In an economy still licking its wounds from the tech stock crash, the last thing anyone wants to hear about is the latest, greatest way to deliver sales via the ether. However, mobile commerce is just that. Promising all the glory of instantly actionable, push and location-based selling that can be personalised, mobile commerce is shaping up to provide everything that e-commerce didn't, and then some.
Defined universally as any kind of commercial transaction conducted via a mobile telecommunications network, mobile commerce sounds simple. It involves delivering data (and sales) back and forth via a mobile phone network using a combination of technologies. However, in practice it can prove more complex.
While most can guess the meaning of the term itself, few have managed to wrap their heads around the business interactions and partnerships which will be required to deliver the simplest of mobile commerce applications. Transactions involving multiple business partners are never straightforward processes, and at the heart of the matter is the all important control of the customer.
So far, so good
Mobile commerce software vendor 7.24 has been bracing itself for multifaceted rollouts for some time. Dr Gavin Michael, vice-president of professional services in 7.24's Asia Pacific arm describes a standard mobile commerce roll-out as involving up to six or seven "partners", but is undeterred by the high levels of complexity involved in the sale.
"A multi-vendor operation is absolutely critical to success in this space," Michael says. "The device manufacturers, the carriers, the telcos, the financial institutions, the merchants - in a mobile commerce solution, to get to the next stage you must be able to work with them all."
Despite the potential for a monumental customer ownership and propriety development stoush, mobile commerce vendors of all shapes and sizes have managed to roll out the first solutions with relatively little pain.
Jonathan Skelly, business development manager for Nokia mobile phones Australia, believes the smooth sailing can be attributed to a series of global forums which have managed to establish standards governing the technology and business procedures governing mobile commerce. "Nokia is heavily involved in the forums; it is important that everyone's interests are represented. The idea is not to reinvent the wheel, it is to build on the standards which have already been established," he says.
Customers at stake
However, technology standards have not prevented the first murmurings of a customer ownership debate which has the potential to significantly affect the mobile commerce roll out. When it takes at least half a dozen vendors to service a sale, whose sale is it?
As Skelly points out, customer ownership may become the most contentious and damaging issue facing mobile commerce development. "Certain parties are pushing for more ownership," he says, "but personally I don't believe anyone owns the customer. The objective should not be to own the customer but to allow them to select what they want from a series of options. We have to maintain a vision of a mobile information society, and not get carried away in a mad customer grab."
One of the key concerns is that many of the parties set to partake in the mobile commerce pie have already established a customer base which they are loath to relinquish. Device manufacturers, infrastructure providers, network operators, billing application providers, contents service providers, portals, search engine merchants and more must all weigh up their customer mind-share requirements with their own partnership requirements.
Ultimately, 7.24's Michael believes customers will select their own vendors by following the well trodden paths of brand recognition and consumer confidence. "A lot of customer information resides with the financial institutions. Once these are mobile commerce-enabled via e-wallet-style offerings, consumers will have an interface they can trust," he says.
However, with much of this information already entrusted to the operators and telcos, the customer ownership debate may not be quite that simple.
Ericsson's general manager of mobile commerce, Kate Bennett, believes the contention regarding customer control will come down to a struggle for customer details and access to merchants. "The customer information required to facilitate mobile commerce has been collected at the banks and also at many of the operators," she says. "The operators are now in a position where they can offer banking services because they act as an interface with the banks themselves. So there may be a bit of a struggle for control."
On a recent visit to Australia, Altavista's director of international development and marketing, Martin Keogh, signalled his concern at the customer jealousy already surfacing in the fledgling mobile commerce industry. "Customer ownership is a big problem. The operators have a very parochial view of the customers," he says. "They've got to change that mind set in order to function within an open access model."
Keogh is concerned the gateways that provide access to mobile commerce options need to be as open as those which provide Internet access, allowing the customers to select from a wide range of commercial and information options.
In fact, information provision may well be the model to follow, with IDC predicting this will be the primary use of mobile commerce facilities. "At first you are going to see a lot of information delivery. It is not a direct commerce opportunity; it is based on the relationships you already have and how these can be improved via mobile commerce capabilities," says Emilia Wasiak, communications analyst with IDC.
According to Wasiak, many of the early adopters shied away from WAP services due to erratic browsing and technical issues. Twice-shy end users will now require extremely attractive value adds before they are tempted back to the fold.
Technology pushing ahead
Others within the industry are more excited about the opportunities provided by location-based "push" marketing. "When we are talking applications we are generally talking about merchants in verticals that are already e-commerce-enabled," says 7.24's Michael. "What is really exciting is where mobile commerce can provide added functionalities such as point-of-exposure technologies, and push marketing which can be immediately actioned by the consumer."
Michael envisions interactive billboards, and personalised SMS customer messaging which allows merchants to target specific information at consumers. "Mobile commerce would allow the airlines to announce time-dependent specials to consumers who have identified their interest in specific destinations, or other merchants to attract consumers to a WAP-ready Web site from an interactive billboard," he says.
However, mobile commerce opportunities are not limited to the consumer market. Leon Levit, CEO of mobile commerce software developer Yambay, believes some of the most exciting opportunities lie in the corporate and business arenas. "Within mobile commerce are two distinct groups: the impatient consumer and the mobile workforce," he says. "One of the key challenges facing business is how to go about the business process redesign necessary to fully implement mobile commerce to their operations."
According to Levit, Yambay is already active in the areas of real estate and primary resources, where demand for wireless data access capabilities is significant. He says: "In order to fully appreciate the opportunities offered by mobile commerce, we need to change our business culture as well as our consumer culture."