Home-grown to roam

30 Oct 2003

Our Irish mobile technology sub-sector is nimble, with a great deal of refocusing and rebranding through the market slough of the past couple of years. It actually did not shed too many jobs, partly because it was not large to begin with. There are about 100 indigenous companies in the telecoms area, most of them software and IT design businesses for obvious reasons of scale.

They employ about 3,000 people, however, and annual export sales were past the €220m mark last year. Most of the concentration is on mobile telecommunications, seen for some years now as the hot market for speed of growth and demand for innovation.

Throughout the downturn they have kept their heads and their costs down while working hard at identifying market niches — and nooks and crannies and barely visible cracks. But now the overall prospects are looking much better and the consensus amongst the 16-strong team of Irish exhibitors at Telecom World Geneva last week was that their revenue will rise significantly as early as the current fourth quarter and through 2004.

“The focus of most of our clients is on the rapidly growing mobile market, including the current GSM technology but also GPRS and the next-generation 3G networks,” says Patricia McLister, divisional manager at Enterprise Ireland (EI), with responsibility for software and international services. “But as well as demonstrating the technical merits of their technology they are increasingly having to show benefits in terms of cost savings and return on investment. More and more selling of new telecoms technology is intrinsically bound up with generating additional revenue for the operator.”

Irish companies are involved across a wide range of technologies, from mobile commerce and billings systems to network management and routing, telecoms middleware, wireless infrastructure, messaging (especially linking email to mobile devices) and even e-learning. As well as showcasing — and hopefully leading to sales — the Irish participation is part of an EI strategy to raise the profile and reinforce the international credibility of the sector. Events such as Telecom Geneva, Cebit in Hanover and others in France, the US and Singapore enable innovative Irish companies to establish new business relationships and network with leaders from across the industry.

The Geneva event, held every four years, is recognised as one of the world’s leading exhibitions and telecoms industry forums with more than 1,000 participants, 20-plus national pavilions and an attendance exceeding 200,000 people. “The companies exhibiting at the Irish pavilion,” according to McLister, “demonstrate a high level of international commercialisation with solutions sold on every continent and to the world’s leading operators.” Irish-developed technology is now in use by O2, AT&T, British Telecom, Verizon, NTT DoCoMo and Beijing Telecom and companies have strategic partnerships with major multinationals of the calibre of Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM, Schlumberger SEMA and LogicaCMG.

One of the most successful of Ireland’s m-tech companies is Network365, a payment technology developer founded in 1999, that has sold solutions for payments over mobile networks to operators in 18 countries. Clients include the famous Japanese NTT DoCoMo, generally regarded as one of the most innovative network operators in the world, and CSL of Hong Kong. “We now have offices in nine countries and 65 staff,” says Evanna Kearins, marketing communications manager.

“Our mZone product is the most deployed mobile payments technology in the world with other key customers such as 3 (formerly Hutchison 3G) in eight countries, Hong Kong CSL, O2 in Europe, Taito Corporation in Japan and TODO1 in the Americas.” Its latest product is mZone MultiChannel TopUp, which allows prepaid mobile phone users to buy talk time via the web, short messaging service (SMS), bank ATMs, coupons and vouchers and so on. The benefit for the operator is that all of these channels can be managed through a single control point. Users already include 3 (Hutchison 3G), Celltel Lanka in Sri Lanka and an as of yet unannounced network in Japan.

The many alternative approaches to niches in this market are illustrated by Macalla Software, a year older than Network365 and also involved with payments technology. It is an award-winning innovator in the commercial application of mobile technology solutions to mobile network operators, financial institutions, service providers and enterprises. But it marketed its solutions at the financial world as well as operators initially and has unique capabilities in handling credit/debit card payments, retail bank accounts systems and post-paid accounts. Both companies have offerings for electronic purse (stored value) and top-up payments. But Macalla has also moved into related content delivery: its Push Platform can notify subscribers of the availability of content, enable them to pay using multiple payment sources and deliver that content immediately to them.

