M-commerce starts to motor

30 Oct 2003

Parking in Dublin can be a fraught experience, especially if you don’t have the change for the parking ticket dispenser. Anyone dashing off to find change from a nearby shop is likely to find their car has been clamped or worse towed in the few minutes they were away. Earlier this year, however, Dublin City Council introduced mPark, a system whereby motorists parking in the city centre could pay the parking fee via a mobile phone and without the need for cash. The payment system was provided by Irish start-up, It’s Mobile.

Located just off Merrion Square in Mount Street – where, ironically, the parking machines are not mPark-enabled – It’s Mobile employs 15 people. “Kieran McCrea and I started the company in December 1999/January 2000,” recalls It’s Mobile operations director and co-founder Donal McGuinness. The partners had met while working for their previous employers – McGuinness at Lake Communications and McCrea at Trinity Technology. “We were selling into the same accounts,” recalls McGuinness. “I was selling data communications infrastructure and he was selling Sun infrastructure. We met at various events from time and time and decided we both wanted a new challenge and believed mobile phones would be the way to go.

“When we started up the dotcom boom was just past the peak and was probably on the start of the way down. In some ways it was a great place to start from. You weren’t expected to conquer the world in three months,” he says.

The pair spent about six months researching opportunities before quitting their jobs and after founding the company spent a further four months on that research. “We decided to focus on particular applications that people would find useful. There are a lot of nonsense applications out there. The only reason they exist is because someone thinks they’re cool. But no one would use them because there is no compelling consumer proposition,” McGuinness explains.

They identified parking and tickets as fitting their strategy and in 2000 signed up the family-owned Ormonde Cinema in Stillorgan and the internet/mobile phone ticket reservation system went live in November 2000. “The Ormonde was the first cinema in Europe to have a real-time online booking system available over Wap and over the internet,” says McGuinness. “It had been done in the US and in other places, but in an offline environment with a certain number of seats blocked off for internet booking. But this was the first time where you could go in, select your seats and pay in real-time.”

Since then It’s Mobile has installed similar systems in Cork and Ster Century in Liffey Valley Shopping Centre just outside Dublin – Ireland’s largest cinema complex – will offer a similar facility in November.

At the same time as they were developing the ticketing system, McGuinness and McCrea were working on parking. After winning the contract from Dublin City Council in a tender process, It’s Mobile worked closely with Schlumberger, the French company responsible for manufacturing the parking ticket dispensers used in Dublin. “We set up a close alliance with those guys and we developed the mobile phone parking payment system for Dublin that goes by the branded name mPark,” says McGuinness.

The then Lord Mayor Dermot Lacey launched mPark last January and since then the results have been good. According to It’s Mobile’s latest figures, which were compiled in August, there are over 10,000 people signed up for the system. “The council has been very happy to date,” says McGuinness. “The most encouraging thing is that since the day we launched we’ve plotted the increase in usage and we’ve had a steady increase of 25pc month on month even through the summer months which are usually quiet. So far, we’ve never had a month or a week that was worse than the one before.”

At the moment, only meters in the city centre, the so-called Yellow Zone, are mPark-enabled. However, according to McGuinness, Dublin City Council is keen to broaden out the system to the Red Zone, which would take it as far south as Donnybrook and as far north as Drumcondra. While no firm date is fixed, McGuinness feels that it would be next year before such a move takes place.

In the meantime, however, the company is hard at work getting mPark ready for its launch in Edinburgh, Scotland. The system is scheduled to go live tomorrow on almost 300 machines in the city centre. Although it is too early to tell if the people of Edinburgh will take to it the same way as the people of Dublin have, McGuinness is confident of a success.

“We have a number of things going for us in the Edinburgh launch,” he says. “Royal Bank of Scotland is one of our partners for this launch and it has a service called FastPay which allows any of its current account holders to make person-to-person payments with their mobile phone. So any FastPay user will be able to use their FastPay account to pay for their parking – in addition to the other options of paying by credit card or having it added to ones phone bill. So, there is a big drive from Royal Bank of Scotland locally to make it a huge success. I think the bank employs about 5,000 people within the parking zone so even if only their employees use it, it will still be a success.”

Although he won’t be any more specific, McGuinness reveals that plans are afoot to install the system in other cities. “We hope to have other UK locations signed by the first quarter of next year and live by the second quarter,” he says. In addition, the system will be national. Once a user signs up for one city, they will be able to use mPark anywhere in the UK. Similarly, he says, if and when mPark is rolled out in other Irish cities, subscribers will be able to use it anywhere in Ireland.

So, what’s next for It’s Mobile? McGuiness sees the mobile phone as playing a pivotal role in replacing cash. While smart cards were once touted as the new cash, McGuinness points out that the only time such cards have been a success has been where they have been forced on the consumer. “Not only that, but the cards are very expensive. If you want to kick off a smart-card scheme you are talking about an investment of millions of euro and then there is the distribution question. But people already own mobile phones.”

By David Stewart

Pictured (from left): Kieran McCrea, sales director, It’s Mobile; Owen Keegan, director of traffic, Dublin City Council; and Cllr Dermot Lacey, former Lord Mayor of Dublin