Internet leaders say mobile is tough nut to crack

Despite interest in what could become a lucrative industry, Internet companies face a number of roadblocks to delivering applications and services to mobile phone users and they made their complaints known during the Symbian Smartphone Show in London.

"It's a challenging ecosystem," said Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research for Google Inc., speaking at the conference this week. Google, for example, has to work with a confusing array of partners in order to get services out to mobile users, he said.

Unlike the PC-based Internet, companies often can't simply put up a Web site to deliver a service, such as photo sharing or Internet voice calling, to mobile users. That's because mobile phones are constrained by less memory and slower Internet connections than PCs and because browsers may not be able to interact with some phone functions that might enhance an application, said Tony Cripps, an analyst at Ovum.

If an application requires users to have a piece of software on their phones to enable the service, the developer must tailor the software for the many different operating systems, many of them proprietary, and versions of Java that run mobile phones. For example, Cognima Ltd. offers an application called ShoZu that automatically uploads camera phone photos to Flickr. "The most expensive thing I do is support dozens of handset flavors," said Andy Tiller, the chief technology officer at Cognima.

Similarly, Google was pleased to announce earlier this year that Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB phone users could easily upload photos to Blogger blogs. But in order to allow all phone users that similar ease, Google will have to work with many different handset and software vendors, Google's Eustace said.

Once developers build their applications for the many different platforms, they face another hurdle: the operators. "Operators control access, the delivery of service and distribution," said Eric Lagier, head of mobile development at Skype Ltd. "It's a very closed ecosystem." Companies like Skype, which could compete with the operators, may meet exceptional challenges because operators can and sometimes do bar their customers from using such services.

Handset and software makers say that the mobile environment is different than the wired Internet and service and application providers will have to adjust if they want to take part. "It's a different market than they're used to," said Mikael Nerde, head of planning for content and developer programs at Sony Ericsson.

Symbian Ltd. has a similar perspective. "If they want to be on every phone, they have to make deals with the phone makers," said Andy Brannan, executive vice president of sales and customer operations for Symbian. He noted that working with an operating system provider like Symbian helps because Symbian runs the vast majority of smartphones in many markets. Even so, there are different versions of Symbian and smartphones only make up a small portion of all mobile phones.

The environment is unlikely to dramatically change although it may get a bit better, said Cripps. Some operators, such as Vodafone Group PLC and Orange PLC, have begun to standardize on just a few handset operating systems, which means that application developers will only have to create a few versions of their products to reach the vast majority of phone users. "Anything that can happen in terms of consolidating platforms is important as far as third parties wanting to launch applications on devices," Cripps said.

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