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A RIVR runs through it

Sam Michel, head of MTN's e-business unit, Mobile e@MTN, has a problem with WAP, which stands for Wireless Application Protocol where technologists are concerned, but which his unit expands to "wait and pay", among other versions.

"Your users want mobile Internet, but WAP is not the Internet," he says. Rather, it is a private portal, for which an expensive handset is required, and users need to be a bit of a geek to set the service up in the first place.

[PQ]While customers want smaller cellphones that slip easily into a pocket or handbag, cellphone designers want to "put a TV in your hands" to accommodate WAP services.

Why this discrepancy? Michel says WAP is inherently a network-centric technology, and as many mobile applications, is built around the abilities inherent in GSM infrastructure.

These abilities are not always compatible with users' needs.

A click away

Mobile e@MTN is an MTN unit dedicated to pleasing customers. And making money, of course.

"The new economy is about customers," he says. "We don't own the customers, the customers own us. They are only one click away from leaving.", the Web site that now claims to be the largest in Africa, was among the unit's first projects, and Michel says it espouses the three areas it concentrates on: developing "quantum wealth" for investors, concentrating on mobile convergence and creating enabling technology.

[PQ]The current big project is remote interactive voice response (RIVR), which has already seen the creation of an alliance in Italy. The plan is to have the system in 160 countries within two years.

RIVR is an information retrieval from database system. The user dials a dedicated number, touches the network for an instant and is disconnected. An SMS with relevant information follows soon after.

In the background, an application named Rex after its fetching ability identifies the calling number, matches the number against a profile and determines which information should be retrieved and sent. Rex also has the ability to determine caller location for future location-based services.

An application called Aladdin has been developed to act as an authentication agent, and another application for secure transactions, named Fort Knox, is under development.

The concept is simple, but Michel sees it leading to cash transactions by 2001 and an eventual one million telephone numbers worldwide dedicated to RIVR services.

"The key is band depth, not bandwidth," he says. "It is about getting specific information to your cellphone. I don't want to access my full e-mail, but I may want my e-mail subject headers."

Other potential uses on the corporate side include delivering sales figures to a mobile workforce, and keeping network administrators in touch with their servers. Michel says deals have already been done in SA, but refuses to name the companies involved.

The usual argument

For consumer services, revenue from the call based on data tariffs is split three ways between MTN, the cellular operator involved and the information provider. The usual mobile argument that users are used to paying for services and quite happy to pay in large amounts holds true.

"Give people what they want and they won't mind to pay for it," says Michel. "There definitely is money in services."

Another project, which could soon be launched, is a lightweight desktop SMS client, which allows instant messaging between PC and cellphone, PC and PC, and any number of other compatible devices. Then there is the viral phonebook update, which updates phone numbers automatically as they change.

For Michel the strategy is to make sure MTN becomes part of the information value chain. He and MTN are well aware of predictions that the massive revenues cellular companies see now will gradually drop off, and that the real money will be in data services.

"As the technology evolves from 2G [second generation] to 3G [third generation], we need to keep up. If we don't we will be in serious trouble."

Related stories
MTN takes first steps into Europe
MTN reveals Internet strategy

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