"Content is King"... How many times have you heard this? A simple search on Google will return more than 16,000 references for this specific sentence.
Several years ago, Bill Gates, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Corp, wrote: “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet…” (from Bill Gates' column on his personal website). This comment is as current and valid now as it was then.
Over the last several years, wireless carriers have invested billions of dollars to upgrade their network infrastructure to enable wireless data services. Carriers are depending on data services to reduce customer churn and ultimately deliver ROI on their investments through consistent ARPU growth.
How many contacts, deals, contracts are needed to get a content based service up and running? And when everything is sealed, what about delivery? How easy is it for wireless carriers to aggregate content, format it and deliver it to a device?
What about the content itself? Will the user be satisfied with static content, like news and weather information, or will she need more dynamic information, up to the minute?
I've tried a product called Action Engine. It provides a solution based on XML protocols with integration to a variety of devices (including Pocket PC, Windows Mobile Smartphone, Symbian Smartphone and Windows devices). This feature gives the user freedom to use the most convenient device available at the time.
The software builds queries based on user input and shows each step throughout the process. It then uses XML messages to send the queries and to collect responses from its engine on the server side. These are parsed by a framework that presents the results to the user, giving options to add results to a PIM (like Outlook or Pocket Outlook), including addresses, meetings and e-mailing meeting schedules to participants extracted from the local address book.
Query results are stored in the local device, so the user can review these results while offline, or submit them again.
A side benefit of using this approach is the reduced data charges. Because only data is transferred, and not the full HTML or WAP pages and images, users save in data traffic.
This kind of service, sometimes called "walled garden" provides the user with a feature rich interface, easier to use than the web. That's because using the web requires the user to either know the destination website or do a search, while using this service the user will have everything available with the touch with a button (or screen).
When thinking about user experience the Action Engine is somewhat similar to Vodafone Live!, with its icon based interface. The main difference is that Vodafone Live! uses a WAP interface to create a hyperlinked site, but without some of the functionality (PIM integration for instance).
The service is currently provided by O2 with their XDA Pocket PC Phone Edition. There's a functional demo available from the Action Engine website, but you'll need a credit card number stored for certain transactions.
A hypothetical example
Our user is called for an emergency business meeting, and she needs to perform a variety of different actions to accomplish this task: book a round trip from Wellington to Auckland, arrange a rental car to be available at the airport, find and make reservations for a hotel room, get driving directions from the airport to the CBD, make sure there’s a restaurant nearby with a table available for a business dinner. To relax, perhaps she'll book a ticket for a concert in town. While doing all these tasks, the user needs to check her e-mail and voice-mail for updates on the daily business work.
Away from a desktop or laptop, armed with a telephone only, this would be a true marathon of voice calls to directory services, personal contacts with wrong information, listening to annoying jingles while in the queue for the next CSR to be available, etc. Remember, not everyone has a PA to perform these tasks!
Luckily, the mobile carrier has a convergence service, aggregating static and dynamic content, available to users of its data services. The user in question just needs an easy way of entering information. Either a Pocket PC or a Symbian device would do the task well.
A graphical interface is presented when the user logs in. When the Instant Messaging application starts the user is immediately notified of any new e-mails or voice-mails. These are downloaded while our user performs other tasks. New e-mails are downloaded into the device’s inbox and new voice-mail are downloaded as mp3 files into a special folder, with tagged information in it – including date and time, plus sender’s phone number if available.
The icon-based graphical interface shows the services categories available:
Tapping on “Travel” will bring another screen with more icons, for “Booking” or “Flight Status”. The user can tap “Booking” and select from a list of cities, entering more information as requested. A car is booked at the same time, to be available at the time of arrival. At the end an electronic ticket confirmation is sent and the user can forward the information via e-mail to other devices - or store it.
In the next step she’ll tap on “Travel” again and select “Accommodation”. From there the user will be able to browse hotels around Auckland CBD. A map is downloaded to her device, so she can find the hotel later at night!
Once a place to stay overnight is found, she’ll tap on “Dining” and be presented with a selection of restaurants by cuisine (Asian, Italian, French perhaps?) and location. She chooses the one closest to the hotel and e-mails the restaurant for a booking. See below for an example on how this is done (or you can scroll to the end of this article to see some Symbian screenshots from a Nokia 3650 mobile phone):
Next, something for a good laugh. Tapping on “Entertainment”, she is directed to a list of categories (movies, theatre?) and she can choose a comedy screening at a cinema close to the hotel. To help her decision, she can read the movie summary and some reviews. She is happy with that, and can book and download the electronic ticket through the device.
Before leaving for the airport she’ll check the weather to make sure the appropriate clothing is packed, and on arrival she’ll check the map downloaded previously, and AA information about any road works or interruption.
Isn't this simple? The Action Engine provides the kind of service users expect from a Personal Assistant, in a personalised way. Content is local, provided by operators, and relevant to the user. I can only imagine what can be done with a larger bandwidth, like 3G, in the near future.
PS:I've added this after the first release of this article just to show how this application looks on a Symbian smartphone: