Scott G. Silk, CEO of Action Engine, explains to Priscilla Awde why he believes the company's 'browserless' mobile application platform is leagues ahead of the 'browsered' competition
Optimistic, enthusiastic, energetic -- these are somewhat rusty epithets when applied to what has been the ailing telecoms sector. However, they are fundamental to Scott G. Silk, president and CEO of American software company Action Engine Corporation, who sees the market as both extremely dynamic, and as attracting investors. As operators are beginning to understand their customers, and brands are beginning to understand this powerful medium, Silk expects the mobile applications and content market to grow exponentially.
Backed by New York venture capitalists Baker Capital, the company is a relative newcomer to the industry albeit one on which many are keeping a close eye. Founded in 2000, Action Engine spent the first four years in intensive R&D developing a software platform for mobile operators, enterprises and application developers which, it believes, is several years ahead of what Silk refers to as the 'big boys'.
Employing all the advantages of a small, entrepreneurial company, the Action Engine founders never accepted the prevailing wisdom that operating systems for mobile devices should or could be similar to those developed for the computing environment. While others made what he believes were predictable responses to the whole idea of accessing mobile data services, Silk believes his company had the vision to 'think outside the box', investing over 100 man-years of development, and raising over 25 million GBT of funding to date. The result is the Action Engine Mobile Application Platform, the company's one-touch, client server solution which eliminates 80 per cent of keystrokes and decreases network response times to make all applications 20 times faster than existing systems.
"We didn't want to replicate a PC-like experience but to create a new paradigm," he explains. "Early on we knew that phones would inevitably follow Moore's Law, becoming more powerful and including more available computing horsepower which we wanted to exploit to make the mobile experience faster and applications easier to use.
"We have shattered the mobile usability barrier: people can now execute rich computing applications on their phones at the same speed as they do on their laptops. But we have done it with a client server platform rather than using browser technology optimised for the computing environment."
The fundamental advantage of the system is that most of the choices are made offline on the handset using resident software either previously downloaded from the operator or embedded into the ROM of the device at manufacture. Users quickly navigate their way through a series of drop down menus on the phone to refine their search. Unlike most existing systems which involve numerous exchanges between the phone and the network before users finally get what they want, Action Engine saves time by only accessing the network with a specific request once the user has specifically defined all parts of the request and chooses to send it to the network. The result is that because users find it considerably faster and easier, they use mobile data applications more.
Business customers will now be more willing to use their phones to access corporate databases and applications such as CRM, diaries and corporate directories, whilst sales staff can quickly update files and retrieve specific and relevant up-to-the-minute information.
All of the popular data services (travel, news, financial data, sport and film clips plus fashion information), including location based applications (people, place and facility finder), are available faster and more conveniently, which drives up usage. Downloading a one minute music clip or full song for example takes 30 seconds compared to the more common eight minutes.
Action Engine has significantly reduced what was originally a relatively big software package so that it can run on all of the mid and high tier phones in the market. The architecture has now been optimised to run on Java handsets and this next generation is expected to be available in September.
The system is expected to have a knock-on effect as application developers will have more of an incentive to create innovative content and products to sell in to the operators.
Offering more inventive applications makes it easier for operators to differentiate themselves from competitors, whilst speeding up the user experience may increase average revenues per user and therefore overall revenues. Although third generation networks supporting higher speeds are rolling out, take up of 3G services has been slower than anticipated. Although successful in Asia, in Europe, all but the early adopters still need to be convinced of the value of mobile data and video -- even they may be deterred because access is difficult and time consuming.
Feature rich phones are becoming more popular but many people use only a fraction of the available functions which has a negative effect on the success of the mobile data market. Estimates are that 76 per cent of people do not use the data services capabilities of their phones because they are too complex to operate. Neither do people use their phones as much as they might which, considering that operators are under pressure to increase revenues, does little to contribute to overall profits. Â©
"Mobile devices have the computing power to execute many applications but usability is hampered by slow speeds, small screens and keypads. Based on drop down menus, our system is designed for the mobile form and leverages the power of the handset," explains Silk.
"Because all the applications are integrated on a common platform, data is shared between them and the software learns patterns of use. The result is a personalised phone experience, as, with use, the device gets smarter and remembers preferences. People have regular patterns to their lives: generally they travel to the same few places, on the same airlines or trains and eat similar foods wherever they are. Drop down menus reflect these choices making it still faster to navigate through the system."
