On device portals – ODP, Widgets and the Phonetop: The iPhone killer, Saviour of IMS and the future of mobile apps?


In my talk on Widgets at Mobile Web Americas , I proposed the ideas outlined in this blog. The ideas are not new – but it’s a concept whose time has come.

I am calling it ‘Phonetop’ for the lack of a better word i.e. a desktop like interface on the phone (which I will explain better below). To grasp some of these concepts (and why widgets are becoming so critical to mobile devices), we have to understand the idea of On device portals (ODPs). Like my good friend, Dr Andreas Constantinou (whose views I respect and follow), I also track On device portals.

As it’s name suggests, the ODP(On device portals) is a generic term to indicate a portal residing on the device and used to access a range of services and applications. The use of the word ‘portal’ is a bit misleading as we will see below. Also, this description hides its true significance. Hence, I have tried to collate a set of characteristics of an ODP and also contrast ODPs with it’s predecessors(WAP portals)

Characteristics of an On device portal(ODP)

a) ODPs are native to the device. The same functionality can be implemented at a number of other points in the software stack for instance through the OS(Symbian), applications(Java, Brew, flash) or browsers and so on. However, the ODP is device native and hence different from all the other higher level implementations of the same type

b) The ODP is an access point(a portal)

c) The significance of ODPs lie in being as close to the first screen as possible (or in being the first screen itself)

d) ODPs are client side but need good server side integration to be really useful. Hence, by definition, they are far more complex than their predecessors like WAP portals which were client only with little or no device and network integration.

e) ODPs could have additional features such as content discovery mechanisms, click to buy, content previews, local caching, dynamic management and configuration and so on

Having now agreed on a basic definition of an ODP, here are some more thoughts

ODPs are a manifestation of the Widgets vision

I have long been talking of Mobile Widgets being an evolution path from Mobile Ajax. The next logical step is for the Mobile Widgets to be accessed from the ODP. This is the holy grail because it brings all the ODP features to the Widget(for instance access from the first screen, network integration etc) complementing the Web widget’s existing strengths(following web standards, access to web content via RSS, long tail applications etc)

Notwithstanding the above, widgets can be implemented using other means (such as Java and Flash) as long as they are integrated in the device. However, for me, the conformance to the Web standards and the ethos of the Web is critical. Vendors like Opera have shown that you can follow Web standards, facilitate communication and still differentiate your service from others. For instance, in case of Opera, it is the experience and ability to run on multiple devices and platforms(including the Nintendo Wii for instance)

Saviour of IMS and a boon for Network Operators:

Network integration is an important element of the ODP vision. ODP is a client side technology. To be useful, it must have a server side component. The server side component could be in the Operator network(but not necessarily so). If it is in the Operator network, then ODP complements IMS very well because IMS could facilitate the network abstraction and the services so exposed could be accessed on the client via the ODP and integrated into specific applications i.e. the Widget. At the moment, IMS is a technology looking for applications and ODP + Widgets could be the way to go.

ODP for device manufacturers:

I mentioned above that the client side(ODP) needs a server side(network) technology. This server side component could be in the Operator network – but need not be so. For instance, once a device can access other networks like WiFi and Wimax, coupled with other elements like on device GPS; the server element need not be a carrier network. Thus, device manufacturers have a lot to gain because devices are the closest to the customer and are the brand that the customer most identifies with.

Comparison to WAP portals:

If you have followed the ‘on device’ and network integration significance of ODPs, then you can see that they are actually very different from the WAP portals. Some analysts have compared ODPs to WAP portals because that’s the closest comparison within the Mobile data industry – but really – ODPs are a step evolution to the old style portals primarily due to their network and device integration

The gold rush and a cautionary tale:

For all my optimism for the idea of the ODP, there is still some way to go since the device and network integration is complex. In fact, the initial results have not been optimistic as seen from Dean Bubley’s comments on the Orange – Surfkitchen implementation. While this may be an implementation issue and may not be solely the fault of the ODP concept/ODP vendor(in this case surfkitchen), the stakes are indeed high .. i.e. once the customer is put off , they are not likely to come back. Hence, the winners in this game are those who can manage the complex integration at the device and network level. Not for the faint hearted!

Not Yet for the end user :

At the moment, this technology is still being worked through the devices and the networks. Hence, not an area the marketing and PR folk can get too carried away with since its true impact will be felt only later in 2008(in my view) especially considering that devices will need some time (considering upgrade cycles) to filter through to the public.

