New Hope for Scaling Mobile Apps and Ads

Pavan Mandhani, CEO, Mobifusion

Pavan Mandhani, CEO, Mobifusion

September 26, 2011 – Mobile app developers have been struggling a long time with the proliferation of form factors that impede efforts to get their products in front of the largest possible number of potential users. A few years ago, the talk was about creating standard interfaces or one operating system becoming dominant enough to deliver the scale everyone wanted.
Instead, of course, the world is awash in more competing handset platforms than ever, often within the same manufacturing environment where succeeding generations of operating systems adapting to new processing technologies are not backward compatible. Mobifusion, a five-year-old startup, decided to do something about this by trying to create a write-once, deliver-everywhere development platform for applications.

Remarkably, after several years of hard work, they appear to have succeeded. In this interview with ScreenPlays editor Fred Dawson, Mobifusion CEO Pavan Mandhani describes how this platform works and the types of apps it’s producing worldwide. He also reveals what’s next on the Mobivision horizon, some of which could have a big impact on the larger development community.

ScreenPlays – Mobifusion brings something unique to the table with respect to the efficiency of developing applications. A big issue in this whole field has been how do you get out applications to all these different operating systems with all these different phone generations coming out constantly and make a business out of that. Why don’t we begin by you giving us an idea of how you’re approaching the solution to that problem.

Pavan Mandhani – This is my second wireless company. Previously what we saw was the porting was the biggest problem. There were a lot of different operating systems for phones in the U.S. And if you went outside the U.S. where the majority of mobile users are, particularly in Japan and Korea, the porting was the biggest challenge. So everyone had to say, let’s pick an operating system or a handset and create everything for that. And then once a new handset comes out or a new operating system comes out or something happens you have to port again.

The normal style is people will call up and work together, whether it’s a product design team, the requirements team, the specs team, engineering team, delivery team – all of them are focused on one handset. So when I started this company we thought, why not take a different approach? Let’s break it down into two or three objects and, without thinking what the final operating system is or the handset looks like, let’s work on the process.

It’s all patented. We worked for many years on the technology and patenting process. So we’ve done it through the technology to become a platform that supports all kinds of handsets, thousands and thousands of handsets. You touch once, and then it’s ready, whether it’s an iPhone, an iPad, an Android tablet, Blackberry, you name it, and it’s ready.

SP – That’s pretty remarkable given how big a hurdle this has been. Is it a that the applications you develop are generally generic enough as far as being useful in different phone environments so there’s a certain commonality with how the different phones react to this stuff? You can’t get too specific on the platform, right?

Mandhani – That’s a good question. We started with the idea of let’s find the commonality and solve the problem, which everybody said we couldn’t do. There’s no way humanly possible you can touch once and deliver literally on all the handsets. You can, of course, create your own virtual platform to support development for specific devices. But we refused to do that. So it was a big challenge.

The first thing was why not solve the basic problem of getting something on every phone by just touching once. So that was our goal. And when our chief architect came and showed us all the phones working on an app we ported from our new platform, that was the biggest day for us, because we had solved one of the biggest problems.

Then we started working on the phones, and we realized that you can’t create the exact experience that fits the norm for each phone. It doesn’t work that way. So we’ve developed have a bridge module that is specific to each phone, has the best capability for that phone. We run a new app through that.

So, for example, we know on the iPhone there’s a touch screen and you can do things on a virtual keyboard, but on certain Blackberries or Nokia phones the keyboards are real buttons. So the bridge module automatically maps to them. And there are some limitations. In some cases if the keyboard is not involved with what you want to solve, you have to make some adjustments [in the app design for keyboard-oriented phones], which we can do on the fly. So we have taken into consideration each phone type, each operating system, the use cases, the capabilities, and then we optimize for that so that the experience is appropriate. We’ve tried to make the experience consistent.

SP – So it translates to writing it once on a single platform, and then the app goes into the bridge modules and gets tailored to any of the idiosyncrasies that characterize how that app runs on specific devices.

Mandhani – Right.

SP – How long have you been doing this with this platform?

Mandhani – We started this company about five and a half years ago. For the first few years we were totally focused on technology solving the big basic problem. For the last two and half years we’ve been coming with products on all platforms. And, of course, on Day 1 we hadn’t created platforms for modules for all handsets. So we started with Palm, because we acquired a company that had the technologies we needed to embed. Then we extended to Java and Brew-based phones. Then we added Blackberry. And then iPhone.

SP – So you did extend to iPhone?

Mandhani – Yes we have tons of apps on iPhones. We have a hundred or more apps on Android, the same apps, everything with the same look and field.

SP – So you are distributed across many mobile networks at this point. Worldwide?

Mandhani – We’re available – last time I looked, in 125 countries.

SP – In terms of the applications themselves, who are the people in the content space you’re working with?

Mandhani – We have a list of many of our partners on our Web site. We work with basically the media companies, the large media conglomerates with quite a few brands, or a single brand, which might be a part of a small company. Whatever it is, it will be about the brand, because brand has value.

As you ask me more questions you’ll realize brand is the way we want to bring traffic or sales or to promote a new product. So we are a three-step process. If you ask us what are the strengths, one is the technology which allows us to deliver on any handset. The second one is the distribution. We are on probably a hundred app stores, networks and operating systems. You name any country, and we probably are there. And the third one is the brand.

We don’t want to be inventing the brands. We want to power the brands. We are building with these brands, working with these media companies, and we bring the experience on any handset, any operating system worldwide by touching once.

SP – So give us an idea of what some of these applications are like. I assume we’re talking about interactivity, getting more information, doing things maybe in text messaging.

