Games without frontiers

Features

Mobile entertainment may equal big bucks for mobile operators keen to get services to market. However, applications and content test and certification processes for 3G networks have also created big challenges for mobile operators, writes Andrew Darling

As the amount of content and applications running over mobile networks increases, so too does the importance of ensuring that both network integrity is maintained and that applications function properly on a wide variety of devices. Application testing is the only way to guarantee a good user experience and early time to market for content providers and developers. And mobile operators face a major business issue with this process, not only to ensure QoS on the network, but also a consistent user experience on multiple handsets

The international mobile marketplace continues to grow across all segments. According to a recent report by Strategy Analytics, early adopters alone will account for nearly £50bn in mobile service revenues during 2004 and worldwide revenues from mobile data services are expected to increase from £34bn in 2004 to £106bn in 2009. Mobile entertainment applications are expected to account for around 28 percent of those revenues in 2009.

What all these statistics indicate is that, firstly, worldwide usage of mobile products will to continue to grow. As mobile handsets embrace new technologies and more capabilities, and as consumer comfort with using mobile products continues to develop, the mobile applications market should continue to be a profitable one. To help realise this potential, mobile applications developers, handset manufacturers and operators need to understand the requirement for testing and quality assurance standards across the industry.
Steve Glagow, director of Orange's Partner Program, says that although the amount of content and applications becoming mobilised is increasing, not all of it is endorsed by the operator. "If an application is good that doesn't necessarily mean its going to run on a network or a particular handset. It has to be tested and certified so it works every time. Anything that's in our service catalogue has gone through this process."

"We have 53 million customers around the world and we need to understand what our customers want. That's why we have the Orange Partner Program for application and content developers to focus on what we want from them," adds Glagow.

The Orange Partner Program provides a testing process for developers to follow so, as they create and submit applications, they are provided with automatic test tools. Orange works with Argo Group to provide software for developers that can test content on whatever handset is required. The software also shows how the content looks on the device screen and the developer can impose a 'pass/fail' verdict.

A second level of testing results in the application being sent to one of a number of developer centres Orange has established all over the world in 19 countries. There, the application is run over a 'live' broadcast network and again tested on the multiple handsets available in different geographic regions.

"Once we've selected the application, an Orange product manager contracts out to a third party testing house, such as NSTL in the US or Babel Media in the UK. If the developer has this phase done independently the application is certified for our catalogue and other operators. If not, we will pay for this and keep the digital signature for ourselves," says Glagow.

The entire test and certification procedure takes, on average, 90 days to complete. Glagow admits this delay can hit smaller developers hard in terms of getting their product to market and thereby generating revenue. However, he says that Orange is primarily concerned with the customer.
"We need to protect them from bad applications otherwise they won't buy from us again. Certification is well worth it for operators just in terms of CRM and the reduction in numbers of customer support calls," he adds.

Brighton-based Babel Media have co-written the certification program for mobile games testing on the European Vodafone live! portal and run it on an exclusive basis for the operator. The company developed a great deal of know-how in Quality Assurance (QA) testing from its experience in the console and PC gaming world. Managing director Algy Williams says the experience has helped it to deliver a comprehensive testing and certification program which satisfies Vodafone's demands.

"We have moved from console games platforms towards mobile games platforms and currently we have between 40 and 45 content providers who have content such as games, ring-tones and wallpaper on the Vodafone schedule. They are referred to us by Vodafone to make sure their content works properly on the portal," says Williams.

Due the increasing demand from operators for certification, handset porting and QA, this part of the business has gone from zero to 20 percent of company sales in under two years and Babel currently has around 60 people working on it.

"Time to market is the main advantage in outsourcing the testing process," Williams says. "Mobile application developers face the same challenges and problems as games developers. A huge proliferation of platforms and regional locations means that people are spending their revenues on platform testing, localisation etc. which adds a huge increase to fixed costs. If you outsource this process and concentrate on production, marketing and distribution of your products, you'll make more money more quickly."

