Instant Message in a Bottle
August 2003 - By Tim Scannell


While it may not win any awards as a paragon of outstanding television, Fox’s American Idol series did make a very clear statement about the widespread use of mobile messaging.

The upshot is that relatively simple devices like mobile phones equipped with text-messaging capabilities can be used to quickly collect information from massive numbers of users to make important decisions—or maybe not so important, in case of American Idol. In this case, tens of millions of people worldwide used their mobile phones to propel a handful of young people to instant fame and fortune. While this might not be the best example of a mobilized field application, it does demonstrate the effectiveness and increasing adoption of mobile messaging as a mainstream technology.

Messaging is also becoming an important solution within the enterprise, as evidenced by the success of Research in Motion’s BlackBerry solutions. BlackBerry has become a messaging standard in such sectors as financial services, where it is critical to make contact with clients and associates and know when a message is received and acted upon by the recipient.

The markets for wireless short messaging service (SMS) and instant messaging (IM) in the U.S. are expected to grow to 75 million and 63 million subscribers, respectively, by 2007, according to market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC). The annual subscriber revenues from these two services will reach approximately $1.9 billion each, predicts IDC, as users are attracted by their simplicity, cost-effectiveness and ability to easily target a single person or groups of individuals with critical, near-real-time messages. It will become, in effect, the American Idol syndrome on digital steroids.

Breaking Barriers

Geographic and political barriers, which have stood in the way of the widespread business adoption of such technologies as IM, are also rapidly disappearing. In a dramatic example of the physical reach of mobile messaging, China Mobile, one of the largest cellular operators in the country, set up a temporary wireless network on Mount Everest in May. The purpose was to allow members of a team that ascended the mountain to share their experiences and document their climb using SMS and multimedia messaging services (MMS). In doing so, China Mobile reportedly became the first carrier to offer wireless applications above 5,100 meters, although it was purely a publicity stunt.

Just last month, America Online (AOL) and Microsoft, bitter rivals in the IM market, agreed to discuss working together to bridge their respective IM platforms. The first step toward an agreement was a settlement of $750 million paid by Microsoft to AOL to dismiss an antitrust complaint filed by AOL Time Warner’s Netscape Communications division more than a year ago. As part of this settlement, AOL also agreed to a seven-year, royalty-free license of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

While the wireless carriers and others involved in mobile messaging point to the consumer segment for more immediate acceptance and revenues, there is a rising interest among the business community in IM and “message-enabled” applications that are designed to channel mission critical information out to specific people in the field. Some of the factors driving mobile messaging technology within the enterprise include:

•An increasing recognition of the value of being able to instantly connect with mobile workers in the field to relay important information or to transfer message-enabled data that requires some reaction;

•A need for more collaborative capabilities among mobile workers to share related information and keep others updated on activities within the same geographic region or territory;

•A demand by customers for more just-in-time communications and coordination with companies and suppliers;

•Recognition on the business side that mobile messaging—or the ability to get important information out to the field as quickly and effortlessly as possible—can provide specific competitive-edge benefits.

X-treme Mobility

One of the more interesting companies in this space is 724 Solutions (www.724solutions.com), a Toronto-based developer of mobile and wireless applications that has shifted its strategy more toward messaging and developing solutions that rely on quickly getting brief dispatches out to mobile users. Last October, the company unveiled a set of products and tools called the X-treme Mobility Suite, which is designed to help mobile network operators generate new sources of revenue from mobile services (especially message-based traffic), and easily build and deploy applications tailored for wireless devices. In fact, one of the primary features of this toolbox is the ability to generate personalized and actionable alerts to individual phone users, particularly professionals involved in the financial sector.

724 Solutions has already launched a number of trials that involve pushing critical message alerts out to customers and clients. The alerts are delivered in the form of text-based SMS, WAP content and even voice-enabled speech (in partnership with Intellivoice Communications, based in Atlanta). For consumers, these alerts can be as simple as a reminder that your checking account balance has dropped, or something more important like a message warning you that someone else is using your credit card number.

Messaging-based systems are a significant cost-saver for a bank, for example, that typically spends about $68 per incident notifying and following up on clients that might be fraud victims, says a spokesman for 724 Solutions.

The company continues to work with a number of clients in the financial community, including J.P. Morgan, Solomon Smith Barney, the Bank of Montreal and a number of banks in Korea. Roughly 90 percent of 724 Solutions’ business is now focused on North America, although a significant chunk is expected to shift outside this area as the company continues to pursue opportunities in Scandinavia, China and Italy.

Unimobile (www.unimobile.com), a division of Electronics for Imaging, is a long-time player in the mobile messaging market, offering a development platform that enables companies to deliver real-time messages across multiple network protocols in conjunction with existing SFA, CRM and ERP platforms. The company is also working with a number of banks and financial institutions on consumer-based credit alert systems and other applications, while also providing alert platforms that work in tandem with traditional business applications.

For example, Unimobile has developed a critical-alert messaging platform for field service workers that can be used to deliver information and applications to mobile users via their mobile phones, PDAs, BlackBerry devices and two-way pagers. Data sets can include work order alerts and dispatches, inventory and billing updates and service call information. Return-on-investment benefits of deploying such technologies to field workers include: reduced service costs, higher productivity, lower inventory costs and increased customer satisfaction.

Automated Approach

Sometimes messaging takes a purely automated approach and is designed to provide updates that do not involve much human intervention. Qualcomm, for example, has been working with Verizon Wireless and a Texas-based utility company to develop and deploy a system that automatically sends update messages from remote points to a central location on a regular basis.

Despite the obvious benefits of quickly getting messages to the right people in the field, most companies are approaching traditional instant messaging and message-based applications with some degree of caution, because there are a number of concerns about the technology in general. One major concern involves the security of such systems, especially as companies re-evaluate all of their internal and remote systems as part of Homeland Security efforts.

Most enterprises admit that messaging technology is inherently insecure, and, therefore, should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. In fact, many companies have specific rules and regulations governing the use of Web-based IM systems on their internal networks. As a result of this trepidation, it might take many months (or even years) and much more development on the application side before messaging generates the same level of growth and acceptance in the corporate world as it has on American Idol.

Tim Scannell is president of Shoreline Research, a mobile consultancy based in Quincy, Mass. Sign up for Shorline’s free Monday Morning Briefing at www.shoreline.com.

 


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