Wireless Systems Design

Interface Technology Must Match New Data Services

In today's wireless industry, operators are facing declining voice revenues. As a result, they're actively seeking compelling data services to maintain and/or increase the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). The devices that contribute to data-services revenue are being heavily pushed by operators. Examples include camera phones for MMS and phones with QWERTY keyboards for e-mail. This emphasis on data services has led to the rapid introduction of devices that are optimized for such multimedia services. In turn, operators are placing significant pressure on OEMs to deliver handsets that meet their data-services needs.

While operators are pushing for these more sophisticated handsets, however, mobile-data adoption remains weak. One reason that mobile data use is slow on uptake is that users are overwhelmed by the increased complexity of mobile devices. Even when users learn about new phone features, it's still difficult to effectively navigate a myriad of menus and screens. In addition, users are further challenged by cumbersome input methods for SMS, e-mail, and Internet browsing.

The emphasis on multimedia, which is being driven by 2.5G and 3G availability, also has led to the rapid introduction of devices that are optimized for multimedia services. Such optimization involves the incorporation of digital cameras in phones, higher-resolution and color LCDs for picture display, and enhanced application software. Yet the introduction of these new services also inherently causes more complexity.

To merely send an MMS from my new phone, I need to open the camera application, take the picture, and save it to the photo gallery. I then have to go back to the main menu, go to the photo gallery, choose the picture, choose the option to send it, choose the phone number, and—at last—press send. It takes nine steps to send a photo to someone. How frequently will the average subscriber go through this process to send a simple photo? A recent study of U.K. residents suggests that only 8% of subscribers who have access to MMS actually use it to send messages to other people.

As a result of this complexity, mobile operators continue to risk missing their forecasts for mobile-data ARPU. Simply discovering—let alone using—a new data service is proving extremely difficult. Some operators are moving toward actually training subscribers on how to gain access to new data services and use them.

Partly, this difficulty in accessing new services is a legacy of the proprietary user-interface (UI) and operating systems that permeate today's low-end and mid-tier handsets. Open operating systems like Symbian provide a great degree of additional functionality for higher-end devices. Yet they don't address access to this functionality.

Mobile subscribers shouldn't be required to go through training in order to learn how to use their mobile phones. Mobile operators realize this fact. As they move to take control of the value chain, they're becoming increasingly proactive in sourcing OEMs that will work to adapt to the device requirements that they specify. For example, Vodafone has turned to historically non-standard suppliers like Sharp for Vodafone Live! devices. Operators also are working directly with the Asian ODMs for operator-branded devices. Orange and mm02 are two prominent operators in the vanguard of this trend.

Let's look at an example of a company that's providing a mobile device with a compelling UI: Apple. Admittedly, Apple's iPod and iPod Mini don't have telephony functions. But that point is not germane to the discussion at hand. What they do have is a simple and compelling UI, easily discoverable access to functionality, and a very low learning curve for new users. The Apple iPod has taught us that a simple user interface can make access to complex functions intuitive. It also has shown us that industrial design combined with ease of use helps to boost sales.

The implications of such an intuitive user interface are dramatic for the OEM's mobile-phone designers, user-interface specialists, and application developers. Simple is always better than complex. Although this concept is radical for mobile-phone UI design, it hearkens back to the Netscape philosophy of web-site design. If a user cannot find what they want in two "clicks," you lose them. Develop a user interface that makes discovery of the functions obvious. It also is easy to navigate, applicable to all applications, and has simple terminology to describe it. Finally, it takes only two steps to get a feature to execute. Voila!

It's easy to imagine a mobile-phone interface that completely orients itself to the mode that the user is in. Such an interface would bypass the limitations of the 12-key keypad and the typical four-way rocker through simple scrolling and selection mechanisms. These same functions equally apply to gaming moves, taking and sending a picture, and rapidly making a voice call. If the mobile-phone OEMs won't take this step, the operators will. After all, data-services revenue beckons.

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