delivery with uiOne™, deliveryOne™, and the BREW Express™ Signature Solution; Qualcomm, 80-D7262-1 Rev. C, March 7, 2007.
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MoDeMo Bangalore, 16-Dec-07

On a cold but bright Sunday morning when the world preferred to stay in bed a little longer than usual, a bunch of mobile enthusiasts gathered at the office of ThoughtWorks in Bangalore. People as far Shimla and Cochin came for this open meeting that was free, productive and executed with minimal fuss. Having it on a Sunday was a departure from the usual MoMo meets of Mondays. Apparently, MoMo Bangalore has been receiving lots of requests for demonstrations. The best way to clear the backlog was to organize all of them together in this one-day event. It was focused on demonstrations rather than presentations; on audience interaction rather than news feeds; on real working products rather than market presumptions per se. Appropriately, it was named MoDeMo.

As many as 25 demonstrations were pre-registered and my guess is that we must have had about 20. I was personally present at 17 of them while I occasionally took time to chat with some of the speakers and gathered valuable insights into their products. I also met some others who had nothing to demo but had many interesting things to discuss. The agenda was well planned and you may view it at Vinu’s blog. In this post, I shall cover the gist of each demonstration in addition to offering my own thoughts.

1. Mobile Adult Literacy, Aditya Mishra, TCS

  • It takes about 400 hours to train an adult to read. This is too long a period to be effective. People lose interest. TCS has cut this training time to 40 hours. The approach is to teach based on context rather than start with alphabets on their own.
  • Software loaded on a mobile is the”teacher”. Interface is simple. People learn by listening to words that are read out by the software. They begin to recognize words that appear on the screen and associate them with the sounds.
  • About 93,000 have been made literate by this means. The success rate is higher in South India than in North India.
  • All learning is self-initiated. There are no classrooms.
  • More information is at TCS website.

2. MyDuniya – Integrating the Mobile and the Web World, Keshav Ganapathy

  • MyDuniya attempts to bring web services to the mobile. In other words, users no longer need to carry their PC and search for WiFi hotspots to get on to the web.
  • Services are both push and pull.
  • People can register to the site by SMS. A password will be returned by SMS. Subsequently, one can login, send e-mails, save notes and retrieve notes. For example, a user to push directions to a meeting venue to all participants via SMS. Likewise, the same directions could be stored on the server and retrieved by participants when they require it.
  • Personally, I found it difficult to appreciate the services because the demo was not well structured.

3. OnMobile, Prasad Murthy

  • OnMobile offers a number of VAS to operators.
  • There is not much else I remember of this demo because I was outside the room for quite sometime.

4. iPhone and 3rd Party Applications, Siddharth

  • One of the coolest demos that had everyone engaged.
  • Siddharth demonstrated a number of third-party applications on a “hacked” iPhone. His passing comment was that many of these applications are far better than those supplied by Apple.
  • A couple of games were demonstrated on the iPhone. One of them was a Labyrinth game that uses motion sensor technology. Tilting the phone moves the game’s ball down a slope. The chip that does this motion sensing is from STMicroelectronics.
  • Hacking an iPhone is an art on its own and those who have done it are “amazing”.

5. Mobile Mandi Bhav, Parul Awasthy, TCS

  • This is an mCommerce solution for farmers that enables them to get the best price for their products.
  • Current prices at nearby mandis can be retrieved by farmers for their specific commodity. The data comes NCDEX. Mobile location technology is used to locate nearest mandis.
  • Voice prompts read out the prices in regional languages, a feature through which the product reaches out to even illiterate farmers.
  • Technology is currently on CDMA but not on GSM. The application exists for both J2ME and BREW. A special phone (kisan phone) from Qualcomm is being used for current deployments.
  • My viewpoint: a good thing for farmers but we need to examine the greater social impact. A lot of people make their livelihood as middlemen. Their margins will decrease. There will be some farmers who have this technology and others who don’t. Middlemen will exploit this to their advantage. Technology is one thing but acceptance and effective application is another.

6. MOSH, Prakash & Bala, Nokia

  • Mobilize and share. Create, upload and share content.
  • MOSH is in beta version. There are about a million users at the moment.
  • A GPRS connection is required. A MOSH client needs to be on the phone.
  • An example of sharing content was demonstrated. By sharing, an SMS is sent to the recipient who can then follow the link to get more details and download content if interested.
  • MOSH attempts to create a community for mobile users the way communities exist on the Web.
  • Forum Nokia works with developer community in developing applications. They provide business support as well. As an example, a promising application may be pre-installed on phones or downloaded and installed for free trials.

7. Enterprise Tracking with Mobile LBS, Deepak Srinivas, Mobiance

  • I know the guys at Mobiance very well. They are focused and believe in their value proposition.
  • The demo was well-structured and smoothly executed. The location of a mobile (carried by one of their staff) was tracked. This was displayed on a map. The results were accurate but the display was a little slow. The previous locations of the mobile had been recorded at regular intervals and this was shown at the demo.
  • More details on their LBS products/services are at their website and in November’s MoMo event.