However, even the most innovative content and services will not drive mobile data growth if the people cannot use them quickly and conveniently because response times are slow and the number of keystrokes and transactions is intensive. A case illustrated by the fact that although location based services and other sophisticated applications have been available for some time, take up is relatively slow. Silk suggests that what is missing and inhibiting rapid adoption of mobile data is the user experience -- the time it takes to download anything -- a situation he suggests is quickly remedied.
From his perspective, all operators have to do is buy and install a server and roll out the Action Engine Mobile Application Platform which is licensed to them on a server and per user basis. To make deployment even faster, Action Engine also offers a turnkey pack of pre-developed applications called Brand-n-Go. With Brand-n-Go, Action Engine has sourced the content, built the applications, and absorbed the hosting costs -- operators only have to choose from the Action Engine application catalogue, place their "brand" on the pack and "go" to market. Since the system logs and reports the number of users by application, operators can judge the success of each package making it easier to segment and target their customers and drive up revenues. The ultimate goal is to add value, and therefore profit, to mobile phone and data sales.
Action Engine is currently running trials in North America, Asia/Pacific and Europe. Two large American operators are planning to introduce a phone with pre-integrated software later this year. An Asian telco is trialling the mobile application client to deploy and test a suite of branded services and, if successful, plans to roll them out to its wider customer base. In Europe, Action Engine is working closely with a number of key operators and distributors and is developing specific trials for a Tier 1 and a Tier 2 operator, as well as working with a European mobile phone distributor to create a tailored application pack which can be sold direct to operators and consumers.
SMART Communications in the Philippines has launched its own version of the system and used the Action Engine Mobile Application Platform to create a suite of applications sold as Amazing Explorer. As well as successfully differentiating itself from competitors, repeat usage of data service on high-end devices has risen by nearly ten per cent. SMART can update or add new applications by seamlessly sending an over-the-air command to customers' phones and users can switch between phones to access the range of services.
The system was deployed in stages the first of which involved installing the server in the data centre and pre-installing client applications on a ROM. Location based services have been integrated into the system and users are able to control when they want to access the network. Seven new services were developed: movies; music; travel; celebrities; personal; sports and fashion/beauty and branded to target particular customers.
Amazing Explorer is not only driving data usage but also allows SMART to expand its products beyond SMS. Customers have on or off-line access to information and, by tight integration with the phone's dialling, PIM and messaging capabilities, users can make calls, save and send information with one-click.
Silk believes that the SMART experience is just the start of what is a global market of operators waiting for the tools to help increase their data revenues. Silk is positioning the company for growth and spent the last year investing in sales, marketing, and business development, and making the transition from a purely technology company into a marketing led entity. However, the company plans to continue investing heavily in technology to expand what Silk calls its "unfair advantage" in the market.
Estimating they are at least two years ahead of their competitors, and recognising that operators and end users are ready to deploy and consume more sophisticated applications, Silk is expanding Action Engine in Europe and appointed Mike Kent as his European VP. Offices are now open in Britain and France with plans to expand into more countries. The goal is to demonstrate the system, to sell in to the top 20 telcos and target handset manufacturers, distributors, content providers, and enterprises.
"Europe is ahead of America in mobile data services and it is a particularly attractive market since there are a small number of relatively large players as well as a large number of smaller operators. Although others may eventually get into the game, we have at least a two year lead and, with all the advantages of being a small company, we are very nimble and entrepreneurial and can therefore move fast. Lots of technology is developed by smaller companies which tend to execute products two or three years ahead of bigger players," explains Silk who was brought in to add value and take Action Engine into a public offering.
"We are in a position of one: there is no real competition today although we expect it to happen because the realisation of the mobile dream is to put PC applications on phones."
Having appointed what he believes is an aggressive team of pre-sales, sales and support staff, Silk says the company aims quickly to gain as much market share in Europe, Asia/Pacific and North America as possible before the big players start coming into the market.
When it was first proposed, many people responded to this 'browserless', client server system with disbelief, scepticism and even contempt but, suggests Silk, they may well have to seriously revise their opinions as they try to play a catch up game with Action Engine's early gains in what he believes will be a significant market.
Priscilla Awde is a freelance communications writer