Thursday, February 5, 2009

--Guest Column by Raj Machhan

Heard about this one? A mobile social media start up in the US is notching up big community numbers by exploiting the individual fear of police speed traps. The service combines the power of social networking with the utility of mobile Location Based Services to come up with a potentially killer app that converts the cell phone into a virtual trap buster. A user spotting a speed trap, a police van, or any such ‘inconvenience’ simply needs to press a key on the mobile to announce the location of the trap to other members of the community – in real-time. Now, what makes this service a success?

You do not need to get into any technical mumbo-jumbo (in this case, the service has triangulation, assisted GPS and WPS at its core) or shell out huge money to any management guru to get the answer. While the technology and other related aspects are important, what really drives this service is the ingenuity of an open mind, a mind that spotted a latent need, conceived the service that could best meet this need and then went about implementing it with the conviction of a mad man.

This is not a standalone case. All of us part of the mobile VAS landscape, people who have spared a thought to what the future holds for this space, may speak in different tones on a lot many issues. But all of us could very well differ to agree on this: Unique ideas and innovation are going to draw the line between success and failure in this field like never before. We have seen it happening on the Web and now it is the turn of the mobile screen to feel the full frontal impact of the power of ideas. The industry is entering a period where the traditional business approach is set to give way to the supremacy of out of box thinking. The catch line of a recent ad put up by software major, perhaps, captures the context perfectly: What you think out of the box is what goes in the box (or mobile screen in this case).

The new wave in mobile VAS is fuelled by the maturing of Indian cellular markets, proliferation of technically advanced handsets, and the rapid progress made by the cellular networks. In India, the majority of the telecom circles now have multiple players and fresh competition comes knocking at the door. The cellular majors have matched each other on prices, service levels, technology, and service offerings. So how do you differentiate your brand? With unique value added services, of course!

The new wave mobile VAS will see the VAS players offer services directly to mobile users, and build up a brand in the process. The operator pipe is set to be commoditized in the manner somewhat similar to Internet bandwidth. How many of you remember the ISP companies that were once in the limelight, when access to adequate bandwidth was a major issue? The scenario is set to repeat itself in the mobile VAS arena.

Though it won’t be as easy as the Web, with standardization of technology, the development of VAS applications is set for a period of democratization. Just like the Web, where we have development frameworks like .Net and Java occupying the center stage, platforms such as J2ME, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Android are now fast emerging as the standards for mobile applications. At the organization level, this means that the size of teams working on a project at any particular time will shrink further and the individual will be able to make a greater impact on the final shape.

What does this mean for the existing VAS players? Well for one, the best of breed companies will get a better shot at monetization of unique services. With less dependence on the intermediaries, the VAS players will be able to connect directly to the customers. This means that companies are in with a real chance to develop and implement billion-dollar apps like Facebook, Orkut, and You Tube. However, for this to happen, the thinking process will have to be mobile-centric, that is the focus needs to shift to applications conceived keeping the mobile screen at the core, instead of treating it as an extension of the Internet. The mobile phone has limited real estate compared to the PC, but it scores over the latter in other areas, with mobility being the obvious one. Plus, the mobile phone already has service- platforms such as SMS, IVR, USSD, WAP, that could be integrated for a holistic approach. Mobile-focused applications that leverage the inherent strengths of the mobile, and use the Internet as an extension of the mobile at best, is clearly the way forward if the VAS players are to score big.

Second, the existing players will need to get more flexible and go with the agile approach, which calls for quick turnaround for development, innovation, and iteration through direct interface with the customers.
Thirdly, the companies will need to steadily move towards changing the traditional operator-oriented mind-set and adopt a fresh approach that keeps the end-user at the core from the word go. Concepts like mental modeling, user profiling, schematics, information architecture and usability will need to be incorporated more prominently during application development.
Fourth, the VAS players will need to look at new revenue models. As of now, Subscription-based revenue models appear to be the best-fit in the changed scenario.

In the long run, organizations that are able to better exploit their key learning’s and leverage existing strengths to adapt to the changing environment are likely to emerge as the winners. As Dylan would say: You better learn to swim, lest you sink like a stone, For the times they are a changin’…..