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Thursday, June 08, 2006

From Dynamic UI, to on-device portal, to....?

Met with SurfKitchen yesterday for an update on their progress. For those of you that are not familiar with the company, it is one of a cluster of firms that have software to enable improved user-interfaces on mobile phones. The general idea is to work around the limitations of mobile browsers, and the inconsistency between the way data applications are implemented on different phones. Operators (and maybe others) will implement these extra software layers on devices in order to make it easier for users to access (and spend money on) new services like music downloads, as well as offering "themes" for the overall handset look-and-feel.

This isn't entirely new - SurfKitchen has been around for a few years. It has a number of important peers - such as Action Engine, Qualcomm's UIone division (formerly Trigenix), Adobe/Macromedia and OpenWave's MIDAS product, all aimed at roughly the same space, albeit each with unique spins. I met with Action Engine last week at another event, so I've been pondering what's realistic about the sector, and what's just marketing bluster.

What has changed has been the practicality and reasonableness of vision. About 2.5 years ago, I was at a mobile handset software conference at which at least 15 separate companies all declared that their product would own the "top layer" of the phone. "The whole phone will be inside the browser / dynamic UI / Java / application suite etc". Frankly, it was unrealistic - not least because none of these products worked across a decent array of devices.

Now, the focus is on "On-Device Portals", where the software solves one or two specific problems: how to make downloads easier, or driving the "music" section of the phone. Less ambitious, but much more realistic than an unproven all-or-nothing approach.

I also see this functionality being driven further "down" - and being used almost as a browser plug-in, to improve the "real Internet" experience, when appropriate. Now, I had a bit of an unfinished argument on this with the highly-knowledgeable SurfKitchen boss Michel Quazza, but I am still a big believer in the web browser being the optimal user interface, with other tools masking its limitations where required.

I also asked a question that seemed to resonate with both Michel & a representative from Orange - using this type of software to improve operators' revenues in...... voice. This strikes me as completely obvious - why just try & improve the user experience (& revenue) from what is a tiny % of data applications.... when you could also try & improve usage of mainstream apps like voice & SMS.

Bottom line - now that this type of product has gotten over some of its more gradiose, unrealistic visions, it now seems to be gaining traction on making specific aspects of the handset work better. I'm waiting for a version to help make phones better at doing FMC - or, more importantly, switching between "public service-oriented" and "consumer device" modes.

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