Cambridge-based Bango.net provides content services for a number of mobile operators and also acts as a sort of clearing house for payments between operators and content providers. Founder and vice-president of alliances and marketing, Anil Malhotra, thinks all content should go through an independent channel but not just for testing.

"The operators need to spend less time acquiring content in the traditional way. O2 do their own testing but all of the operators are currently looking at squeezing costs out of the equation and that's where outsourcing partners can come in," Malhotra says. "Third parties should test the application and do the market research to see if it's a worthwhile application to put out."

Mike Short, vice-president of R&D at mmO2, agrees with this. "Third party test and certification partners are a very good way of speeding up this process. Within O2, we use SurfKitchen on O2 Active to ensure user experience is optimised for different handsets. Nokia is not as consistent as we'd like them to be in terms of content and applications working on their range of phones," he says.

Short sees standards as key to the development of a consistent test and certification process that helps everybody. "What the OMA is doing here is absolutely the right thing to do. It pulls together all the different elements of a bigger picture and provides a consistent approach to implanting standards."

While there will always be a need for diversification and platforms, the increasingly popular sentiment is that there exists a need for standardisation in the testing requirements of operators and within each of the individual platforms.

With less fragmentation across the operator and within platform testing requirements and standards, application developers and content providers will not have to navigate through a complicated and lengthy path to market. Industry-wide operator agreements in testing standards should result in quality applications that are simultaneously available across all major operator networks. The goal of the emerging movement towards one-submission testing within platform testing and QA requirements is that the applications see a more timely release to market across a greater number of handset models and devices. An application that is certified and secure is an application with greater financial value to all participants in the mobile revenue stream.

That's why, in early 2004, several key wireless players launched the Java Verified Program at the 3GSM Congress in Cannes. Motorola, Nokia, Siemens, Sony Ericsson and Sun Microsystems want the program to provide a unified process for the testing and verification of Java applications for mobile handsets. Applications can now be tested and certified only once for deployment over a wide arrange of delivery channels allowing a reduction in development costs and speedier time to market.

Through the program, mobile operators can access a large pool of wireless Java applications such as games, movie guides and video news clips. Content providers and application developers can monetize their applications more quickly and cost-effectively since meeting a single unified testing criteria will reduce the need to re-test for different distribution channels, each with their own proprietary criteria. In addition, a 'Java Powered' logo should help to expand the marketing mix of their products and provide customers with quality of assurance.

Jan Andersen, managing director of elkware, says the program will save his company both time and money. "We are very pleased to be able to leverage this program to 'write once, test once, run everywhere'. We will save a tremendous amount of time."

Both Orange and T-Mobile have since adopted the Java Verified program and all new mobile Java applications will be tested this way by one of the assigned testing partners including Babel Media, Cap Gemini, NSTL and RelQ, based in India.

"With a single mechanism to significantly reduce time-to-market, our developers can more easily reach out to millions of mobile users," says Steve Glagow, director of the Orange partner program. "The delay in the market is less of a problem for us and more of an issue for developers but they can help solve that by going to testing houses first."

O2's Mike Short sees the issue in wider terms. "The headline view is that non-SMS data is not growing as fast as we would like. Handset diversity has benefits for the market and for creating opportunities for other third parties to test and certify, but it's still a hindrance for us all."

"The GSM/GPRS/W-CDMA air interface standard is very, very strong but the application and handset standard certainly isn't consistent or strong enough yet," says Short.

However, while the move towards the standardised testing is a welcome one for operators keen to embrace a common program, Babel's Williams says Java Verified will only meet about 75 percent of operator requirements. "There will always be 25 percent for individual requirements but it does mean we are getting towards a faster process with better economies."

Nevertheless, Java Verified is beneficial to the content providers themselves as it enables them to get quality applications to the market more quickly and not necessarily through the operator channel. As Bango.net's Malhotra says "Off -portal is where the money will be made for content providers."