Wireless Giants Go for Sharing

A group of powerful wireless companies plans to standardize the look of millions of mobile phones in an effort to spur the creation of Internet applications.

A group of powerful wireless companies plans to standardize the look of millions of mobile phones in an effort to spur the creation of Internet applications.

The GSM Association last week unveiled its Mobile Services Initiative, supported by many of the major operators in Europe and AT&T Wireless, along with all the biggest handset manufacturers. The initiative is a set of guidelines aimed at defining a single user interface for phones using the global system for mobile communication standard (GSM). The move is expected to result in the development of more wireless services geared toward business customers.

The M-Services guidelines define a graphical look for the phones, including pop-up menus similar to those used on most PC software programs. It also specifies a common framework for downloading content and messaging capabilities that allow for the delivery of audio, video and text. Most handset makers hope to comply with the guidelines in time for the holiday buying season.

The move was prompted in part by wireless operators around the globe that are trying to imitate NTT DoCoMos wildly successful i-mode data offering in Japan.

"We have to repeat the miracle that has been done in Japan," said Mauro Sentinelli, managing director at Telecom Italia Mobile.

Even though all cell phones in Europe use the same GSM standard and most phone manufacturers have decided to use the Wireless Application Protocol, the way that information is displayed varies on each handset. "People confused things and said that because WAP is the underlying technology, the WAP user experience is bad," said Don Listwin, president and CEO of Openwave Systems, a leading wireless software developer. "The key is we havent come together at the presentation layer and havent made services interoperable."

Currently, application developers must rewrite their services for each handset on the market in order to ensure quality on all the phones. A representative at wireless software company Psion once complained that the company had 165 different versions of WAP to deal with, Sentinelli said.

Standardizing as much as possible will help duplicate NTT DoCoMos experience, operators believe. "The success of NTT DoCoMo is not because they have a great technology but because they have a standard that all the manufacturers followed," Sentinelli said.

Such widespread standards would spur what many at the GSM Association are calling a virtual business cycle, which they believe occurred in Japan. The theory goes that if the user experience is good, the early adopters will spread the word. Once penetration of the new services reaches several million users, application and service developers will be encouraged to rapidly build new offerings. That, in turn, will spur new subscribers.

Although it might seem that the handset makers would fear commoditization if the user interface is standardized, some say theres enough room in the initiative for them to differentiate their products. "Theyre trying to extinguish the ambiguity in standards," said Larry Swasey, president of Allied Business Intelligence, a research firm working on a study of handset makers.