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Growing Pains in Off-Portal World

Generating traffic and garnering off-portal content sales aren't easy for small developers. Partnerships with aggregators and media companies may help.

Navigating the complex and fragmented wireless content ecosystem can be a challenge for any company. But for small application developers that typically lack manpower and wireless industry acumen, this can be an overwhelming task.

In the early days of mobile content, many of the small developers gravitated toward content application ecosystems such as Qualcomm's BREW platform. This platform has been instrumental in helping many small developers get their content in front of consumers and on the wireless operators' top decks.

But BREW currently isn't set up for off-deck content consumption. BREW representatives say the platform is evolving to accommodate the changing mobile content marketplace, but for now, many BREW operators are using other firms, such as Motricity, for their off-portal content play. For application developers, this means that they must either work with firms such as Motricity or develop their own off-portal strategies.

Benefiting from BREW Developers have long praised BREW for its ability to provide some order to the wireless content ecosystem. BREW helps developers work with operators and monetize their content.

Rocket Mobile focused much of its development efforts on the BREW platform. The company develops consumer applications but also has an embedded client technology that it licensed to OEMs. "When we first started the company, there was no way to make money on Java applications on phones in the U.S.," says Wayne Yurtin, president and CEO of Rocket Mobile. However, that scenario has changed and Yurtin says Rocket Mobile has just finished developing a J2ME version of its applications.

Small developer Emdigo has had a lot of success with its BREW applications. Hersh Reddy, product manager at Emdigo, says that BREW's integrated billing model has been very advantageous for the developer. "They fix the royalty rates as a developer and we have found it to be very generous," Reddy says.

Yet Emdigo has moved beyond its BREW roots. The company also is working with Nokia's Preminet platform, which includes a master content catalog, a service delivery platform and an optional client application. Similar to BREW, Preminet has a quality control system for its content.

Off-Portal Opportunities For many content companies, the off-portal movement offers what appears to be unlimited potential to reach new consumers and not be hindered by carriers and their top deck limitations. And for small developers with relationships with big brands, the opportunity is exciting.

Digital Orchid works with media companies, publishers and broadcasters to help them bring their content to the mobile world. Bobby Betros, chief technology officer and co-founder of Digital Orchid, believes the off-portal movement will be particularly beneficial to companies such as his because its partners have brand awareness that will help drive customers to the content. Digital Orchid, for example, has worked with NASCAR to enable NASCAR fans to download in-car audio clips of their favorite NASCAR drivers to their mobile phones during a race. Betros compares the off-portal movement to cable TV because it will open up the mobile content market to new niche providers. "Getting distribution with a carrier is hard unless you are a national brand. Now you can play and use the Internet to market your content," Betros says. "Before, the carrier was the only marketing partner. Now, Google can be your marketing partner."

But some developers are not bullish on off portal. Yurtin sees limited potential for Rocket Mobile. The company is getting involved in off portal with its embedded client technology but it doesn't plan to start a Website to deliver its content via a WAP push. "I think the off-portal experience is worse for consumers," Yurtin says. "We will get involved in off portal from the technology side, but we are not going to try to come up with a Website. Instead, we may team with some bigger companies."

Likewise, Emdigo is skeptical about the off-portal opportunity for small developers that don't have the name recognition or marketing dollars to drive consumers to their content. "How are we going to get traffic to an off-portal channel?" Reddy asks. "For someone like us, this is not an option unless we work with an independent aggregator."

Reddy says that not all independent aggregators are as committed to quality control as on-deck platforms such as BREW and Preminet. "The quality from the aggregators varies," Reddy says. And that is a problem because if a developer is working with an aggregator that has some sub-par applications, that could reflect poorly on the developers? applications.

Still another area of concern for developers considering an off-portal play is reconciliation. Soapbox Mobile has a BREW application that it has developed for MVNO Amp'd Mobile. Dan Flanegan, CEO of Soapbox Mobile, says that unless a developer has a relationship with a third-party system, it will be difficult to get consumers to pay for the application. "The beauty of using BREW and working with Amp'd is that there is billing on the subscription side or Amp'd has pre-registered credit card information," Flanegan says. "You have to have a way to deal with alternative forms of payment."

Plus, Flanegan worries about being able to deliver the same quality experience that customers have come to expect from an on-deck purchase when they are working off deck. "There is a challenge when it comes to implementation."

The off-portal content market may offer small developers big opportunities, but challenges remain when it comes to marketing, quality control and billing.

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