NEW BLOG: As mobile internet technology advanced between the year 2000 and 2001, operators began to deploy their own branded portals. Offerings such as Vodafone Live in the UK and i-mode in Japan gave subscribers access to a limited range of content including ringtones, wallpapers, music downloads, games and even some early apps, such as personal organisers.
However, this ‘walled garden’ approach meant these portals were proprietary and the operator controlled the mobile internet experience. Operators benefited substantially from this approach as it allowed them to promote their brand and monetise the browsing experience.
But subscribers on these portals experienced a mobile internet that was slow, one dimensional and very limited, compared to the unshackled browsing experience of the desktop.
The ‘one size fits all’ portal was all that operators offered; they set the rules and consumers had little choice but to follow.
In 2007, the mobile internet became a far more “open” experience with the launch of the Apple iPhone. The device was grounded in amazing software, the iTunes music service, the Apple App Store and the Safari browser. The App Store offered consumers useful, entertaining and functional software, available at incredibly low price points, and on demand.
Combined with technology advances boosting mobile internet speeds, more users were drawn to smartphone browsing and “over the top” services, such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix and more. This phenomena effectively spelled the end of operator-controlled portals, taking with it all of the revenue generation opportunities that operators had come to enjoy.
As operator portals’ influence waned, the mobile app store world exploded, with over 775,000 listed apps in the Apple App Store for instance as of January 2013. Android grew up and exploded into the biggest smartphone ecosystem, and between Apple and Google the walled gardens of mobile operators crumbled.
Innovations in programming also continued apace. One of the most notable was the launch of HTML5 – the next generation markup language of the web. Created in 1990, and standardised as HTML4 in 1997, HTML5 is the fifth revision of HTML and is focused on supporting the latest multimedia and being uniformly understood by all devices. In a nutshell, HTML5 delivers much more attractive and functionally rich web pages.
However, the open mobile internet, credited with killing operator portals, is now providing technology to help them make a triumphant return, but now in a more consumer-personalised and flexible way that fits an “over the top” world.
Technological advancements, such as HTML5, can now allow operators to offer a rich contextual and social browsing experience through portal-like toolbar extensions. This kind of extension platform can be deployed easily and rapidly (pre-loaded or over-the-air downloads) across all Android smartphones, instantly delivering huge scale, straight into the hands of subscribers.
Today’s technology also means these browser extensions can morph intelligently to take account of the user’s interests on-the-fly, powered by a contextual engine. The extensions for instance can deliver hyper-relevant recommendations, promotional offers and mobile advertising.
For example, if a user is on the Sky Sports webpage and they click the “App” button in their browser, a contextual engine can suggest the most popular apps from Sky, related sports apps and other relevant content.
Similarly, when users choose to open up these extensions and enter these HTML5-style browser apps, then the operator can inside these apps gain valuable real estate to enable relevant banner ads, and interstitial video ads. For example, an operator can promote a sports game streaming access service to users surfing sports sites.
Further, operators can make promotional offers and discounts related to an e-commerce site available at the touch of an “Offers” extension button, and the offers can be related to the store or product being browsed, all of which can drive affiliate revenue for the operator.
Operators have not been able to engage with end-users like this in the app and mobile browsing areas before. Instead of the ‘walled garden’ approaches of the past where operators imposed services, today’s extension frameworks have the flexibility to let users pick their own extensions from the top brands and utilities on the internet, delete services they don’t value, and even turn off the extension toolbar with a click in settings.
Consumers regain the way to personalise their browsers, and retain ultimate control over what content they consume. And once again, operators have the opportunity to put themselves at the heart of the consumer mobile experience, attracting as the analogy goes, “more bees with honey than a stick.”
With millions of end-users browsing on mobile, this chance to reimagine the portal for an over-the-top, HTML5 world opens up a vast opportunity for incremental ways to monetise and be more relevant on leading smartphones, and deftly avoid the “dumb pipe” role into which so many internet pundits have wanted to trap mobile operators.
Long live the (new) carrier portal!
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.
Jeff Glueck is CEO of Skyfire.