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Wednesday, 28 February, 2001, 14:08 GMT
Phone firms make a play for the future
Dean, Sammy and Frank BBC
Entertainment could be big on your mobile
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Ahead of you, shuffling into the half-light cast by the flickering torches, advance four creatures that seem to have stepped straight from a nightmare.

Each shaggy, powerful beast holds a heavy blade, and all have murder written in their glowing red eyes. Do you:

  1. Charge the creatures screaming defiance?
  2. Run for your life?
  3. Cast a spell?
  4. Ask them to wait while you answer your mobile phone?
You could be answering 4 sooner than you expect.

Sword and sorcery adventures played via Wap are coming to a mobile phone near you. But it is not just the survival of a warrior, thief or sorcerer that you will control in this game. Your desire, or not, to buy into new entertainment services could decide whether the mobile network operators themselves head for a grisly death as well.

Play the game

There is no doubt that tough times are ahead for the operators. Competition for customers is so fierce that phone firms have little chance of squeezing any extra profits out of basic voice calls.

At the same time, the operators are in need of extra cash because many have run up huge bills paying for licences to run third-generation (3G) phone networks in lots of different countries.

Sorcery games Digital Bridges
How the fantasy game might look
They will face similar sized bills to buy the hardware for these networks and to build the infrastructure to underpin them.

But salvation for the cash-strapped operators may come in the form of the extra, and relatively expensive, services they offer customers on top of those basic voice calls.

At the moment, the Short Message Service (SMS) is a big money spinner for the networks, many of which charge 10 pence per message, far more than it costs them to handle the data. Irish operator Eircell has capitalised on this popularity with a game played by SMS based on the equally popular Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? TV show.

Speed demon

To build on this, a lot of phone firms are feverishly signing deals and starting services to capture customers now with a view to gradually moving them up to higher speed, and more expensive, services later on.

"It is going to be like processor speeds on PCs," Jim Healy, chairman of the GSM Association told BBC News Online. "Once upon a time, we had 286s and they were fine. Then we had 386s and as they became available people kept moving up the curve."

GSM, or Global System for Mobile communications, is the technology used by most European phone firms in their networks.

Mr Healy has no doubt that entertainment services will be a key factor in the future for operators, though he admits that customers may be slow to adopt them. With all new technologies, there is a period of latency, or delay, as people play with their phone to see what else it can do. They experiment and then start using it regularly.

He said that to make the services attractive networks had to upgrade so they could be accessed quickly and data could be downloaded swiftly, too.

Better bandwidth

Many GSM operators are beefing up the data handling capabilities of their networks using a technology called General Packet Radio Services, which pushes data around at up to 115 kilobits per second - far faster than the 9.6 kilobits per second possible now.

Kylie Minogue AP
Download Kylie and carry her with you
Cellnet and Vodafone have been offering GPRS services to businesses for some time but consumers should be able to sign up later this year.

Next month, French company Musiwap is planning to launch a Wap-based music download service in the UK that also exploits GPRS's data-handling abilities. "It needs a certain minimum bandwidth to work well," said Musiwap spokeswoman Samira Fertas. "You pay by data rate rather than per song."

Musiwap already offers a similar service in France via Itineris, France Telecom's mobile network. But despite the tie-up with France Telecom, Musiwap's partner in the UK will not be Orange.

At the same time, it is getting easier to store that music on your phone. Ericsson is close to releasing the add-on MP3 player for its phones, the Samsung MP3 phone can be used on the Virgin network already and in May Siemens will launch an MP3 add-on for its C35i, M35i and S35i phones.

Games on the go

The higher bandwidth of GPRS also makes other services possible. Companies such as WorldZap are planning to beam up-to-the-minute sports highlights to keen fans. It held trials of the technology last year and is planning to launch its service in late 2001.

The network operators and companies are collaborating on other services such as games to entice customers to spend more. This week, Nokia announced deals with games producers Eidos and Rage to create Wap games for the handset maker.

But game maker Digital Bridges is already out in front. It is working on Wap versions of card games such as Top Trumps, and it is already trialling a game developed with the help of fantasy game legend Steve Jackson, creator of the fighting fantasy gamebooks.

These books chopped up an adventure into hundreds of short sections, each one of which ended by giving the player a series of choices. Each choice led to another section that gradually moved the adventure on.

This time though, it is the mobile phone operators who hope these services will keep them in the game.

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