Coming to a phone near you
Could the mobile entertainment revolution be at hand for Asia's consumers? The answer from industry representatives and analysts is a resounding yes.
A recent report from Juniper Research says a buoyant Asian market will be one of the chief drivers of a new era of growth for mobile gaming, TV and information services, with revenues expected to soar from US$17.3billion last year to an astonishing US$77billion by 2011.
Analyst firm In-Stat believes this year will be a 'breakthrough' year for mobile music sales, which will nearly triple by 2010 to more than US$9billion.
And then there are the headlines which indicate leading companies are sitting up and taking notice. Operators in markets as diverse as China and Indonesia are preparing to launch mobile TV offerings.
Gaming powerhouse Electronic Arts snatched up mobile game publisher Jamdata for US$680 million. Microsoft recently announced the launch of Mobile 6, a sophisticated operating system designed to improve the user experience with mobile web and e-mail applications.
The problem is some of this sounds familiar. A few years ago operators were tripping over themselves to secure costly 3G licences that would enable them to dazzle consumers with new wares such as content downloads, video calling and multimedia messaging.
The response has been less than overwhelming, with a recent survey from research house IDC showing the majority of Asian customers shun advanced mobile offerings and that SMS remains by far the most popular mobile service.
Nokia launched the N-Gage mobile phone and gaming device in 2003 amid much fanfare, but it failed to win many converts and was virtually discontinued three years later. Could the industry again be mistaking some of its own desires for those of more cynical consumers?
No, representatives insist, this time it is different. Stefan Rust, chairman of the Mobile Entertainment Forum Asia and director of marketing and strategy, global communications, media and web industries, Sun Microsystems, said: 'Players have learnt from the mistakes they have made and know what they need to do differently. With 3G, people were marketing technology when they should have been marketing specific services.'
There are factors that favour mobile entertainment really taking off this time around. Mr Rust said a more 'thumb-savvy' generation had emerged that had grown up on text messaging and tiny screens.
Adam Anger, senior director, business and marketing organisation at Microsoft Hong Kong, said developers, encouraged by the increasing sophistication of handhelds, were creating more diverse and sophisticated applications that hit consumer sweet spots better than ever.
Yahoo Connected Life Asia vice-president and general manager, Dave Ko, said telecom operators, content providers and manufacturers were putting aside their differences to make the consumer the ultimate benefactor.
Observers are more divided on what the most successful mobile entertainment products will be. Yahoo, which recently launched Go 2.0 solution to be pre-loaded on some devices from key manufacturers Nokia and Samsung this year, is betting on more people accessing e-mail and the wider internet on their phones. Go 2.0 promises faster web browsing, allows viewers to access e-mail attachments, and has localised search capabilities.
Mr Anger is expecting more consumers to adopt push e-mail services and applications that stream content or power live experiences such as blogging in more advanced markets like Hong Kong.
Bruce Lam, general manager of customer and market operations for Nokia in Hong Kong and Macau, is betting on the widespread adoption of global positioning systems (GPS) and assisted GPS-enabled handsets with integrated maps and route planners that will offer a personal navigation experience.
Mr Rust expects collaborative applications such as instant messaging to be popular. Whatever technologies come out on top, industry representatives expect them to be born for the mobile environment.
Mr Rust said operators had to avoid porting forms of entertainment created for other devices, such as televisions or laptops, to phones, and learn to treat the mobile as a platform in its own right. Users might not want to squint their way through a football game broadcast to a handset, for example, but they would want to look at a short video uploaded by a friend.
'The mobile phone is truly a communication device. It is not a broadcast tool, it's interactive. You need bred-for-mobile content.'
Mr Ko said: 'In the past some services used on the PC have been replicated for the mobile platform - this is not the right approach. Mobile services must be designed with the needs of consumers at the centre and that focus must be the driver of the evolution of services before that will be adopted by the masses.'
There are still some potential barriers to mobile entertainment becoming truly ubiquitous, especially cost. Mr Rust said mobile operators had to adopt more transparent 'flat rate' pricing systems that were free of hidden taxes or include data services, allowing consumers to download content or surf the web at their leisure without worrying about data charges stacking up - much the way they did on their PCs.
As the mobile entertainment industry develops it may end up being one of those rare phenomena that benefits businesses and consumers. Mobile operators and content providers can expect new revenue sources, and users more ways of connecting and socialising, leading to what Mr Lam called 'life enjoyment'.
More refined mobile applications would enable people to do more to stay connected to the things they were passionate about, the people and communities they cared about, and the knowledge and information they were looking for, Mr Ko said.