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Idle screens could spell active profits : Operators balance custom, personal content vs. feeling of intrusion

Idle hands may be the devil’s domain, but carriers and mobile marketing companies are laying claim to the idle screen.
The wireless industry is hoping to use the idle screen-the display of a phone while it isn’t in use-as kind of a red carpet to the wireless Web, enticing users with personal information and custom content. The tactic has gained traction in advanced markets in Europe and Asia, where users have long been accustomed to clicking links on the idle screen to access news or sports scores, for instance, or stroll into a mobile content storefront.
“The idle screen is probably the most valuable real estate in the mobile space,” said Jan Standal, director of product management for Opera Software ASA, a Norwegian developer of Web browsers for PCs and mobile devices. Presenting targeted information can pay off for operators and vendors-if it’s done correctly.
“In our first research-and-development study, we updated news on the front page, the idle screen, and data traffic increased dramatically,” said Standal, as users clicked on links to initiate a Web-surfing session. “In a second study, we changed it so users could customize (the service), and choose exactly what kind
of news they wanted to have on the front page,” further spurring uptake.

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Such efforts are teeming with potential pitfalls, of course. Subscribers are likely to object to any message that seems more like an unwanted ad than a simple opportunity to access more content. And many users have come to see their “home screens” as a mini-canvas that projects the image of a spouse, child or even just a favorite band. Plastering unwanted ads on a personal space-effectively creating the mobile-phone equivalent of a NASCAR entry-could be devastating to the carrier/subscriber relationship.
But a handful of companies are gaining substantial ground by leveraging the screens of unused phones. Celltick, a London-based firm, delivers idle-screen applications and mobile interactive broadcasts to more than 35 million subscribers through 20 network operators in Europe, Asia Pacific, South America and Africa. Fast Search & Transfer ASA, a Norwegian outfit, is also gaining attention and recently inked a deal with Mobile TeleSystems, Russia’s largest wireless operator.
Cingular Wireless L.L.C. was the first-and, to date, the only-U.S. operator to aggressively use idle-screen applications with a news ticker and other information services through its MediaNet service. Other operators have been more cautious, though, for fear of being seen as an advertising channel as opposed to a mobile voice- and data-services provider.
Openwave Systems Inc. is among the players looking to change that, however. The Redwood City, Calif.-based developer is working to deliver customized messages and offerings to users based on their Internet usage habits, purchasing patterns and personal tastes. Small pieces of content can be pushed to handsets that aren’t being used, allowing subscribers to learn more about a product or service before clicking on a link to access more information. The company hopes to expand on the success of its SmartRadio service, a mobile music offering that presents album art or other images relevant to the tunes being delivered. Subscribers can click the image for more information or to buy the album, or can simply ignore it.
The idea, according to Openwave Senior VP Martin Dunsby, is to push at least some of the content to an idle phone to attract a user’s attention, and to tailor the missives to each subscriber. “That’s going to be a massive kind of earthquake-sized change in the industry,” Dunsby said.
But operators must be careful to allow subscribers to choose which types of content they’d like to receive, however, or opt out of any such campaigns entirely, Standal warned. Users who want to receive more offers from carriers should be able to choose their level of interaction, he said, but those who don’t want to be bothered should have that option.
“People can go and deactivate these kinds of solutions if they don’t like them,” the Opera executive said. “It’s a lot about giving freedom to the user, and giving freedom drives traffic.”

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