The next billion users

Today, I finally threw out my ancient Motorola MPx200 mobile phone which had lain forgotten in the bottom of a drawer for many years.

To my son and anyone else from the Whatsapp generation, this 2003-vintage “smartphone” looks like a relic from the dinosaur era. Apart from its quaint clamshell format and tiny screen, the other thing he immediately noticed was how difficult it is to use the MPX200. It lacks a touch screen and has no natural language interaction technology (NLI), which is increasingly common on today’s smartphones.

A great example of NLI in action is Artificial Solutions‘ recently-launched our natural language app, which represents the next generation in intelligent personal assistants for mobile and other platforms.

To be fair, the MPx200 came with some primitive personal assistant “apps” but they were basically cut-down versions of Microsoft desktop software as the phone was built around Microsoft Windows Mobile and aimed squarely at the corporate market.

Ten years is a long time in the fast-moving mobile phone industry and anyone who doubts the scale and speed of change just need to visit Mobile World Congress (MWC), the industry’s mammoth trade show, which was held last month in Barcelona.

Inevitably, many of the more than 72,000 visitors to MWC were looking to get their hands on the hottest new handsets. But as hardware manufacturers gravitate towards standard platforms and components, there’s no getting away from the fact that the latest devices look increasingly similar.

The focus is shifting inexorably towards the software and so one hall of the MWC was dedicated to apps and development environments that allow developers to create apps for the various mobile ecosystems in a cost-effective standardized fashion.

These apps and the content they contain can be delivered on a wide variety of devices. That is bad news for the operators and handset manufacturers trying to build brand loyalty and “walled gardens”. But it is great news for customers who seek the flexibility to change devices and do not want to be tied to a particular handset or operator.

Artificial Solutions’ our natural language app takes this philosophy a step further. Unlike less intelligent virtual assistant apps, which are typically trapped on one device, our natural language app can deliver the same experience using the same personal data on a computer, a smartphone or tablet, regardless of manufacturer or operating system used. In addition, our natural language app persistence capabilities enable a user to continue a conversation as they switch devices.

Accompanying the rise of the portable app, another trend that is noticeable at events such as MWC is the “democratization” of the smartphone, as many brands seek to sell cheap yet sophisticated Android-based devices aimed at consumers in developing markets. As the mobile markets of western countries mature and saturate, operators and manufacturers know that the next wave of mobile-data growth is going to come from developing countries.

But this trend poses some challenges, as the cost of a smartphone — and the associated data plan — is still far too high for many potential consumers in these untapped emerging markets. Artificial Solutions’ natural language app can again help as it integrates with both SMS and browsers allowing customers to access knowledge through our natural language app using SMS or WAP devices.

Another challenge concerns the user interface, particularly in countries where literacy is low. Natural language technology could provide a way to extend quick and easy access to mobile applications in these markets.

This democratization of smartphones and the proliferation of apps will cause mobile operator data revenues to overtake voice revenues globally by 2018, according to the GSMA, the trade body that organizes the MWC.

That’s an astonishing predication and it is easy to forget that just a decade ago, mobile network operators wondered if consumers would ever be persuaded to use their phone for something other than voice calls and SMS messages.

Back then, investors were punishing operators for the huge sums they had spent on 3G licenses. Operators would talk anxiously at events like MWC of the need for a “killer application” to recoup their investment in 3G and grow data revenues, which back then were negligible.

Today, carriers have to upgrade their mobile data networks to cope with saturation and people use their phone for much more than talk: average daily use today breaks to 25 minutes for internet browsing, 17 minutes for social networks and just 12 minutes for voice calls.

Ten years is indeed a long time.

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