Mobile games: Wireless ‘Net’s

For years it looked like wireless data would succeed first in the corporate world. A growing corporate market for wireless data would fuel a steady decline in prices, gradually leading to consumer applications.

There is now evidence that consumer applications of wireless data will take off first, creating unexpected opportunities – and perhaps problems – for corporations.

The driving force behind wireless data won’t be field automation; it will be entertainment – mobile games, polyphonic ring tones and animated screen savers. At first glance, mobile games might look like a poor substitute for PC and video games. But mobile games offer things PC and video games can’t. Users carry mobile devices with them everywhere, and packet-switched wireless data offers service that is always on, enabling “persistent” games that can be played in short bursts over a period of days or even weeks. Wireless networks and handsets are also being upgraded to pinpoint users’ current locations, enabling “massively multiplayer” games that take place out on the streets.

This explosion in wireless entertainment creates two major opportunities for companies that sell to consumers. Mobile games, ring tones and screen savers are powerful brand promotion tools. Contests, one of the simplest types of mobile games, can double as a market research tool for polling a large number of consumers on short notice.

Movie studios are pouncing on mobile entertainment as a hip, new marketing channel. What better way to promote a movie than to let mobile phone owners use the movie’s theme song as their ring tone?

With over 135 million mobile subscribers in the U.S., mobile phones are a relatively unobtrusive tool for conducting market research. Companies will sign up with mobile operators to conduct market research on short notice, and operators will oblige them by sorting users (with their permission) by location and/or demographics.

The growth of wireless entertainment also poses risks for corporations. New mobile phones will be able to download games. That means they also will be able to download viruses. There have already been reports of mobile phones unwittingly downloading self-disabling code.

Today, there are two major software development environments for mobile games: Qualcomm Inc.’s Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) and Sun Microsystems’ Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME). BREW offers a controlled environment with built-in security. J2ME is a more open environment, though security is optional. Texas Instruments’ Open Multimedia Applications Platform is also likely to become a factor as wireless services expand into streaming media.

Just when we thought wireless data would prosper first in field automation, a back door has been thrown wide open. Organizations that rely on wireless phones must start worrying about denial-of-service attacks. But they should also prepare to handle requests from their marketing departments to leverage this powerful new medium.

Brodsky is president of Datacomm Research Co. of Chesterfield, Mo. He can be reached at