Déjà vu?

Have we not seen this before? For example: Technologies like Motorola’s Screen 3 technology has been around for a while. Is that not ODP? . While some features of the ODP have been around, the full implementation of an ODP is a much more complex process. Also, the networks, devices etc have evolved in a big way – so we are on the verge of implementing a much more complex, integrated service.

At the RFP stage:

According to visionmobile, There are now more than 20 vendors in the ODP space, including Abaxia, Action Engine, Celltick, Cibenix, Communology, Crisp Wireless, Handmark (Pocket Express), Geniem, Macromedia (FlashCast), MSX, Nellymoser, Onskreen, Openwave, Opera Platform, Qualcomm (uiOne), RefreshMobile, Silk, Streamezzo, SurfKitchen, U-Turn and Volantis. There are now more than one RFP for ODP products being announced each month globally. So, these concepts are definitely not at the customer phase(and we don’t want ignorant marketing people hyping this up like they did for WAP!!)

The iPhone killer

The iPhone has raised the bar. ODPs are the way to implement iPhone like features without being an iPhone itself(the iPhone, for all it’s hype, has some distinct disadvantages such as price and the walled garden approach). They are also a more generic way to implement the same features and cool user interfaces(see my blog The iPhone is extraordinary not for it’s user interface – but because it is the tail wagging the dog .. and the real question is – how many dogs can the tail wag). Hence, the ODP concept could be viewed as an iPhone killer and will be likely to be accelerated within the non iPhone commumnity .. but the flip side is – the there is little room for error because the customers have a much better device to compare with

Is it a portal?

Well, not really.

The portal strategy is dying on the Web – as AOL found out much to it’s dismay


The company’s challenges highlight one of the quirks of today’s Internet market. As advertising is moving from offline media to the Internet at a rapid clip, portals, which command some of the biggest audiences online, should be among the top beneficiaries. Instead, the travails of the mass market portals like AOL, as well as Yahoo and Microsoft, indicate a decline in power.


I don’t believe that people will go to a specific site. Those days are long gone with Web 1.0 i.e. people are now used to consuming content away from the source. Thus, merely replicating the Web portal through an ODP will not work just because customers are not used to being told what to do. Having said that, some (silly) Operators will try it though!

Solving the deep blue sea problem

The ODP concepts go a long way to solving the deep blue sea problem. In my keynote at Mobile Web 2.0 event in London, I spoke of the ‘Deep Blue sea’ problem – which in a nutshell is as follows

Mobile Web 2.0 extends the ideas of Web 2.0 to mobile devices. In this scenario, the Mobile Device becomes the key element to harnessing collective intelligence. The problem is – if the mobile device does not add something new .. then we end up feeding the Flickrs and the YouTubes of the world i.e. chucking all the content to the ‘Deep blue sea’ of the Web where it merges with the vast oceans of already existing content.

The paradoxical challenge is to provide something unique from a mobile angle but at the same time, maintain the ethos of the Web(open standards, no walled gardens etc). ODPs provide that unique ‘mobile only’ advantage with all the features highlighted above and yet can be integrated with the Web.

Which brings us to the final question .. Is ODP a new form of walled garden?

The answer to this question is: It depends. Depends on the implementation. I don’t mind if an Operator controls the first screen as long as they give the customer the ability to add and subtract icons(applications) from that screen. This would then look like a typical ‘desktop’ screen – cluttered with icons – which I call ‘Phonetop’. I would not call ODP a walled garden as long as the end user was not forced to use the applications pre configured on the device.(see a more complete definition of a walled garden in my view the link )


In my view, ODPs are a major development and certainly one to watch. They bring together many of the ideas I have been talking about for some time. However, a lot depends on the implementation. The phrase ‘On device’ offers a clue. Sensing opportunity, many vendors will enter this space and will attempt to retrofit their WAP/Symbian/Java portals around the ODP concept.

However, the ‘On device’ will be a major differentiator because very few people have the experience of deploying applications on devices. In fact, deploying on devices is the exception rather than the rule. By that, I mean, we normally try and work at higher levels of the stack and most applications(such as games) do not need the deep network and device integration that ODPs demand.

Thus the maturity, experience and device/network level integration skills are the key differentiator. This means the more familiar players like Opera, Nokia etc. It also means a host of new players. In the Mobile Web Americas audience, was a company called Ecrio

whose technology powers 10 million plus FOMA handsets. This type of experience will be essential to create optimised solutions.

