In the world of “mobile ubiquity,” Canada lags behind.
Mobile and wireless devices have changed our world, and as they lead the next revolution – beyond 3G and into the super-speeds of 4G networks – network access will be everywhere.
But with the exception of Research In Motion, the Vigo IP Platform, Quickplay, marblemedia, and host of bright young micro companies, we don’t get it. Our internal market has been too small to propel and profitable local industry, data rates have been too expensive, appetite for risk and access to Canadian carriers too limited.
Canadian companies need to move fast to be prepared to embrace the next generation of networked enterprise, educational and entertainment activity. Data rates, though they are getting more affordable, are still high compared with global standards. Mobile penetration lags, and access to capital, distribution and markets are the largest inhibitors to local growth.
Application marketplaces provided by Apple, Nokia, Google, Mozilla’s Fennec and RIM are providing some opportunities for developers of content, they are not yet the drivers of economic and innovative growth. The recent expansion of carriers, and the demands of subscribers will force increased levels of competition among all carriers, which will almost certainly put downward pressure on mobile voice and data plans.
HOW DO WE CATCH UP?
Canadian companies need to partner with global mobile industry players outside of Canada to foster trade relationships that make it easy for those firms to tap into local markets as a source of innovation.
We can consolidate venture and other fast-tracked investment funds and aim them at emerging entrepreneurs to help them to sketch ideas, pitch these, and get them prototyped and out to market very fast. Government funding initiatives can be best realized with the help of established players such as the banks, the VC community and initiatives such as the BlackBerry Partners Fund, which was recently established by Research in Motion, with JLA Ventures and RBC Venture Partners.
Canada needs (and is developing through initiatives such as the Mobile Experience Innovation Centre) a virtual and physical development network that can undertake prototyping and research in mobile applications design and business model development. It can provide intensive research into consumer, business and market behaviours in this space – with near and far future market analysis. This includes developing strategies for scaling local products into global marketplaces. We need a Canadian superbrand platform that can push Canadian developments to the international market.
We can flow the excellent research in mobile content, design and technologies in the university sector out to industry and in response to industry though such a mobile convergence network.
WHAT ABOUT EDUCATION?
We need to train talent. Postsecondary educational institutions and government funding agencies need to be aligned with the direction of funders and multinationals if we are going to properly equip the country to capitalize on this opportunity. By education entrepreneurs, designers and developers to understand international business models, technology standards and user behaviours, our local businesses will be in a position to compete much more profitably, and on a much larger playing field. Industry forums, skills development workshops, training and retraining and the development of local recruitment and talent pools in order to develop and sustain skills are needed as well.
WHAT KIND OF INVESTMENT CYCLE IS NEEDED?
Innovation in this sector is fuelled by convergence across content, services and platforms, through the continuous upgrading of the devices connecting us to the digital world, and by entrepreneurs who identify consumer needs and develop products and services to meet those needs. It requires rapid-fire market intelligence, strategic foresight, fast prototyping (agile development) and usability as well as an entity able to take risks in order to propel the consortium of companies forward. We need to act very fast in all of these stages. If the web development “year” was estimated as six months several years ago, the mobile development “year” is two. Development is no longer staged – testing of new products needs to happen in the marketplace as others come on stream.
WHAT ARE THE BUSINESS MODELS?
There are many – but these require risk and investment. As Canada’s mobile penetration rate surpasses the 80-per-cent mark, new mobile business models are beginning to emerge within many emerging categories: content (including subscriptions), pay-as-you-go services, and paid application advertising. A service called AdMob aggregates advertising space among multiple applications across multiple mobile platforms in order to leverage the power of aggregated audiences and provide metrics on usage growth.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
This is an international phenomenon, with mobile access arrayed across smart phones throughout the world and widespread mobile network and device presence even in the most remote locations of the developing world. There are potential dramatic shifts in this economy, where the price of usage will decrease because of structural competition – incumbent carriers versus wireless platforms, media publishers versus social networks, proprietary operating systems versus open-source operating systems and proprietary software publishers against developer communities.
The big winners will be companies that understand the move from technology innovation to interface design, content, services, and above all, usability. Clarity on the differences and links in consumer and business applications and ways of sliding the aesthetics of consumer experience into business platforms are de rigueur. These will be applications that integrate location awareness, create effective interface designs, platforms, software, services, distribution capacity, or develop new forms of content. The iPhone has traversed these multiple capabilities, but other devices are fast to catch up. It’s a mobile market, let’s move with it, Canada!
Sara Diamond is president of the Ontario College of Art and Design.