A recent partnership with Israeli company Emblaze applies its technology to the delivery of audio and video content. “Subscribers will be able to view, stream or download anything from a David Beckham goal for Real Madrid to clips from a U2 concert,” explains Peter Sherry, chief operations officer.

The organisations on the Macalla client list for mobile solutions tell a lot of the success story — AIB, Connex Romania, Charles Schwab Europe, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, ING Postbank/Telfort, SEC Italia, Staal Bankiers and Vodafone Ireland. So too does its technical partners, who include Atos, BearingPoint (formerly KPMG Consulting), CSC, EDS, Getronics, LogicaCMG and SchlumbergerSema.

No such set of names is forthcoming from Anam, another successful Irish software company of similar vintage, because it sells principally to those who use its products to deliver their own solutions and services. Three of the five UK mobile networks are clients. Anam is a Dalkey-based operation that sells infrastructure, integration and application products worldwide to provide solutions that allow organisations to interact with their customers and employees via wireless channels such as SMS, multimedia messaging (MMS) and Wap. “We are currently in expansion mode, recruiting and planning to double our staff to well over 40 since this time last year,” says CEO Mike Brady. “We established a permanent presence in the UK in the summer and opened a Boston sales office last month. MMS is thriving, but the limitation is that the handsets are not yet ready for what our systems can deliver — and are often inconsistent in capability anyway. So we have no problem staying ahead of the general market technically but what we do deliver is a mature product that is practical and proven.”

AePONA is a Belfast and Dublin-based software company that has developed Causeway, a new product that allows telecom operators to run other feature-rich applications, such as gaming, on their networks. It has already sold the product to KPN, Telecom Mobile Italia and Orange. AePONA is one of the first companies to develop products under the OSA/Parlay system, a market estimated to be worth more than €900m in the next five years. Employing almost 140 people between its offices in Belfast, Dublin and Guildford, UK, the company is backed by serial entrepreneurs Gilbert Little and Jay Murray, whose previous software ventures include Aldiscon and Apion.

That whole emerging strand of audio and video to mobile handsets is of potentially major significance. The hype for 3G certainly overstated the case. But the development directions are clear and Irish firms are in there scrapping with the rest — and the best — of the competition. An emerging star is Aliope, two years old this month, which develops new and efficient ways to manage, publish and syndicate broadcast video information to internet protocol (IP) networks serving PCs and wireless handsets. Essentially still a campus company spun out from the Centre for Digital Video Processing at Dublin City University, Aliope has brought together a team of experienced specialists from research and from leading technology companies and has a range of technology partners from HP, RTÉ and O2 Ireland to the European Space Agency.

Its Almedia product line enables users to search and browse video content and to syndicate it efficiently over public and private IP networks. Its patented solutions bridge the gap between broadcasting and IP, capturing broadcast audio/video and converting it for cable, satellite, wireless local area networks and GPRS networks. Many industry observers reckon Aliope may be the Irish telecoms success story of this decade. The good thing, nicely demonstrated by the strength of Ireland’s showing at Telecom Geneva, is that there is plenty of home-grown competition for that particular set of laurels.

The Geneva 16

2PMTechnologies www.wapado.com
AePONA www.aepona.com
Aliope www.aliope.com
Am-Beo www.am-beo.com
AnamWireless www.anam.com
AranTechnologies www.arantech.com
ChangingWorlds www.changingworlds.com
GlobalMobileEncryption www.gme.ie
Macalla www.macalla.com
MDSGateways www.mdsgateways.com
Network365 www.network365.com
OssidianTechnologies www.ossidian.com
PrimeCarrier www.primecarrier.com
ShenickSoftwareSolutions www.shenick.com
SigmaWirelessTechnologies www.sigmawireless.ie
TangoTelecom www.tango.ie.

By Leslie Faughnan