8. OpenGL based Games, Selvan

  • Selvan started with the intention of developing games but did not find any suitable game engine. So his current focus is on developing the engine.
  • From the little I understood, the development is on Google’s Android platform. Application is developed using Java and cross-compiled to Google class file.
  • Android SDK comes with OpenGL ES 1.0 specification for graphics. Selvan’s current activity is to develop the gaming engine based on this specification.
  • The demo was a basic “snake” game on an emulator. Nothing impressive but it was a good proof of concept, a stepping stone for developing more powerful games.
  • One question that bothered some was – how do we write applications that are portable across platforms? With BREW, J2ME, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, Symbian … it’s an important question. Someone mentioned OpenC and Java OpenGL. Rajeswari from Nokia commented that OpenC facilitates easy porting of applications. For example, the work was minimal in adapting an application written for Symbian to work on Linux.

9. Online Video on Nokia Phones, Rajeswari, Nokia

  • I remember more of what she said than what was demonstrated. The reason probably is that the mobile screen was not properly projected on the wall. Even if the phone played video at good frame rate without jitter/delay, it was difficult to judge anything from the projection.
  • The idea is to be able to play YouTube (and the like) videos on the phone. H.263 video codec is supported and support for H.264 is coming up shortly.
  • iPhone supports any video based on RTSP. Flash is not supported.
  • Frankly, I was not able to appreciate this demo which is why I remember so little of it. There is nothing innovative or revolutionary here.

10. Opera Mini Browser, Navjot & Sagar

  • I enjoyed this demo. It was really a demo; no silly talk and nonsense. Part of the reason was that participants asked questions.
  • Next time you need to visit a website, there is no need to get to a cyber cafe. Install JVM on your phone, install OperaMini (which is free) and start browsing.
  • I was always wary of scrolling huge web pages on a small mobile screen. OperaMini scales the page to fit the screen. Clicking on an area or specific link, zooms the page to the right level. The best part I thought was that users don’t need to scroll across (side to side) since pages are re-formatted to the width of the screen. Mind you, this is not a condensed version. There is no loss of information; just reformatting to make it user-friendly.
  • Users need to open an account on the server. Bookmarks between your desktop and mobile are automatically synchronized. Reformatting is done by the proxy server. SSL from the mobile terminates at the proxy and this was of concern to some.
  • OperaMini is based on Java and J2ME. It is the most downloaded Java application. Opera Mobile is a lot more powerful but it is not free.
  • It was shown that downloads were shrunk in sizes for faster downloads and reduced costs. OperaMini caches data but generally only on phones that have sufficient capability to do so. Flash is not built-in. It is a plug-in.

11. Zook.in – Mobile Social Search, Sameer Shishodia, Ziva Software

  • Two problems to be solved: small form factor, immediate result. The first is easy to understand. Search results have to be terse and to the point. The second implies that results from online search engines are far from perfect. Users often have to filter information manually and/or initiate a modified query.
  • Results are answers, not links to where the answers reside.
  • The search model is interactive. Instead of merely presenting users reams of information, users are given some choices/questions. This is to lead users to refine their search queries. This leads to establishing the context of search to yield more relevant results.
  • Zook recognizes that not all information is digitized. Local communities know things that are often untapped. If answers don’t match, the community is invited to answer questions. This is a search engine with true interactivity.
  • With mobile search, there is always an element of localization (LBS). Search results are biased to current location.

12. SMS Gupshup – Mobile Social Messaging Platform, Tathagata, Webaroo

  • It is truly remarkable how much mileage people can get out of SMS, a really basic technology. Again, there is nothing revolutionary here but the idea has a business case. SMS Gupshup is blogging from the mobile using just SMS.
  • Current model is one publisher, multiple readers. Readers subscribe to a blog via SMS. Posts are delivered to them via SMS. Comments are posted on the website but not broadcasted to the subscribers.
  • The model is flexible. It can be used for delivering group SMS rather than mobile blogging.
  • About a million users as of today. About 2-2.5 lakhs of SMS are going out per day. The speaker quoted an example of a successful blog: Sinleng News.
  • CDMA phones can’t handle SMS segmentation/concatenation. Anything more than 140 characters is delivered as multiple SMS messages.
  • My viewpoint: we are living in a strange dichotomy. On one hand, people want to communicate, be recognized within virtual communities and express themselves freely. On the other hand, people have to be brief in what they say because an SMS is only 140 characters! So while we have advanced technologies offering high bandwidth, the best we can do for the mass market is SMS because nothing else has a business case at this point in time.

13. Mobile Map Application that does not require GPRS, Vishnu

  • While Mobiance delivers map data over GPRS, Vishnu’s approach avoids GPRS by having map data stored on the phone. Of course, the downside is that it works only so long as you are within the area covered by the map. But this may be sufficient for most users who roam only occasionally.
  • For example, a user in Bangalore may preload Bangalore map data on his phone. This may be all he needs if he rarely leaves Bangalore. The great advantage is that GPRS charges are not incurred which at the moment is prohibitive.
  • Map rendering is done on the phone. It’s a J2ME application. While Google maps are raster data, this one uses vector data which is superior.
  • The engine is about 270 kB. The map for Bangalore is about 700 kB. This has been highly compressed from its original size of a few MB.