I also believe that Flash Lite has a narrow window of opportunity to become a mainstream technology – mainly because I believe that the licensing model is too expensive and it is a proprietary standard. As we can see from the above, there are a number of companies whose products can do the same thing

Finally, this is an area of interest for me and also an area I am working as a consultant. So, please contact me with any questions/viewpoints which I can add to this blog at ajit.jaokar at futuretext.com

Image: Google images


  1. Craig Baker says:

    Not sure whos fault this is, but when reading this blog in Google reader, all paragraph markup is lost and the posts appear as a single paragraph.

  2. saint says:

    Great posting!
    Lots of things are clear on my mind about on device portals now.After I read your article, I googled “on device portal” and have found another company that you did not mention, Mobinex.
    I have downloaded their smartface platform and now experiencing what is ODP more closer.Have a look at this

  3. tomsoft says:

    I think that ODP are already the previous generation. Why: ODP are closed environment, trying to keep customer in their environemnt. There are operators ODP, brands ODP, content provider ODP, etc…
    Why, as a user, should I be tighted in one of these brand environement. I may like Nike and Addidas, Apple (the brand) and being an Orange customer. So I need to eventually start several applications to be able to access to this small piece of informations…
    Mobile Widgets , in our views, are the answer to this: as a user, you share this space (YOUR mobile screen)
    between your interests, various brands,….
    I’ve been in the ODP business since some time, through In-Fusio/Mobilescope. But we realized, two years ago, that ODP as it is today was a dead end, and something new needs to be created…

  4. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Thanks Craig. shall add mobinex. kind rgds Ajit

  5. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Hello Tom
    Good to hear from you again
    I think anything implemented in the last few years is different from what I am talking about here. In fact, the full vision of what I am refferring to is still not ‘there’ yet since IMS implementations are ongoing with most operators and devices are still not supporting the ODP service
    In other words, think ‘On device’ and integrated with network and IMS + first screen
    I also dont see it as a walled garden(assuming a user is allowed to add/delete icons). In other words, you can configure your first screen any way you want by including the widgets as you choose them.
    The infusio etc examples are not ‘on device’ – even if they were – the networks still could not really support the clients.
    So, the new crop of ODPs(not to be confused with the same functionality being available at higher levels of the stack) are different(and in most cases – not yet present). I expect at least 2008 to see these devices. Mostly still in RFP phase. Talk to any of your Operator friends – most are implementing a variant of this strategy .. Hope that helps. kind rgds Ajit

  6. Tim Barber, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, SurfKitchen says:

    I read your post dedicated to ODPs with interest and it is great to see that, the success of ODPs is being recognised by so many industry experts.
    While you raise a valid point on the importance of overall device performance when deploying ODPs, in the case referenced on Dean Bubley’s blog, performance was degraded by a native idle screen application and not an ODP.
    At SurfKitchen, we focus specifically on developing ODPs that deliver a simple and intuitive user experience that ensures seamless, minimal clicks access to content services. We are acutely aware that overall device performance is a central tenant to this endeavour. To this end we undertake rigorous testing across multiple combinations of devices and operating systems to assure overall device performance in combination with the superior user experience provided by our ODP solutions.
    While ODPs and WAP portals represent very different ways of accessing mobile data services, we have found through projects with operators such as Orange Group, that ODPs and WAP portals are complimentary. Orange Downloads, the ODP developed for Orange signature devices by SurfKitchen, led to a near doubling of ARPU (average revenue per user). Critically, revenues for Orange’s WAP portal, Orange World, also increased by more than 30% as did repeat usage after the ODP was deployed. This is testament to how ODPs encourage subscriber data use by concentrating on the user experience. This in turn increases user confidence in alternative data access methods.
    Kind regards,
    Tim Barber, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, SurfKitchen

  7. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Hello Tim
    Thanks for the comments and clarification. Yes, I am following this with interest and its nice to see this post get so much coverage and feedback. Yes, I know surf kitchen(Dr Mark Searle did his PhD at ucl – same as where I am doing my PhD from. Hopefully we will meet one of these days. kind rgds Ajit

  8. What the heck! Ajit is moving to “on device”!!! ;-)
    I am no fan of ODP, but I am a fan of the “first screen”, and the “idle screen”, assuming that it is not a closed environment/real estate, which very likely will… see http://weblog.cenriqueortiz.com/mobility/2007/03/28/the-next-battlefront-for-mobile-applications/

