CTIA exhibitors hope to seize a multimedia craze

Mobile operators, content providers and other participants at the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment trade show this week in San Francisco will be gearing up for an expected boom in mobile multimedia in the U.S.

The country is far behind Europe and Asia in using mobile phones for more than talking, but it's already begun to catch up, according to IDC analyst Lewis Ward. U.S. mobile operators get about 5 percent of their revenue from consumer and enterprise data services now, and those offerings should bring in about 15 percent by 2008, he said. By comparison, one Irish carrier is making about 30 percent of its revenue from data and an operator in the Philippines is at 20 percent, Ward said.

Messaging is still the most popular mobile data service in the U.S., but downloadable ringtones have already caught on and graphics are just starting to take off, according to Ward. Games are next in line, he said, and their higher price tags can drive a lot of revenue.

"This maturity means there are a lot of companies that want to deliver this kind of content onto handsets," Ward said. Other emerging consumer data services include downloadable music, streaming video, alert services, friendship networking and ringback tones -- tunes that play in the background when someone is calling your phone and waiting for you to pick up.

Though some mobile operators want to deal directly with content providers such as movie studios and record labels, thus keeping a bigger chunk of the eventual revenue for themselves, content aggregators play a key intermediary role for others, according to Ward.

Several companies are set to take stabs at the emerging opportunity on Monday.

VeriSign Inc. is using its May acquisition of Berlin-based wireless services provider Jamba AG to extend its e-commerce support services into the mobile arena. Leveraging lessons learned in Europe, it is set to introduce Monday an end-to-end content distribution service for mobile operators, said Mahi de Silva, a senior vice president at VeriSign, in Mountain View, California.

The new VeriSign Digital Content Services is a set of applications that form a complete utility for delivering content, according to VeriSign. The company can deliver its own portfolio of content, house other content that a carrier wants to offer, secure transactions and provide the billing infrastructure and the user interface, de Silva said. It can manage and distribute any type of mobile content and integrate it with the carrier's billing and Web portal infrastructure, he said.

For mobile operators, VeriSign's service removes the need to work with multiple providers of point solutions for content delivery, de Silva said. When carriers piece together their data services with many partners, they have to test each piece with their networks and handsets, according to VeriSign. The VeriSign service may also make things easier for mobile subscribers because in some cases it may allow for a simpler user interface for finding and buying content on the phone, de Silva said.

VeriSign expects to see operators offer services based on the system in the first quarter of 2005.

InfoSpace Corp.'s InfoSpace Mobile unit, which delivers mobile entertainment content from the major record labels and other sources, is set to introduce a new version of its Ringster phone-based storefront for buying ringtones over the air. The new version, called Ringster+, lets users browse and preview ringtones and provides audio files optimized for the memory and bandwidth available on mobile phones.

It is based on the Brew software platform and can run on 13 phone models offered by five U.S. carriers, including models from LG Electronics Inc., Motorola Inc., Audiovox Communications Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. InfoSpace was not able to disclose deals with any operators last week. It expects ringtones to cost between US$1 and $2.50 depending on the carrier and the ringtone, said Hank Skorny, vice president of product management and marketing.

InfoSpace sells ringtones and other phone personalization content through mobile operators that reach 90 percent of U.S. wireless subscribers, according to the company. It estimates less than 10 percent of U.S. subscribers are active users of ringtones, compared to 30 percent of subscribers in Europe. However, the advent of ringtones in rich audio formats, such as MP3 and WMA (Windows Media Audio) have boosted the popularity of ringtones in this country, the company said.

The company also will unveil Picster, a phone-based storefront for buying graphics such as screen wallpaper. Picster can run on five LG phone models and the Kyocera Wireless Corp. Slider, according to InfoSpace. Deployment deals with two major operators are pending.

One feature not yet available on Ringster+ or Picster is the capability to forward purchased ringtones or images to friends or give them as gifts, Skorny said. That will require digital rights management technology to protect against unauthorized sharing, he said. That feature may be available in the next version of Picster coming in six to 12 months, he said.

Also on Monday, HeyAnita Inc. will introduce its Content Delivery Service software, which lets mobile subscribers get rich audio content either on demand or via push from the content provider. The CDS technology works with any handset, bypassing current lack of interoperability for MMS (multimedia messaging service) across all carriers, according to a statement from the Los Angeles company. It gives operators and content providers a way to reach a wide audience with current technology, HeyAnita said.

Subscribers can sign up to receive notification when a certain song becomes available, in which case they will get an SMS (short message service) message when it comes out and then click on a designated button on the keypad to download the tune. Users can also sign up to receive specific types of audio content at a particular time each day, such as traffic reports at the beginning of the subscriber's usual commute hour.

CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment, sponsored by the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, runs Sunday through Wednesday.

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