Irish wireless players take on the mobile world

26 Feb 2004

At this year’s prestigious 3GSM World Conference in Cannes, the place where anyone who’s anyone in the mobile business likes to be seen each year, 16 Irish mobile and wireless technology firms will be demonstrating their wares to discerning telecom operators and enterprises that believe mobile could benefit their business. Three of these Irish firms Valista (formerly Network 365), Xiam and Macalla have been shortlisted for the GSM Association’s Best Mobile Application Developer Award 2004.

Another of these firms, OpenMIND Networks will be using the occasion as a platform to announce a major customer win. The company, which develops technologies that enable mobile operators to deploy advanced messaging applications such as multimedia messaging (MMS) on existing GSM infrastructure, has closed a deal with Mobilkom, Austria’s biggest mobile operator with over 3.5 million subscribers. The company, which was established by a dozen ex-Logica workers and which secured €1.7m in venture capital last year, is indicative of a growing group of Irish companies winning business across the world in the burgeoning mobile and wireless technology market.

According to Enterprise Ireland (EI), Irish wireless companies are sweeping up business across Europe. In particular, at least 40 of these firms are active in the UK market right now, utilising the proximity of the market and the fact that the local operations of O2 and Vodafone are receptive to testing their technologies and providing them with much-needed reference sites.

The UK, with 20 times the population of Ireland, is indeed a highly evolved mobile and wireless society. The UK is second to the US in terms of wireless local area networking, and in terms of mobile device services and market opportunities, it is one of the biggest in the world outside of Asia. The country has already seen almost a year of the advent of 3G services through the arrival of Hutchison’s 3. In the UK ringtone downloads have begun to outsell the sales of CD singles, with some €365m being spent a year and high street retail operators such as Boots have started to offer clever services such as full-colour photo printing for 20p for people with multimedia messaging on their camera phones. It is only the beginning as UK TV companies (think Big Brother), newspapers, magazines, internet content players and radio stations get in on the action.

According to Charlotte Lane, a senior market development adviser at EI in London who focuses on the mobile market, Irish mobile software companies such as Its Mobile, Vordel, Openet, Xiam and Am-beo are sparking considerable interest from operators such as Orange, Vodafone and O2 as well as UK businesses and local governments who see the value in deploying m-business and m-government services to boost efficiencies. “For example, Its Mobile is receiving a lot of interest. The company last year rolled out mobile payment for parking meters in Edinburgh. There is a drive at local government level in the UK to provide better access and ways of charging for services and mobile is gaining momentum in that regard,” Lane says.

Lane adds that the small size of the Irish market and the easy access local companies have to international software houses such as Microsoft as well as international mobile operators such as Vodafone and O2 gives local mobile software players an advantage over UK-based competitors. “Winning deals with these operators immediately opens doors on a global stage. Because of its market size, UK development companies don’t have that. Potential buyers of software and applications can get an opportunity to see that application up and running in the Irish home market and can make their decisions.”

Another Irish technology company leveraged its local contacts with O2 to make its breakthrough. CST International recently signed a ‘free-to-sender’ deal with O2 in Ireland and the UK to conduct marketing surveys over text messaging or SMS (short messaging service). Through the deal CST International will be able to access O2’s SMS Broker Platform, an international connectivity platform that allows companies to reach millions of mobile phone users in Ireland and the UK regardless of their mobile phone network.

Lane continues: “Xiam, for example, works quite closely with Vodafone and often go on road shows across the UK with Vodafone. It’s a privileged position due to local contact the company has in Ireland. Another Irish company Alatto’s digital jukebox technology is soon to be snapped up by UK media companies to deploy ringtones and mobile karaoke games.”

In this way, Irish mobile players are using Ireland and the UK as an important springboard into Europe, as evidenced by OpenMIND’s success in Austria.

Cork company Cyantel, for example, was recently awarded a valuable contract to deploy a location-based fleet management solution for Vodafone Germany’s business market. The company’s E-Z-Manage Resource Manager technology enables companies to locate their workers using cell-based information from the mobile phone network. In a recent interview, Cyantel boss Padraig Murphy explained the company’s breakthrough in the German market, traditionally a tough market to crack for Irish companies, was enabled through his company’s links with EI and Vodafone in Ireland. “We beat off strong local competition to win the project as part of the selection process and we were able to give a live demo within weeks of sealing the project,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that the deal came following significant research and development investment over the past four years that helped to boost its efforts in the competition for the lucrative deal by placing the company at the forefront of location-based technology applications. “Our application is targeted at businesses with mobile workforces that can improve efficiency, productivity and customer service by knowing where their people are located,” he said.

Cyantel and OpenMIND follow on the heels of the success of Raomal Perera’s Valista in securing major infrastructure deals with global players such as NTT DoCoMo in Japan, TODO1 in South America, O2 in Europe and Hong Kong CSL.

Another Irish software company, Cape Clear, has been steadily winning business in the web services space across Europe, including deals with BSkyB, the Financial Times and Sony PlayStation. In recent weeks, the company joined forces with Ericsson to deploy a customer care solution for Swiss Telecom’s fixed and wireless customers.

According to OpenMIND’s CEO Alex Duncan, Ireland as a mobile cluster of young wireless start-ups is on par with that of Scandinavia. “The route for us is to win business in the advanced messaging space and we plan to do that over the next 24 months and grow the company with the deals we win. We have a very competent team and a strong engineering background, and from Dublin we can make commitments to European operators and deliver on them. Our product is very flexible and we can enable operators such as Mobilkom with legacy infrastructures to introduce new services based on premium SMS and MMS very quickly without having to invest in new equipment.

“As the business grows, if it pays for itself we will put an office in the countries we do business in,” Duncan concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured is Kieran McCrae, director of Its Mobile