The Friday Interview: Ciaran Carey, Acotel Ireland

26 Sep 2003

When the history of the mobile phone industry in Ireland is written, Ciaran Carey (pictured) will probably be recorded as one of its most successful marketers and innovators. It is surprising, then, to learn that the general manager of Acotel Ireland is very much a numbers man by education and training.

Having graduated from DCU with a Masters in financial control, he spent 10 years in the Bank of Ireland’s IT division as an accountant. In the mid-Nineties he moved to the fledgling mobile operator, Eircell, where he was appointed as corporate management accountant and, as he vividly recalls, employee number 13. “Unlucky for some,” Carey quips, but not for him, obviously, because he was to become a leading figure in the early days of the Irish mobile industry. It was he, for example, who came up with the idea of using ATMs to top up prepaid mobile accounts.

“Prepaid had just come in as the first real expansion of mobility into the mass market,” he recounts. “At first the only method of topping-up credit on mobiles was scratch cards. I said to myself, this is crazy, we have all this wonderful technology and we’re topping up with paper. So I asked why we couldn’t top up over ATMs. It was a no-brainer but I don’t think anybody in Europe was doing it at the time and with my banking background I was able to talk to the right people.”

It was a service that worked on every level – convenience, security, credit control, familiarity, efficiency and simplicity – and one of which Carey is obviously proud. “I think it was a classic example of what e-commerce should be about.”

This innovation was followed by ‘e-TopUp’, which allowed users to top up their accounts over the web, a service that helped Eircell’s e-Merge site win the ‘Ecommerce Site of the Year’ in the Golden Spider awards that year.

Then, in 2000, at the peak of the mobile boom, Carey suddenly left Eircell to join a software start-up, Jinny, founded by US entrepreneur Roy Zakka. “An opportunity came along that was too good to turn up,” he explains. “Everyone has the dream to go and make it themselves. The opportunity came up and I took it.”

Jinny is now owned by Italian mobile applications developer Acotel but the spirit of Jinny is still very much alive at its Dublin offices where 20 staff are employed in sales and product development (Carey even still uses his Jinny email address). Acotel specialised in mobile application/services development while Jinny built the messaging platforms, such as MMSC gateways and applications routers, used by operators. Not all acquisitions work but the Acotel-Jinny partnership was, and is, an excellent fit, believes Carey. “The glove was there so we both wore it.”

What made Jinny an attractive buy was that it had already signed some big-name customers and had built a service whereby Eircell/Vodafone subscribers could download ringtones from the web, having earlier become the first official licensee of Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) and Musical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) for music and ringtones in Ireland. Again, Carey had showed a nose for a good deal. “Cash-flow is king and you’ve got to understand where the money’s coming from. Nobody had talked to them about this before and we had to sit down and write the licensing agreement with them.”

Mobile data services are usually associated with ringtones and text messaging but Carey believes that users have only been exposed to a fraction of what messaging has to offer. In Italy, for example, Acotel developed a text messaging service for the national lottery company, which allows users to buy lottery tickets using their mobile phones. It has also developed an airline ticketing service for the national carrier Alitalia, which allows travellers to receive their flight booking code via SMS. They simply show the code at the check-in in desk in lieu of the usual electronic print-out or actual ticket.

The next few years will see the mobile services on offer move up the value chain to multimedia messaging. Acotel made an early foray into the Italian and Swedish markets with a service, iWitness Sport, that allows football fans to get the goals from Serie A and Champions League games sent to their mobiles. Launched in time for the World Cup in 2002, it was the first MMS service launched anywhere in the world, claims Carey. Bizarrely (or cleverly as it turns out) the message consists not of the goals themselves but of a graphical representation of them created by Acotel programmers using a proprietary graphics engine, to overcome copyright issues and keep the cost down.

“A mobile phone user who is used to spending 15c on a text alert won’t spend €3 to get an MMS alert of the goal,” asserts Carey. “The value is in the information – that a goal was scored – and the timeliness.” He says that the ‘goal’ can be generated and sent to users by MMS message five to eight minutes after it is scored. He says that Acotel is in discussions with several other European operators with regard to rolling out the service.

While the service has not been a money-spinner so far, Carey predicts this will change when more MMS-enabled phones flood onto the market over the next couple of years. “Penetration of such phones has not reached the 30pc mark yet. Once this happens, MMS will start to take off because you’ll have someone at the other end to send messages to.”

And the next big thing in m-business? “Instant messaging,” says Carey, without hesitation. “IM can’t replace phones 100pc but you can do a hell of a lot. You can share every emotion you need to, so the person at the other end can get the idea fairly quickly!”

By Brian Skelly