Mandhani – What you just referred to are the features. Is there a feature to send this or do that? But at the end of the day, if you look at it, you have to divide it into many ways. One is the operating system. Then there are the handset specific things.

The third one is the experience. Do people want to download an app? Or do they want to get a text message about it or get an alert or hear somebody? Or if it’s media, do we download it? Is it a snack video? Is it three hours of video? Is it streaming or is it non-streaming? Interactivity, personalization, customization and localization – these are the different deliverables.

You have to take care of all of this. Our platform provides all of this. And then, depending on the app, the category and what it does and what the owners want the experience to convey, we add those things. Some of those are horizontal features – for example, interactivity. You can send what you’re looking at to a friend via text message or email and so on through those horizontal features, which is like an operating system feature. When you have Microsoft Word versus Excel in your operating system, both of them have a feature called print, which makes a call to the operating system. So it’s a similar methodology.

On the other side we also have some vertical stuff driven by the brand. Let’s say, for example, Guinness World Records. The Guinness World Record experience is totally different from another app called, let’s say, Bartender Bible. Guinness World Record is all interactive, video. You can upload your video; they can look at it. You can be a winner. You can add tags and all. Whereas with Bartender Bible I just want to make a quick drink, see how it’s made, what do I need, do I need to buy it? So two different sets of features. Many of them will have the same horizontal features. Can I email a clip I’m looking at to a friend, or can I email the drink guide or whatever I did? And some of them are vertical.

SP – So if we see people on phones doing really erratic things we can assume they’re running your Guinness Book of Records app, right?

Mandhani – [Laughs] Hopefully.

SP – In terms of where all of this is going now, for all that you’ve accomplished, you’re still out there in a flood of applications. Is it getting harder and harder to come up with things that are compelling, that allow you to bubble to the surface? What is it you see as being the sweet spot for what is driving your business from the pure applications side?

Mandhani – That again is a good question. What is happening, there are about 300,000 apps in one app store and maybe a million apps in another app store. Now it’s become, like, my app store is bigger than your app store. How do you differentiate? The way we have targeted everybody is with the third part of our strategy. We have a great distributor network, so we are everywhere. We have a technology that allows us to support all the handset operating systems. But the third one is important, which is the brands.

If anyone is looking for records, they know there’s one big name in records, that’s Guinness World Records. If you’re making drinks, you know that Bartender Bible has been there forever. There is a source, and it happens every time. Everywhere the question people ask when they want to bring something new to market is how do you differentiate between others and yourselves? So our strategy is to power the brand. If you bring your brand with whatever it is you’re offering and it becomes a big hit, then it powers by itself. So we are working with the brand owners to market the mobile products.

SP – The natural next step is advertising. As we’re moving to higher bandwidth and ever more video, the advertising community is looking to take advantage of that, but not by just recycling 30-second spots from TV. Are you looking at that as another window of opportunity at this point?

Mandhani – Yes we are. In the U.S. we’re still mostly at 2G. But if you go to Korea, Malaysia, they talk about 4G and the networks are super fast. Pretty much you can watch a full movie. Once the technology is so scalable that thousands of users can watch movies on handsets, there’s an opportunity for advertisers to market their advertisements in such a way that there’s an ROI for that. So we are looking at it.

We have seen quite a few successes by companies in Korea and Japan making money through ad-based networks. And we believe that eventually will happen here, maybe in a year, maybe in three years.

But the ads have to be personalized. It cannot be just that while they’re watching sports you’re throwing them an ad about attending some conference or something else totally unrelated to what they’re interested in. The probability of them clicking on it is very low. So the ads have to be personalized, they have to be customized for the geographic, demographic parameters. Once you have the data and the right ads, we believe the ROI will be there.

SP – Have you been developing some of these ideas with some of your brand customers as yet?

Mandhani – Yes. Historically we’ve been on a premium app basis. We’ve just announced to the world that we’ve done about five million paid downloads. It has been working very well for us. But as you said it’s a natural path going toward the advertisements. We’ve released a few apps to just see how people react. What is there capability of absorbing that ad idea? You don’t want too much advertising versus not enough. It’s a fine thin line. So we’re working on those questions with our brand owners, and eventually we will get there.

SP – Have you moved into the companion device apps space where the application runs on a device in context with what’s on the television? The viewer is watching something that may be purely linear but is able to interact through their device.

Mandhani – I’m amazed you asked that, because we were just approached by one of the largest operators in Asia, who also does IPTV. They want to become the biggest media conglomerate by controlling your phones, TVs and so on. We’ve been asked why can’t we have this find-me, follow-me approach to companion apps. Maybe you’re watching the TV and you need to send a text message and get a reply, but then you suddenly walk out. The app knows where you are, and then you can start playing it on your phone. We are working on some of those ideas where the app isn’t just about the experience on a single device. It’s the TV, laptop, iPad or other tablets of the world, whatever you have, and it’s the phone, and we believe you will probably have all three of them or two of them for the next few years. And then there will be convergence.

SP – The next question, obviously, is are you going to keep this write-once, play-everywhere technology all to yourselves, or are you going let some other people exploit this and allow this thing to flow to where we’re not just talking about a few hundred thousand apps here and there, we’re talking about billions?

Mandhani – [Laughs] We are looking at that. I think there’s a time for opening of the technology. We wanted to contract it, make sure it’s ready, it’s automated and works on most of the top platforms. We believe we are there now. So we believe the time has come for us to open it so that others can benefit from the same technology. For us the good news is when they can create something we can also bring those features and functionalities to our platform faster, better and cheaper.

SP – We look forward to following how this all unfolds. Thanks a lot.

Mandhani – Thank you.