Mobile: The Countdown to 2012

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There is nothing romantic about Barcelona on Valentine's Day when 60,000 mobile phone executives are in town keen to show off new technology and talk phones, apps and tablets, writes Chris Bignell, director of XL Communications, reporting exclusively for MEI from the 2011 Mobile World Congress.

Mobile World Congress is the annual meeting point for the mobile phone industry. Around 1, 300 companies descend on Barcelona in February every year to compete for the attention of mobile network operators, searching for the next big thing. Typically in the mobile industry, the 'next big thing' needs to have been discussed for at least four years before it is realised. For the events industry, mobile offers a unique opportunity. People do not take their laptops everywhere but you can bet they will always have a phone on them. And that phone is also a camera, video camera, internet device, ticket, mobile office. The issue is how to bring these functions together in a meaningful way that adds value to the user? Mobile ticketing comes of ageIt seems that Near Field Communications (NFC) has now served its apprenticeship and is ready for the big time. By embedding a chip in a phone, NFC enables ticketing on the mobile device, in much the same way as major transportation networks use NFC enabled cards to move passengers quickly and easily through barriers. At Mobile World Congress in 2010 even the coffee bars were enabled for NFC payment. It cannot have been very popular: this year they were back to Euros. The problem with NFC to date has been twofold: the mobile phone manufacturers were unwilling to spend the money on creating NFC enabled phones unless the ticketing infrastructure was available to support the phones. The venues and ticketing companies were not prepared to pay to enable the barriers unless the phones were available. Two developments may change this. In Barcelona, SK Telecom demonstrated a SIM card with NFC capability. This could mean the wait for handsets would be at an end, potentially prompting the growth in the market. The other boost to NFC is the 2012 Olympics. It is easier to incorporate new technology into new stadia, and London 2012 will be NFC enabled, potentially demonstrating the value to users and prompting a kick start to the market. All this might not be necessary anyway. A UK company called Masabi has been working with Chiltern Railways and Thetrainline to offer an alternative to NFC: barcode scanning. Traditionally mobile barcodes took a long time to read, threatening queues for passengers and frustration for event organisers. Masabi has now developed scanning technology that can be read in a similar time frame to an NFC device. Whats more, but integrating the purchasing of train tickets with the delivery of the mobile barcode, the company has made the whole process seamless: unless you happen to be on a station with no mobile coverage of course. Apps continue to growThe explosion of mobile applications has been so rapid that Mobile World Congress has grown in a year from having an app zone to an app planet. By 2012 expect an app solar system. Whilst event organisers have not been slow to see the benefits of mobile apps, problems still remain. To date, app availability has been for a small number of phones: namely iPhone and Android. Whilst these are the fastest growing platforms, they still account for a small proportion of the mobile phones currently in circulation across Europe. A year ago developing an App for iPhone could be compared to creating a website that could only be read using Googles Chrome browser: nice, but niche. The prompts the question of mobile apps versus mobile websites: with almost every handset having a mobile browser embedded, mobile internet sites may offer a more comprehensive solution for event organisers than apps. Traditionally the problem with mobile websites has been with delivery: all these different phone have different capabilities. And brands are reluctant to deliver a poor experience over mobile because the cannot guarantee the mobile website content will display correctly on every mobile device accessing the site. To see an example try to view any video or audio content on the BBC website on an iPhone. bemoko, a mobile web specialist claims to have resolved this issue. When a phone requests a mobile web page, bemokos system asks the phone what its capabilities are and only delivers content that the phone can display. Content will look 'app–Like' on a smartphone but will also be displayed on more basic handsets. This could provide a happy compromise between the mobile web and mobile app battle, providing event organisers with the best of both worlds: engaging content for smartphone users and relevant information for the rest of us. Speech recognition leaps forwardThere has been little to date to excite the world about mobile speech recognition, but this is changing rapidly. Google now offers free speech search that delivers exceptional results on mobile. Novauris, meanwhile, has developed a solution that integrates speech recognition with data delivery over the mobile network. Imagine arriving at Heathrow on Cup Final day: you want to know the best way to London's Wembley Stadium on the public transport system without hitting any delays. Novauris demonstrated a solution that enables users to simply say Heathrow to Wembley stadium into the phone to get the fastest public transport route, including information from Transport For London, meaning the user can avoid points failures at Paddington Railway Station. The route is neatly laid out on the phones screen, so you do not have to remember where to change. Whether Festival organisers could use this to direct punters to the shortest queues for the cleanest toilets is a matter for conjecture but the potential to use speech rather than data input has the potential to change how people interact with their phones. A year away from London 2012, it is clear that mobile has a increasing role to play for major events organisers. Yet there is still something of a disconnect between the needs of the industry and the new technology being loaded into mobile phones. Linking the two may be the key to success but now is the time for event organisers to try out new ways to use mobile in the planning and execution of major events.

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