14. Mobile Visa Money Transfer, Naveen Thangiah, mChek

  • mChek eliminates the plastic in favour of a virtual debit/credit card stored on the phone. This can be used for online or across the counter just as a normal card.
  • There are security procedures as would be expected. This includes a user generated PIN. mChek performs necessary procedures with the banks and delivers the virtual card to the user’s phone.
  • Naveen himself uses it for paying bills and booking airline tickets. mChek has partnered with three banks as of today.
  • GPRS is not used. SMS and USSD sessions are used. The application itself is based on Java.
  • The demo included transfer of some money to one of the participants. Money transfer takes about 48 hours.

15. Mobitop – a Mobile Application Platform, Lalit, Mobisy

  • I was just about getting bored with applications that attempt to bring web services to the mobile when this demo woke me up for being different. Their idea is to use Javascript to access phone features.
  • For example, m.facebook does not allow access to phone contacts. This would be a desirable feature for users of m.facebook.
  • Mobitop does not use native APIs (Symbian for example). Instead it uses web technologies (Javascript and CSS). Thus the product brings value by adding something more than what’s possible with only applications written for the platform.
  • The demo showed loading of the Mobitop platform on a phone and display phone contacts in a customized manner. We should note that the platform needs to be loaded only once. Applications can be written using APIs exposed by the platform. It is claimed that writing applications is extremely easy.

16. Mango Application Framework, Sunil Maheswari, Mango Technologies

  • Sunil strongly believes that in Indian market, growth would come from low-end segments for whom GPRS is cost prohibitive. He quoted that GPRS connection is used by less than 5% of Indian subscribers.
  • The idea of this framework (about 150 kB) is to deliver applications to enhance user experience on a low-end handset. It would not be possible to match the look and feel of smart phones but the bold attempt is to get as close as possible.
  • The demo showed a simple game with reasonably good graphics.
  • The company has won Nasscom’s innovation award in startup category. Customers are OEMs, ODMs, operators and chipset vendors.

17. SMS Social Networking in Babalife , Sean Blagsvedt Company, Babalife

  • Okay, this is yet another social networking service trying to do from the mobile what used to be from the PC.
  • All interaction is done via SMS. While MOSH is graphic intensive and uses GPRS, Babalife is textual and purely SMS. Each is targetting a different segment of the market. Which one has a greater profit margin and growth potential? For the moment, it appears that they may complement rather than compete.
  • SMS Gupshup is blogging using SMS. The user is free to write in anyway he wishes. There is no format. From the brief demo that was presented, I think Babalife is a lot more intelligent. It presents users options along with organization of data. Although every SMS is an independent message, it maintains a logical view of a session in which interactivity can be achieved. I may be wrong in my interpretation but such an interactivity can add value to the service. There is only so much we can get from SMS.
  • If there is to be value in using SMS, there ought to be intelligence behind the scenes. If SMS is used for its traditional intent, it is a service for the user. With all the different applications showcased in today’s demos it is clear that for data applications using SMS, SMS is nothing more than bit pipe. It will remain so for some time to come but only if GPRS remains expensive in relation to SMS. At the end of the day, if all these services increase SMS traffic on a mass scale, operators may be forced to change their plans and increase SMS pricing. After all, it is a market of supply and demand. This price may be passed on to end consumers for SMS delivery or to service/content providers/partners who use their SMS gateways.

18. instablogs, Ankit Maheshwari, Citizen Media Pvt. Ltd

  • I had an informal chat with Ankit. He was full of enthusiasm about his product that it was impossible to resist the temptation to know more.
  • The idea of instablogs is to present news in brief to readers, just the gist leaving out detailed opinions and analysis. It is then left to readers to supply their own perspectives. The voice of the common man is given prominence.
  • While there are many sites that solicit comments from readers, here readers take centrestage. While comments at sites are often difficult to navigate or filter, instablogs makes a clear separation between those who agree and those who don’t.
  • When a news happens, the local perspective of the news is just as important as the global perspective. So while people in Delhi may have an opinion on President’s rule in Karnataka, the view of Bangaloreans is just as important. instablogs provides the framework for all views to be heard on an equal footing.
  • News items are gathered from established and reliable sources. Items are displayed not as links but directly on instablogs for easy navigation and contribution of comments.
  • Comments are filtered so that obscenity and abuse is eliminated. Overall, instablogs aims at the intelligent public.

During the day I met others from Proteans, Stoke, Mobme Wireless, Fone Arena, Evolvus and Microsoft Research. The day ended with a riveting discussion of what could be in store for the Indian mobile industry in the coming year. Mobile advertising was certainly touched upon, on which I will be posting something soon. I left this discussion early to attend a call. Overall, it was a Sunday well-spent – a good lunch, a free T-shirt and lots of knowledge gathered from experts. My summary of the demos is in Table 1. This is of course an opinion based on what I have understood. You may differ. Feel free to add your comments.

Table 1: Spectrum of Innovative Activities in Indian Mobile Industry
MoDeMo Table

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