The Friday Interview: Lee Travers, Agile

12 Mar 2004

Lee Travers, whose company Agile was recently acquired by a US mobile software company, has his finger on the pulse in terms of the future services and applications that will drive mobile commerce. He warns mobile operators and service providers not to jump on the 3G bandwagon just yet… at least, not until the full potential of 2.5G has been exploited.

Travers (pictured) gushes with enthusiasm when he talks about future business and consumer applications for mobile and how some of these applications will affect our future enjoyment of football matches and rock concerts. In one minute Travers will have hopped fluidly from explaining how football match advertisers can get better revenue from football supporters with mobile phones who arrive to a stadium early and giving them incentives to buying merchandise and partaking in identifying the man of the match to how buying tickets to attend a rock concert in the next year or two could be a purely wireless experience through the use of MMS barcoding.

He even has a solution in mind for bored husbands who get dragged along on shopping expeditions when they would much rather be at home, sipping a cool beer while watching the match. But that will be explained later.

It was only in May last year that Travers and his colleague Enda Kyne used their own funds to establish the company. Modelling themselves as an applications service provider (ASP) Agile located itself at the former WorldPort data centre in Blanchardstown and set about developing applications that will define the future of mobile payment and infotainment.

So far the company has struck gold in hosting applications for mobile operators in Eastern Europe, Asia and locally. Earlier this year the company was instrumental in helping Cable & Wireless in Guernsey to engage in mobile top-up technology as part of a solution that enables mobile phone customers to purchase a credit voucher stored in a virtual wallet.

Agile was set up specifically to remove the barriers to putting in place a mobile payments platform and enable enterprises to use intelligent wireless services without the headaches that go hand in hand with owning a complex and sophisticated infrastructure. Both Kyne and Travers have a combined total of 25 years’ management and research and development experience locally and internationally in companies such as Compaq, Novell, Vision and Cap Gemini and start-up ventures such as Digital Channel Partners, MobileAware and Network365.

In fact, as Travers explains, the company’s hosted software platform is based on m-payment technology from MoreMagic, the US company that has implemented its mobile technology on networks throughout the world. “There are more collaborations being formed between telecoms companies and financial institutions where no single party wants the responsibility of the sophisticated infrastructure required to deliver a mobile payments services and all parties want a rapid time to market for their services,” he explains.

“Take for example the trend towards combined billing where everything from electricity, internet access and phone calls are put together. Individuals are actually finding themselves stunned when they open their bills and finding the cost of the combined bill astronomical. We are in talks with mobile companies in Eastern Europe that realise that the value of the billing could be split off in different directions for different services to appease the cost concerns of the consumer and allow them to get value in other ways,” Travers adds.

After only eight months in existence, Agile was acquired by a bigger US rival called MoreMagic Holdings for an undisclosed sum. As a result Agile became a wholly-owned subsidiary of MoreMagic Holdings Inc. Kyne became executive vice president of operations of the company while Travers became vice president of technology.

According to a recent strategic report Mobile Content and Applications 2003 by the ARC Group, mobile services will be worth €105bn worldwide by 2008 and will account for almost 20pc of total mobile operator revenues.

But it’s not the future that Travers is concerned about – that’s a given as far as he’s concerned – but the use of existing mobile technologies like 2.5G that are only coming into their own as we speak but are still being overshadowed by 3G hype.

“Just look at the fact that 90pc of the text messaging in Ireland is person to person, but where it really has strength is when you marry it with other technologies. You’ve got to look at text messaging as a medium to interact with an application, person-to-application rather than simply person-to-person to see what kind of useful things can be achieved. Networks have got to put a service behind it.

“Forget 3G for now. If a salesman is on the road and wants to find a price quote, for example someone renewing a life policy, he pings off an SMS to an application with the right customer ID number and gets a quote – bingo! That’s when it gets valuable. It is only the beginning,” he says.

Because the company is exposed to the major trends in Asia and Eastern Europe, Travers says he believes these economies are proving to be more advanced than Western European nations when it comes to leveraging the true potential of mobile applications. “Different regions do it better. Asia is way ahead in mobile payments and the application of mobile payments. Ironically, the biggest mobile payments technologies in the world come out of Ireland but it is in Asia that there is a high adoption rate. Japan has a huge commuter community and there is a desire to come up with funky applications.

“There is a also a lot going on in Central and Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe they are miles ahead of Western Europe in terms of 2.5G applications. 3G will come but there’s plenty of legs left in 2.5G. People aren’t using it fully here, there is a long way to go. Mobile top up is a product for 2004, not just topping up a phone, but services that need top up – such as parking. Africa is great for top ups for electricity using SMS.”

However, it is the entertainment world that has Travers hopping with excitement in terms of what can be achieved. “It’s huge. Monstrous, in fact. The big problem the entertainment industry has is it has very little knowledge of people who buy tickets. What we’re looking at is a solution where a barcode can be sent as an MMS to a football supporter or concert goer’s phone, and that can be their ticket paid for over the phone. When they go into the concert or match that barcode is scanned. What you have then is a situation where the football club, concert promoter or advertiser knows that the person has money and is spending at the concert.

“Now I have an individual with cash and at a highly emotive event and target at the football match. At the match, there is data that tells me that 10,000 people are in the stadium an hour before kick-off, I can then talk to advertisers and charge more. I can incentivise early attendees with loyalty points to buy merchandise, and have data that shows an extra 15,000 people are in an hour before and therefore drive up advertising revenue.”

He continues: “2004 is a more positive year for the telecoms industry. More and more operators are looking at rolling out the applications for mobile commerce, but it will be next year before people on the street will start experiencing them. The real trick is not just having the platform, but finding the applications that can be targeted at a group of people at a specific time with quick and easy value for them, such as at a highly emotive event like a football match. That’s the key to achieving success in mobile commerce.”

The advent of multimedia messaging (MMS) opens up all sorts of possibilities in terms of what you can do with messaging. It is in this space that Travers sees the greatest near-term potential.

“On a Saturday afternoon your wife drags you off shopping. If Man United and Arsenal playing a match, the guy in the shop will want to know who’s winning. When a goal’s been scored he receives an MMS with 20 frames of a representation of the goal being scored. That’s a service being done today that’s a little more gratifying than a standard text message with the bones of the information. It’s mid-way between between 2G SMS and an entire 3G video clip. There’s a lot of legs left in the 2.5G world and we shouldn’t discard it so quickly. The Gardai, insurance people, property buyers, there are tonnes of applications to be developed that could bring all kinds of experiences and fun to people’s lives.”

By John Kennedy