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

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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

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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.

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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 )

Conclusions

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