  9. Ajit Jaokar says:

    many thanks Enrique .. My vision of Widgets had always been ‘Web’ widgets – and also my views of the Mobile Web encompasses widgets. So, I see this an extension of the widgets phenomenon to the device. And yes, it is the ‘first screen/idle screen’ we are talking about. So, I agree with you. I have also included ‘non web’ widgets(including flash). So, my purist definiton would be to access web widgets from the first screen but I dont see why this has to be mutually exclusive i.e. the ODP(call it first screen) could access any application(coule be a java app, a widget etc). I agree also that as long as its not a walled garden(i.e. user has the choice to add / substract apps) – then its all fine. The real question(if there is an extension to this idea) is the difference between Web widgets and non web widgets – but I have intentionally kept that arguement away from this blog i.e. I see the ODP(which we can call access to first screen) as a mechanism by which web widgets can get to the firts screen(in addition to other apps which are non web). Thanks for link to your blog. Yes, I agree – its the next big battlefield!

  10. Thanks. From the perspective of “differences between web widgets vs. other types”, the answer is there is none. At least that is I how I see them (and how I documented them in my own mobile web FAQ). There are widgets that are web-based, and others that are local such as Webwag or Widset, or Flash-based, etc. Web widgets run in a “browser runner”, while local widgets run in “proprietary” containers, but hopefully this is a temporary solution, and such authoring becomes all standardized — we all hope. Local widgets, because they have access to local resources, have potential to provide a better user experience, which is the core of my whole debate of local vs. web. :-)

  11. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Hello Enrique
    Local v.s. web ..
    Interesting! Yes, thats one of the reasons I see the (web) widget + odp arguement. Technically, there is no reason for the browser not to access local storage(correct me if I am wrong). As far as I see it, its just not standardised. However, A web widget running in this way will have access to local. There is still some thinking to do here(and I need to explore this in some detail) i.e. is there an advantage (other than a non propriotery container) for a web widget vs anything else. Thanks for clarifying this. kind rgds Ajit

  12. Ajit Jaokar says:

    some more thoughts on the Web v.s. non web arguement ..
    In itself(on a phone) its similar(maybe). but how about beyond the phone? i.e. consider that the same service can be accessed on the web. In that case, web wins in my view? This comes right back to the Ajax/long tail arguement. i.e. if we are to access a service on both the web and the device, then it needs to follow web standards .. else we end up with two sets of applications(and more if you consider IPTV, other devices and so on)? maybe its a purist arguement – but valid? what else can run across a range of devices and the web? I would say at least the Web, Mobile Widgets and IPTV are key platforms for an application to run as unmodified as possible? kind rgds Ajit

  13. The purist view is fine! Note that a local widget (running in a local container that has access to local resources) can still be authored using web standards (xhtml, javascript for scripting, etc), talking to the back-end, which is the same back-end on the web for same widget that might exist in different forms (browser, java, flash, native). See the widget as pure “presentation-layer”. What it is important to realize here, is that a widget is *typically* a “connected entity” (example of an unconnected widget is a clock-widget).

  14. Ajit Jaokar says:

    ok! two things
    a) with an odp I expect some offlibe storage.
    b) Re presentation layer – let me come back to you after some thought i.e. I need to understand a bit more about how some of the other technologies work.
    thanks for the input! kind rgds Ajit

  15. pedro says:

    Hello, I’ve been working for a while on ODPs
    After some discussions and numerous thoughts on the subject, I end up with this definition:
    1) local : whether it concerns access to the service or local storage of data
    2) connected : able to update content or even better update itself (content AND presentation layer should be updatable at the same time)
    3) taking as much advantage as possible of any handset capabilities, in first place GUI and interaction but also many others : video, camera, PIM, filesystem etc.
    This brings richer user experience on existing services (ringtones, logos strorefronts) but also create opportunity to launch new disrupting services (think of QR codes, UGC, GPS and much more) hence playing a key role in mobile internet development
    Widgets, actually widget containers, are a particular type of ODP that are necessarily customizable by user, with appropriate UI (generally tile-like) and philosophically opened
    regards pierre

  16. Sudhanshu Kumar says:

    I have been doing a comparision of various ODP technologies. I found Celltop very impressive.
    The UI of Celltop is simply superb and I did not find any other ODP or widget technology as close as that. But I did not see any mention of Celltop in your Blog.
    Any view on that.